Joan Myrtle Walter was born on 11 January 1909 in South Weald, Essex, England, the eldest of three daughters of South African-born Vivienne Frances Myrtle Noyce and her English husband, Ernest Lee Walter, an East India merchant. She was educated in London and South Africa, becoming dux of Durban Girls’ College in 1926. She then moved to Australia where she graduated with a BA from the University of Sydney in 1932. During her time in Australia she spent two years teaching music at a large Anglican boarding school for girls at Armidale, New South Wales, earning praise for her musical and teaching ability.
On 23 January 1932, at Blackheath, New South Wales, she married Frederick Lloyd Whitfeld Wood, who was then lecturing in history at the University of Sydney. When Fred was appointed professor of history at Victoria University College in 1935, the family, which now included an infant son, moved to Wellington, New Zealand. From then until her death Joan lived in Gladstone Terrace, Kelburn, within walking distance of the university. She became friendly with other well-educated women whose husbands were working in education, and who had given up their own careers to support their husbands and families. They included Beatrice Beeby, a former teacher and wife of Clarence Beeby (who later became director of education), and Inge Smithells, the Danish-born wife of physical education theorist Philip Smithells.
While spending the summer holidays of 1941 at the beach with their children, Joan and Inge discussed the problems of mothers with pre-school children, particularly those whose husbands were overseas on war service. If they had no family support there was frequently no one to mind children, even for a short time. The few private kindergartens and crèches were often too expensive or unsatisfactory. A belief in the importance of parental (particularly maternal) involvement and child-centred education was gaining popularity. Experts such as English psychologist Susan Isaacs, who had addressed the significant 1937 conference of the New Education Fellowship in Wellington, promoted the importance of learning through play in the pre-school years.
Inge Smithells had helped run a co-operative child-care centre in England, where mothers took turns minding children. She and Wood consulted with Beatrice Beeby, and the three of them developed the idea of a playcentre employing a supervisor with some training in pre-school work, aided by a roster of mother helpers. Through interacting with the children the mothers could learn about child development. The three women discussed their ideas with local mothers of pre-schoolers, often meeting in the Beebys’ Wadestown house, where Clarence’s involvement was limited to bringing in the tea.
The first playcentre was opened in St Mary’s Church hall, Karori, in April 1941 by Janet Fraser, wife of Prime Minister Peter Fraser; a second, in the Kelburn Presbyterian hall, opened in June. To provide a more formal structure, in July the committee formed itself into the New Zealand Nursery Play Centres’ Association, with Beatrice Beeby as president and Joan Wood as recording secretary. Parent education became an important theme and Beatrice lectured on child development at the local WEA. The playcentre movement flourished and absorbed similar initiatives, such as those promoted by Gwen Somerset in Feilding and Doreen Dolton in Christchurch. The central idea was that women could run co-operative, educational and satisfying playcentres for pre-schoolers within a set of guidelines. Wood also continued her own education, graduating with a DipEd in 1942.
As her children grew she developed other interests and became active in music and art circles, as well as on school committees. In the early 1950s she studied singing in Paris and London. Back in Wellington she became a successful singing teacher (her singing was frequently broadcast on radio), tutored in the university’s music department, organised musical evenings and concerts, and reviewed music. She was also an artist, and organised an exhibition of New Zealand paintings. A keen Anglican, she wrote a history of her local church, Kelburn’s St Michael and All Angels, published in 1987. Earlier, she had helped her husband, Fred, with various publications, co-authoring a booklet for the Department of Education on royal coronations and several chapters of his 1944 book Understanding New Zealand.
In 1982 she revisited South Africa, introducing her husband of 50 years to relatives. Fred died in 1989 and Joan died on 27 November 1990 at the Mary Potter Hospice, Wellington, of motor neurone disease. Two of her four children survived her. A strong and determined woman, Joan Wood made a major contribution to the educational and artistic life of New Zealand. Thousands of New Zealanders, particularly women and children, have benefited from the playcentre movement she helped found.