Story: Childhood

New Zealand has always been seen as a great place for children, although the days when they roamed far from home to play in forests or on beaches with no supervision are largely over – more controversially, so are the days when parents were free to beat their children as punishment for bad behaviour.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Children playing bullrush

Story Summary

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New Zealand has often been called a good place to bring up children, because of its outdoor lifestyle and clean environment.

School and play

In the 19th century many children roamed the countryside without supervision. But children were also often expected to work. By the early 2000s it was not considered safe for children to stray away from home to play. Activities like climbing trees were also seen as dangerous.

Children usually made most of their own toys up till the 1960s. Boys made trolleys and girls made dolls. Later, shop-bought toys were common.

School first became compulsory in 1877. Truancy officers were paid to find children who did not turn up at school.

At school girls and boys often played in separate playgrounds. There were crazes for games like hopscotch, marbles or bullrush.


Children played sports at school, and games like rugby, cricket and netball became popular with children in the 20th century. By the early 2000s children had a wide range of activities to choose from, and fewer children played sport.

Youth groups

Up till the mid-20th century many children attended Sunday school. Churches also ran youth groups for older children.

Children belonged to groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and learnt things like bushcraft.

Children’s work

In the 19th century many children worked to help support their family. Children did chores before and after school. Farm children collected eggs or helped feed animals. Laws were changed to prevent children being employed to do dangerous work. In the early 2000s children could not do dangerous work till they were over 15. Once they were 16 they had to be paid the minimum adult wage after working for a probationary period.

Children and discipline

In the 19th and 20th century children could be smacked by teachers as well as parents. From 1987 schools could no longer punish children physically.

Many parents use time out or praise for good behaviour rather than smacks.

Parents who were taken to court for harming their children could say they were using ‘reasonable force’ to discipline their child as part of their defence. In 2007 the law was changed, and they could no longer do this. Some people opposed this change.

Children and crime

Until 1906 children who committed crimes were charged in open courts alongside adults. After this children’s trials were in closed courts. In 1925 a separate children’s court was set up.

Until 1961 children could be charged with murder if they were over seven. After that the age was raised to 10. Children who have committed their first crime are often not taken to court. The police deal with them.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011