Free play with little or no adult supervision was a common experience for children in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Families were large, so children had ready-made playmates. It was not practical for parents to oversee children constantly. A settler culture of self-reliance expected children to make and supervise their own fun.
Household chores, school and, for some, work commitments restricted leisure time. But the outdoors – places like native bush, waterways, farmland and later urban streets – provided children with good opportunities for play. Climbing trees, making huts, fishing and rafting were popular activities. Reading and board games were common indoor pastimes – reading in particular took children away from the adult world and books for children were increasingly published in the 20th century.
Natural environments often concealed children’s activities from older people, but those who had to play in busy urban streets more frequently met with adult disapproval. Boisterous, noisy play could be interpreted as ‘larrikinism’ (anti-social behaviour). From the early 20th century urban children exchanged central city streets for suburban ones as many families moved to the outskirts of towns and lived in homes with quarter acre sections.
Natural environments did not always free children from parental attention. In his 1993 memoir, New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair recalled his 1930s Auckland childhood playing in the harbour and up trees with a friend called Dawn. The youthful Sinclair thought their activities (which involved pulling one another’s pants down) were concealed. Years later his sister told him their mother would say ‘Get one of the kids and go down to the back beach with Keith’1 which implied she had an idea of what they were up to.
Children’s play became more regulated in the late 19th century, as recreation generally was more organised. Some people also thought that unsupervised play could lead to delinquency. When school became compulsory in 1877 playtime was largely unsupervised, but it was later overseen by teachers. Most early schools had segregated boys’ and girls’ playgrounds. Physical education classes, sport and later military drills also controlled play activity at school.
Outside school, children’s picnics with organised games were common from the late 19th century. Municipal playgrounds with slides and swings were established in most towns in the early 20th century. Quieter pursuits like scrapbooking, stamp and postcard collecting, and swapping items were popular. These had a commercial element to them – some items usually had to be bought. In the mid-20th century cinemas were a weekly source of entertainment for children. Children’s radio and later television shows were also popular.
Organised play supervised by adults did not mean that free play disappeared. The walk to and from school with siblings and friends was a time of freedom, and children continued to play away from adults (usually outside) in their spare time throughout the 20th century. The bush and beach remained popular recreational spots. Bicycles made children more mobile and enabled them to travel further from their home turf.
In the late 20th century it became less common for children to roam outdoors alone or with friends. Busy roads and concerns about ‘stranger danger’ made parents feel uncomfortable letting their children play outside the home without supervision. Computer games and television kept some children indoors. But children were not necessarily lazier. They had more recreation options than in the past.
Vigorous activities with some element of risk like climbing trees became less common in schools and childcare centres in light of government-initiated health and safety policies. In the 21st century some parents and teachers reacted against this and allowed children to take more risks when playing.
Toys, games and rhymes
In the 19th and much of the 20th centuries most toys were home-made by children. Only children from prosperous families had bought toys. Cheap commercial toys were more common from the 1890s, though children continued to make their own.
Children’s chants and rhymes were often based on very old songs which had travelled to New Zealand with British settlers. Others had more local origins. They were usually nonsense rhymes, and often scatalogical. One based on the national anthem ‘God defend New Zealand’ was a good example: ‘God of nations / Smell my feet / Sitting on the toilet seat / May your stinkies smell afar / God defend our noses.’2
Racing trolleys made from scavenged items were popular. Most boys had pocket knives and used them to make bows, pea-shooters and shanghais (catapults). Girls sometimes joined in, but also made their own toys, like dolls from clothespegs and paper. Schoolyard crazes included marbles, knucklebones, jacks, conkers, skipping ropes and hopscotch grids. Comics were eagerly read and swapped with friends. Mass-produced toys like hula hoops, Barbie dolls and Lego sets were popular from the 1950s. Toys based on television programmes and movies were common in the 21st century.
Left to their own devices, children initiated a range of games which often involved running and chasing, like tag and bullrush. Games such as cowboys and Indians were derived from American films popular in the mid-20th century.
Chants and rhymes were sometimes incorporated into games. The rhyme ‘Pōkarekare ana / I had a squashed banana’ (based on a Māori love song) was a common playground refrain still heard in the 21st century
From the 1990s children started to pay games on video consoles and home computers. The most famous early video game was Pac-Man, a 1980s maze chase arcade game increasingly available on a range of platforms. The number and range of video games designed for children and teenagers increased in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as more children had access to home computers, laptops and eventually tablets and cell phones. In the 21st century teenagers were referred to as ‘digital natives’ or ‘iGen’ since they had grown up with smartphones, game consoles and other digital communication devices.
By the 2010s preschool children were watching cartoons on smart phones and tablets and also playing games which rewarded them for recognising shapes, numbers and letters. Older children often watched TV series, movies, chat shows or music videos on electronic devices. Entertainment that children had previously watched at home with adults was now often viewed individually as family members chose their own movies, TV shows or music videos for consumption on their own devices.
Parents started to limit children’s screen time and also install programmes on laptops or home computers that blocked or restricted access to certain online content. New rules have emerged such as no screens during meals and no devices in children’s bedrooms.
While some children still enjoyed playing board games with their friends and with adults, many of children became absorbed by digital games that involved virtual worlds in which the people playing with them were located all over the world. Some of these games involved creating cities, communities with their own cultures and histories and sometimes imagined physical structures. Other games focused on responding to physical challenges or conflicts between imagined communities. Boys are more likely to be involved in playing video games and more likely to make or sustain friendships through playing these games.