Story: Children and sport

Page 1. Early sport, 1860 to 1919

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School sport

Organised children’s sport began in boys’ secondary schools in the 1860s. Influenced by the sports programmes of elite English schools, New Zealand schools such as Christ’s College (Christchurch), Nelson College, Te Aute College (Hawke’s Bay) and Auckland Grammar School began to offer sports including football and cricket. Organised sport was a way of controlling and structuring boys’ games in a civilised setting.

Student initiative

At Christ’s College the introduction of organised sports was student-driven. In 1862 boys set up a games committee, which managed sporting activities, organised coaching, and prepared playing fields for codes such as football and cricket.

Rugby union became popular in the 1880s. Supporters valued its focus on strength and physicality because it countered what was, at the time, seen to be the effeminising effects of urban life. Most secondary schools therefore made sport compulsory, believing that it would improve boys’ virility.

Girls’ sport

Girls’ schools initially did not provide sport due to the idea that such activity was unfeminine and would compromise students’ fertility. But this began to change in the 1880s when tennis, swimming and croquet became available in many girls’ schools. Students at Wellington Girls’ High School (later Wellington Girls’ College) could even play cricket. Sport was seen by these schools as an essential component of a rounded education, giving students a break from academic work and fostering school spirit and moral character. It was perceived as encouraging pluck, stoicism, cooperation and teamwork.

Girls from working-class families, few of whom went to secondary school, had less opportunity to play sport. Whereas rugby was generally accessible to boys from the 1880s, it was not until the early 1900s that team sports considered appropriate for girls, such as hockey and netball (then called basketball), became widely available. Netball was favoured over hockey because it was less aggressive and more graceful. It was also a game that boys and men did not play, so there was no male angst about girls taking it up.

Fun day out

The 8 Hours Demonstration Sports and Art Union picnic in 1896 at Auckland’s Domain included a full programme of children’s sports. Events included a 100-yards handicap (running) race for boys, a 75-yards race for girls, a sack race (boys), skipping races (girls), and a tug-of-war (boys versus girls). More unusual events included a sock-darning race (girls), a spoon-cleaning competition (boys) and a nail-driving race (girls). The prizes were two handsome trophies for each event.

Sports days

In primary schools the emphasis of physical education was more on military-style drill; children’s play mainly involved imaginary or free-form games. However, many primary schools held annual sports days, either individually or with other schools, at local parks and domains. These comprised mainly athletic-related events, including running, skipping, sack races and tugs-of-war. Similar children’s sporting programmes were often hosted at picnics held by trade unions, business houses and other community groups. Some primary schools also ran an annual swimming sports day at local pools during summer. In the 2010s most primary schools still participated in annual inter-house, interschool and regional annual athletic and swimming meets.

Growth of sport

From the 1900s organised sports in primary schools became more common. This was partly driven by public concern that unstructured play led to larrikinism or anti-social behaviour. It was thought that getting children to play sport would take them off city streets and instil a greater sense of self-discipline.

Sporting clubs began to foster junior grades and offered a wider range of sporting activities for children. For example, by 1911 the Miramar Rangers Association Football Club in Wellington fielded a number of junior teams. Many of these players then went on to play in the club’s senior teams.

Tennis, boxing, sailing, swimming and many other sporting codes also provided coaching and competitions for children. Children’s sporting fixtures were usually played on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons, when some schools closed, or Saturday afternoons, after the end of the working week at 12 noon. Sport was not formally played on Sundays, which was generally treated at that time as a day of rest and religious observance.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Children and sport - Early sport, 1860 to 1919', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013