The Play HQ space at Nōku Te Ao Capital E is dedicated to tamariki under six and their whānau.

Halo Collins is Experience Wellington Mātanga Hōtaka Hāpori Tamariki’s Public Programmes Specialist.

When I was a kid, I loved playing shop and creating my own menus. I do remember Mum was always delighted to see that the crayfish was cheaper than the vegetables, but I had no idea I’d be thinking back to how I played decades later, to design play spaces at Nōku Te Ao Capital E.

Our PlayHQ space is dedicated to tamariki under six and their whānau. We take pride in carving out a small piece of Wellington that belongs to our youngest audiences, and watching the excitement on their faces as they spot our colourful building from across Queen’s Wharf and drag their adults through our doors.

As an artist, I’ve been involved in creating more than 10 of our unique experiences, which we update a couple of times each year. Last winter it was Space HQ, a space station on the moon where we saw children throw on a cape and tell a friend to “meet them at the red planet” before dashing off to another part of the lunar landscape. Before that, it was Ngā Taniwha o Mua, retelling the story of Ngake and Whātaitai, Poneke harbour’s taniwha.

The kids’ job is to use their imagination to work out how they want to play in the space. My job is to fuel their creative spark by looking for new and innovative ways to recycle and reuse existing equipment, play with scale and expand how they view objects.

Tamariki Markets was an opportunity to move away from a minimal pandemic world, which demanded spacious designs and easy-clean hard surfaces, and be inspired by the hustle, bustle and excitement of Wellington’s weekly night markets on Cuba St, with its food carts and bright lanterns.

I was aware it was something tamariki born during or after the Covid-19 pandemic had never experienced, so I deliberately designed a warm, welcoming, busy hub just for them. Lots of our little visitors are familiar with our Harbourside Market on the waterfront, a well-known staple in Pōneke, or are used to visiting other fruit and vege markets around Wellington and this space allows them to explore that world.

Children learn about our food’s journey from seed to stall.

Here, children and whānau can learn about our food’s journey from seed to stall by visiting the farm area to learn where fruit and vegetables grow, practise planting with stuffed fruit and veg before sorting it into colourful market bins labelled in te Reo Māori and English. They make the connection from farm to market by whipping up a fresh smoothie, scooping and serving gelato, using the cash register or setting up a picnic. Every age from 0-6 is considered, with a musical “busking” busy wall offering a quieter space for babies and craft and activities on offer for older kids.

We had queues out the door on the first day and it’s beautiful to watch children engaging in imaginative play; tapping their scoop on the top of the toy coffee machine, unearthing large crops of fabric carrots or serving up knitted sausages straight off a tiny BBQ. I’ve noticed parents find it easy to dive into imaginative play when they are accepting a carefully made coffee or a piece of fluffy fruit from a pre-schooler who is proud of their mahi and the chance to turn the tables and deliver a treat to someone they love.

’One of my favourite parts is the free play space in our Play HQ designs. This one starts empty but by mid-morning it’s sometimes full of toys and at other times, full of kids. As the designer and builder I have a vision of how it’s going to be used, but the aim is to equip them with skills to be confident, capable, creative citizens in a world of possibilities so it’s even better when the unexpected happens and I see kids taking their play in a whole new direction, perhaps designing their futures along the way.

Capital E’s Tamariki Markets, is a free play space for under fives, and is open Monday to Saturday until winter, when the space will be transformed again.