Having worked in animation video editing, animation, illustration and as a zoo keeper responsible for animal enclosure habitat-landscape designs, Matt Coker has a fascinating set of skills that equip him to incorporate design principles in a playful manner.

After volunteering at animal conservation centres around the world and passionately working to improve animal welfare, Matt returned to New Zealand and pursued a career as a senior designer at Playscape. This Kiwi playground design and installation company provides fun yet educational playgrounds for learning centres.

We talked to Matt about his role and the creative processes behind playground design. 

Responding to socio-cultural backgrounds

Matt said a highlight of his role is speaking with the teachers and centre managers about what gives that particular educational facility its unique vibe or flair.

Often, this comes from the different backgrounds of the young students enrolled there, or the goals the staff have set for the progress of the centre. 

"Sometimes this conversation sparks a single word, like 'journey', and that captures my imagination. I start planning what different play zones can reflect this theme, from slides to sand pits," explains Matt.

One of his personal favourite projects was for Glenbrae Kids Early Learning Centre in Auckland's suburb of Glen Innes. Here, many of the students are from Maori and Pacific backgrounds and Matt wanted to represent their ancestors journey to this country, as well as homage to the rich culture and heritage of their homelands.

This inspired the playground design resulting in  the hallmarks of this site including a humpback whale's tail emerging from the sand pit, a 'waka' play zone, a thatched hut 'fale', marae-shaped shelters and a seashell doorway to the fence.

"This helps the students feel at home, and enables the teachers to hold lessons about their ancestry and heritage in an environment that visually respects it." 

Importance of sustainable materials 

Playscape is renowned for using wood aesthetically and sustainably. Tea tree and Macrocarpa are their most-used due to their availability and abundance, ethically sourced from local saw mills. 

"I'm passionate about the beauty of nature, which is in tune with Playscape's philosophy so we use a lot of natural materials such as wood and rock," explains Matt. "Waterways are a personal favourite – you can't beat the joy of flowing water to splash about in, so we often take design inspiration from rivers and waterfalls."

Learning through play 

Young children develop through play, both consciously and subconsciously. Matt intentionally adds levels of complexity in his designs to encourage confidence-building as the children are able to progress through different levels when they're happy to do so."

"I also make a point to include sanctuary spaces, for the children to have a quiet place to retreat to when they feel like it," adds Matt.

A call for collaboration

Matt emphasised that a great way for this industry to flourish is if the learning centre architects work in tandem with the playground designers from the early stages of the blueprints and construction.

This collaboration would help to ensure that the most functional and harmonious layout is achieved, creating a well planned overall space with spectacular indoor-outdoor flow for people of all ages to enjoy.