Writing the play book for Councils across the country

3 September 2023

Damien Puddle
PhD alumnus, Damien Puddle

Known to his colleagues as Dr Play, Waikato Health and Sport PhD alumnus Damien Puddle is a pioneer in the play advocacy space in New Zealand.

In his role as a Local Play Advocate for the Hamilton City Council, the first role of its kind for any New Zealand Council, Damien has made public spaces more creative and fun for all ages.

“I’ve always been interested in movement, so it was only natural to complete an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise. This kick-started my interest in research and helped me realise that through higher education, I could contribute to meaningful research that can positively impact communities,” says Damien.

Over the past 15 years Damien has been involved in the athletic discipline of parkour. He has been a participant, coach, and administrator for Parkour NZ, and has recently stepped down as CEO of Parkour Earth, the sports international organising body.

It wasn’t until Damien met University of Waikato Sport and Gender Professor Holly Thorpe and Cultural Sociologist Professor Belinda Wheaton at a Sport NZ Connections Conference, that the goal of completing a PhD by combining two of his passions, research and parkour, became a reality.

“I was very lucky to be taken under the guidance of Belinda and Holly, who convinced me that I should swap my research focus from the biomechanics of Parkour to the psychology behind it for New Zealand participants. They continued to support me throughout my time at Waikato making the experience more meaningful.”

He was awarded the University of Waikato Doctoral Scholarship which he says was invaluable in allowing him to study financially with a young family.

Many opportunities have come Damien’s way since he completed his PhD. His highlights include lecturing, presenting at conferences and Ted-X events, and co-publishing with his supervisors, including an article with Professor Wheaton in the International Journal of the History of Sport.

But it has been his work with local government, in conjunction with Sport NZ and Sport Waikato, that has really made an impact on communities.

Damien is quick to note that creating play situations isn’t about building playgrounds, it’s about ensuring play is an everywhere activity. This can involve injecting fun, colours and features into footpaths, city spaces or capital projects that enable ‘play on the way’ to provide something fun for the community moving through the area. A recent project he has influenced is the Peacocke Wastewater Pipeline Development in Hamilton City.

“Play is hugely important for society, development, and urban design. Hamilton City Council, with support from Sport NZ, wrote the first council play strategy. It’s been my role to help bring the vision of that strategy to life, which involves finding opportunities to create play situations throughout the city, turning Hamilton into an urban playground.”

A collage of children playing on a sidewalk

Description automatically generated

Play environments created as part of the Peacocke Wastewater Pipeline Project. 
Photo credit: Hamilton City Council 

Sport NZ has recently increased funding to ensure that the Local Play Workforce Project is rolled out across 10 New Zealand councils.

Damien's next venture includes developing and executing a play strategy as a Local Play Advocate for Invercargill City Council.

“I love that I get to find opportunities to create play situations and connect the dots for all ages of our communities across New Zealand."

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