After the First World War a new cultural emphasis on fit bodies and public health encouraged increased participation rates in children’s sport. Prominent sporting figures became celebrities and sports clothing became fashionable – developments that increased the appeal of sport to children. By the 1920s thousands of children were engaged in some form of sporting activity, either at school or in clubs, where they received coaching from teachers and adult volunteers. Many others continued to play sport informally, with groups of friends at local parks or on the street.
Pictures and ice cream
Not all children threw themselves into sport. In 1923 John Caughley, director of education, criticised the ‘apathy of the modern schoolboy in undertaking clean, wholesome sport.’ He deplored their growing ‘preference for pictures and ice-cream’, which he condemned as ‘indigestible stuff.’1
Types of sport in the 1920s
An indication of the level and types of sporting activities children played is provided by a government sports census in 1924. It showed there were:
- 12,000 rugby players (17.5% of all boys aged 10–15)
- 2,253 cricket players (3.3% of all boys aged 10–15)
- 1,170 football players (1.7% of all boys aged 10–15)
- 1,922 tennis players, of whom 57% were female (1.4% of all boys and girls aged 10–15).
The statistics for hockey only included schoolgirl players, who numbered 619 (1% of all girls aged 10–15). Netball (then known as basketball) was not included in the survey because statistics were unavailable. The census suggested that, despite the increased appeal of sport, most children were not playing it at an organised level.
Plea for a park
In 1923 a Remuera resident pleaded for the provision of a park near to the local school. Children were presently playing beside the suburb’s library, where they were throwing stones, making loud noises, breaking fences and generally creating a nuisance. A park would allow them to better expend their energies through playing sport and other games.
Demand for sporting infrastructure in towns and cities continued to grow. New suburbs and schools were being built on the edges of cities and towns, and more space was set aside for sporting activities. Scrub-covered reserves were cleared, swampy flats drained and gullies filled in the mission to provide manicured sports fields. For instance, in 1928 the North Devonport Ratepayers’ Association offered to clear an area on the Vauxhall Reserve (Woodhall Park) for use as a football field for the Auckland suburb’s children. During the 1930s economic depression unemployed relief workers also built sports grounds.
Sport in schools was given a boost by the first Labour government (elected in 1935) when it set up the Physical Education Branch within the Education Department in 1939. It was led by Philip Smithells, who overhauled the school curriculum to give greater priority to physical education, which became a compulsory subject in schools. This included increasing subsidies to schools to build pools for swimming instruction and so reduce children’s drowning risk.
With the introduction of the 40-hour working week in 1945, Saturday morning became the usual time for primary-age children’s sporting activities; secondary-age children more often played in the afternoon. In winter, sports fields filled with mud-streaked children playing football, hockey and rugby, and outdoor courts became packed with red-faced girls playing netball. In summer, the fields turned into cricket ovals, dotted with boys in cricketing whites, and netball courts transformed into tennis courts. In both seasons parents and supporters gathered at the sidelines and cheered their players on.
A Saturday morning institution was the cancellation service for that day’s sporting fixtures on the ZB radio network. Thousands tuned in to hear whether their game was still on or had been transferred to another venue. On wet or cold winter mornings some parents and children hoped for a cancellation so they could stay warm in their beds.
Primary-age competitive sport was largely club-based. With the transition to secondary school, children often played for their school instead. Some inter-school sporting competitions were fiercely fought. This has included the Maadi Cup rowing regatta for secondary schools (since 1941) and the Quadrangular Tournament for rugby, between Christ’s (Christchurch), Nelson, Wellington colleges and Wanganui Collegiate (since 1925).
The operation of both club and school sport was highly dependent on volunteer labour. Without the support of parents and teachers – as coaches, referees and managers – children’s sport would have withered.
While larger towns and cities could maintain age-graded junior leagues where school and club teams competed against each other, smaller towns and rural districts could not support such a structure. Children would therefore turn up each week at a local sports field and be divided into teams for that morning’s play. With improved transport links between towns from the 1950s, and higher rates of car ownership, intra-district competitions became more common.