City as playground
Children made colonial cities their own. City streets were playgrounds: places to play ball games, to chase, run, and race steel hoops made by local blacksmiths. Youngsters would fish from city wharves, or head into town to watch and participate in city life. Building sites and back lanes were exciting places of exploration and discovery. Children also colonised the beaches, bush and pastures of city hinterlands. Wildlife was fair game for home-crafted shanghais and bows and arrows. In summer, rivers – like Christchurch’s Avon – were used for swimming; children built makeshift rafts to float downstream.
One 1860s observer noted that on any day on Dunedin’s town belt one might see ‘dozens of boys, each hanging onto a calf’s tail, being dragged up hill and down dale.’1
No place for children
From the early 1900s there was a growing consensus that the city was no place for children. As middle-class families left the city for the outer suburbs, their former homes were rented to working people, the poor and transient. Within these groups were prostitutes, criminals and political agitators. To the well-to-do their presence suggested moral decline.
Alongside this was physical decline. Few landlords maintained their properties, and houses rotted. Bedraggled children playing on decaying streets became a powerful symbol of the need for reform. In 1905 the government began a suburban state (public) housing programme; workers would be housed away from the pollutants of the inner city. While this scheme failed to fire – the rents were too high – it cemented the idea that suburbs were the best place for children.
Suburban life and play
By the 1950s most city children and teenagers lived in suburban environments. For most, their suburb was their world, the place where they socialised and played with family and friends. As in the city, the street was a playground. Street cricket and football brought local children together. In hilly suburbs, trolley and bicycle races were popular. From the 1970s skateboards became the thrill seeker’s choice. Suburban parks were places not just to play, but also to boast and gossip, or puff an illicit cigarette.
In 1951 a resident of Wellington’s steep Liardet Street officially complained about it being used ‘as a runway for trolleys’. The ‘ramshackle carts with noisy iron wheels ... [create] a continuous din’. Sometimes the racers ‘even ride backwards ... One does not want to spoil children’s play, but this is a senseless activity.’2 Obviously the complainant had never raced a trolley.
From the 1980s, safety concerns about traffic and strangers led parents to place restrictions on unsupervised cycling, walking and other street activities. Together with the rise of (indoor) electronic games, the number of children playing unsupervised in streets and parks fell. This trend raised fears about a new generation of inactive children, dubbed ‘cotton-wool kids’, growing fat in front of computer screens and lacking the skills to navigate their neighbourhood.
Organised sport loomed large in many boys’ and girls’ lives. Saturdays were spent playing a range of codes: rugby union, rugby league, football, hockey and netball in winter, and cricket, swimming and tennis in summer.
For bookish children, suburban libraries were a haven. In the early 2000s they were equally popular for providing internet access and a safe place to meet friends. Suburban swimming pools were also places to meet, as well as show off and flirt.
Until the 1970s, Sunday schools and Bible classes drew large numbers. A major attraction was the opportunity to socialise and play. As society became more secular, community-based youth groups picked up the role.
While the suburbs dominated young people’s lives, the city was not totally off-limits. In the 1940s and 1950s there was the (often) weekly trek to ‘the pictures’. Some cinemas provided child-focused matinées, which included games as well as films. Shopping trips with parents were another reason to go into town. This meant scrubbed faces and best clothes, a dash through department-store aisles, and soft drink and cake in a cafeteria or tea room. From the 1980s the city became a destination for bored suburban teenagers, and some children, particularly at weekends. The bright lights, video parlours and vibrant street life made the city a dynamic place to hang out with friends.
As historian Keith Sinclair recalled, cinema was not only about movies. ‘By the time I was fourteen [in 1934] … matinees had acquired new meanings. The older boys and girls occupied the back rows. A girl of my age, skilled at passionate glances, was eager to permit great intimacies, above the waist. There was much to be said for hands and breasts. However, one day the manager told me off and made me move. The girls and I had already discovered, however, that it was fine if I sat in the row behind her.’3
Return to the city
Since the 1990s there has been a small but significant rise in families with children living in city apartments. With few child-focused amenities at hand, these children (as in the past) treat the city as a playground, a place to explore, discover and observe.