Polhill Paul and his wild eyes

By Sarah Lang
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #42
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Besides being a good neighbour to Wellington’s endangered birds, Paul Stanley Ward is using screens to get kids off screens and into nature. Sarah Lang explains.

As funny and chatty as he is particular about details, Paul Stanley Ward couldn’t be more enthused about his passion for getting kids and adults into nature and conservation. The Newtown writer for web and screen laments the fact that, in a generation, we’ve gone from children expected back from roaming the countryside at tea-time to cotton-wool kids who aren’t allowed to walk to school by themselves and are sometimes babysat by devices under time and economic pressures.

“Not that I’m a purist or anything,” says Ward, who has Estella and Sylvie with partner Lucy Kebbell. “My kids are sometimes on ipads while I’m in meetings. Lucy and I considered ourselves outdoors-enabling parents, then realised that was just in the weekends. In their daily lives, the girls live close to school, and never go roaming on their own.”

Pondering this conundrum, he had an idea. Why not set up a digital platform to get kids doing fun outdoor missions to engage them with nature and science? Ward teamed up with film-producer friend Vicky Pope. “We’re both from film-and-TV backgrounds, and we both observed our young kids growing up in very different ways from the traditionally Kiwi outdoors upbringing.” Over nearly three years, largely working unpaid, the co-producers researched, funded, developed and in April launched Wild Eyes: Nature Missions for Kiwi Kids, targeted at 8–12-year-olds. A month later, 1,000-plus kids had signed up.

On the interactive website, kids can create an avatar, share photos of completed missions, and earn points (with bonus points for including adults). “As you go up levels,” Ward explains, “your avatar’s eyes get wilder, until they look like a morepork on an acid trip”. Pages for each of the 21 missions provide an instructional template, and other members’ uploaded photos for inspiration. To foster a bully-proof environment, kids can’t comment on others’ posts except by using positive emojis with a New Zealand nature theme.

Six missions – including Fake a Moa Discovery and Build a Backyard Bivvy – have instructional videos, presented by the very funny Christian Dennison (actor Julian’s twin), and Nova Waretini-Hewison (daughter of Wild Eyes’ director Dean Hewison), with comedian Robbie Nicol as the shrunken-down “science guy” explaining the nitty-gritty.

Wanting Wild Eyes to be free for all kids, Ward and Pope pitched for funding by making the following points: that nature and science are largely absent from primetime TV; that there’s very little local content online; and that there’s a gap in and demand for environmental education. They hit gold when NZ On Air’s Kickstart Digital Media Fund awarded them $300,000. 

First came research. They talked to educators, scientists and digital entrepreneurs, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Unlocking Curious Minds Contestable Fund paid for workshops. “We wanted digital natives to tell us what they liked doing outside. We also did one-on-one interviews with parents and kids, who sometimes reported differing things about the kids’ screentime. Some 10- and 11-year-olds we met had never been to a beach, a stream, a forest, couldn’t recognise a duck. One girl was on a tablet from 3pm to 8pm each night, watching music videos and makeup tutorials.”

Ward appreciates the irony of using screens to get kids off screens. “It’s never been effective for elders to wag their fingers and say ‘don’t do this’ so we’re providing an alternative.” His daughters love Wild Eyes, he says, with a grin that tells you a joke’s coming. “We made Estella Wild Eyes vice-president, then, because of family-jealousy issues, made Sylvie our youth ambassador.”

Until the age of six, Ward lived in Marton, a farming town near Whanganui, where paddocks were “be-back-by tea-time playgrounds”. His dad was the local cop and their house doubled as the police station. When their home hosted a late-night knife-fight, his schoolteacher mum decided the family should leave town. They moved to Upper Hutt then Johnsonville, on the edge of farmland where Churton Park is now.

Ward studied English, theatre, film and history at Victoria University, where he met Kebbell, before doing an Oxford University Master’s in Modern English literature. “I quickly figured out I wasn’t cut out for a PhD or being stuck inside.” They lived in Sydney for three years, where Ward edited expat-targeted website NZ Edge, then spent a year in the US, where Ward was story producer for Discovery Channel reality shows. “We came back to Wellington to breed.”

For nine years, his day job has been editor then senior writer for NZ On Screen, a state-funded online showcase of local television and film. Ward pulls back to part-time work there (currently two days a week) when busy with other projects. Over the past decade, he’s written a TV series, TV documentary, and four short films including the award-winning Choice Night, produced by Pope and loosely based on Ward’s experiences on nights out in Courtenay Place as a teenager in the 1990s. He’s co-writing a feature film with director Mark Albiston, but that’s on hold while he and Pope “kick Wild Eyes out of the nest”.

Ward also leads the Polhill Restoration Project, which has over 50 trappers and 550-plus Facebook members. They nab pests, plant natives, post photos of trapboxes, and celebrate wildlife encounters in Polhill Reserve, which spans 70 hectares of scruffy gullies bordered by Brooklyn, Aro Valley, and Highbury. It’s used by over a thousand mountain-bikers, runners, walkers, commuters and dog-walkers a week.

A life-long “bird nerd”, Ward fell for Polhill when a kaka landed on him during a run there. He discovered that, thanks to spillover from adjacent Zealandia, Polhill was home to manu taonga (treasured birds). Ward became one of the Polhill Restoration Project’s first volunteers, and soon became its leader. “We thought ‘how can we help look after our native neighbours?’” In 2014, a tīeke (saddleback) was discovered nesting there for the first time in a century outside sanctuaries on the mainland. Ward posted photos online and the survival story went viral.

Ward, whose enthusiasm is infectious, has got sponsors on board including the city council, DOC and local businesses Garage Project and Goodnature. Affiliates include Victoria and Massey Universities, Zealandia, Brooklyn Trailbuilders, and Wellington TrailRunners (whose members clear traps). The fusion of recreation with conservation has made international news, and the project was a 2016 WWF Conservation Innovation Awards finalist. Ward’s now looking for funding for a nature trail featuring local artists.

“We want to make the act of conservation a conscious one, creating a kind of kaitiaki [guardian] kit by talking positively about simple ways to engage – like setting backyard traps, planting natives, keeping cats well-fed and contained, and dogs on leads in reserves. If we care about nurturing nature in the city – and want to achieve ambitious things like predator-free New Zealand – then we need to have experiences that engage us with nature, science and sustainability, both off and online, where we spend so much time.” 

“When I was growing up, much of New Zealand’s native taonga could only be found in books or offshore islands. Now in Wellington, thanks to collective effort, it’s in our back yard. What a privilege and opportunity to live, work and play alongside kaka, karearea, tīeke and maybe – stay tuned – our namesake kiwi!”


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