Story: Children’s play

Page 1. Traditional Māori and settler children’s play

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Māori children’s play

Māori children traditionally played a wide range of games. Teka (darts), tī rākau (stick games), whai (string games), pouturu (stilt walking) and ruru (knucklebones) were played by both children and adults. Children made small kites called manu taratahi. Boys learned combat skills through mock fights using flax stalks. Pōtaka tā (whip tops), pōtaka tākiri (humming tops) and pīrori (hoops) were toys for all ages. Pīrori were made from aka (vines) and either thrown or propelled with a stick.

Māori children at play

In 1847 artist G. F. Angus described Māori children at play:‘They pass their early years almost without restraint, amusing themselves with various games of the country such as flying kites, which are formed of leaves, the game of maui [a string game]; throwing mimic spears made of fern stalks and sailing their tiny flax canoes on the rivers’1

The moari, or giant stride swing, was a pole with flax ropes suspended from the top on which people swung. Vines suspended from tree branches made tarere (simple swings). Children played piu (skipping), usually in groups. Other games included wī (tag), tī ringaringa (hand games), word games and guessing games. Children learned kauhoe (swimming) and kōkiri (diving) from a very early age. They played by exploring the bush, rivers and coastline, running about, fishing, hunting and gathering.

After the arrival of Europeans many games and pastimes were either suppressed or abandoned. Those that survived were mostly hand games, string games, tops, stilts and knucklebones, all of which had equivalents among European games. Children still played stick games, but often these were staged performances rather than spontaneous play.

Pioneer children

Most European children had few opportunities to play traditional games in the early years of settlement (from the late 1830s). In all but the richest families, once they were out of infancy children were regarded as extra working hands. Older children, especially girls, were expected to help look after younger siblings. Children had to fit their play times around their chores. Those living in rural areas or small towns played games of imagination and adventure, exploring nearby farmland, bush, rivers and coastlines. Inner-city children played in the streets or in any available open areas.

Wellington childhood in the 1840s

‘The fine white sandy beach from Pipitea to Oriental Bay was a precious possession … besides sea-fishing there were various streams, with Te Aro Swamp available where inungas and eels could with little skill and very homely fishing outfit, be easily captured … Boys could get conveniently lost for a day, be unseen and undiscoverable, amongst the flax bushes, and yet enjoy themselves to their heart’s content.’2

In the 19th century Pākehā girls came under social pressure to play quieter, more ‘ladylike’ games. Girls wore heavier clothing than boys and often had to look after younger siblings. Despite these limitations, many girls still took part in active outdoor play. They also often engaged in imaginative games, including playing with dolls and dressing up.

School days

Before 1877 only about half of New Zealand’s school-age children went to school. The number increased considerably with the Education Act 1877, which made primary education free and compulsory from ages seven to 13.

In 19th-century school playgrounds children were generally left unsupervised. Most schools did not have organised sport before the 1880s. Children played make-believe and traditional singing games such as ‘Oranges and lemons’ and ‘Nuts in May’. Children of all ages played these games, although in later years they were seen as only for the very young. Boys indulged in a lot of fighting and bullying. Boys and girls were often segregated, sometimes with a fence dividing their sections of the playground.

Many children travelled long distances to school. These journeys were times when children were free from school discipline and home chores. Children played games of exploration, adventure and mischief, on the way to and from school.

Footnotes:
  1. George French Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Vol. 1. London: Smith Elder and Co, 1847, p. 314. Back
  2. Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand 1840–1950. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1982, pp. 8–9. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play - Traditional Māori and settler children’s play', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/childrens-play/page-1 (accessed 23 April 2019)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013