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Early childhood education and care

by Kerryn Pollock

From ‘baby farming’ to licensed childcare centres, the care of young children has evolved as ideas about child welfare, education and women’s employment have changed. In 2010, 188,924 pre-school children attended licensed childcare centres in New Zealand.

Early education and care, late 19th to mid-20th centuries

In 1877 school attendance became compulsory from the age of six. The educational and care needs of younger children remained the responsibility of parents – they had to undertake this work themselves or find someone to act in their stead. However, concerns about child welfare, growing acceptance of the value of education for young children and recognition that some women had to work meant that kindergartens and crèches were slowly established.

Informal care

Family, friends and neighbours of parents have always cared informally for young children. Before formal child care was readily available later in the 20th century, they were often the only source of care. Wealthy women sometimes employed nannies to care for their children in the home.

Baby farmers

In the 19th century some single and married women paid people to care for their children, because they had to work or could not care for them themselves. These caregivers were sometimes called ‘baby farmers’ because they looked after many children at once.

While most provided a much-needed service, increasing state and community interest in child welfare, coupled with revelations of child deaths in care, led to paid care-giving gaining a sinister reputation. The trial and subsequent execution of care-giver Minnie Dean for child murder in 1895 was the most well-known example.

Early crèches

The first known crèches – as childcare centres were commonly called then – were established in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by voluntary organisations to care for the children of working women. Creches began in Auckland in 1887 and Wellington in 1903. Early crèches struggled financially and were unpopular with society at large because they supported working women and single mothers.

Good works

There was a significant class difference between the organisers and users of early crèches and kindergartens. They were set up by well-off, middle-class people with charitable interests for the children of working-class families. This divide is suggested by a crèche meeting advertisement published in 1879: ‘A MEETING will be held in the TEMPERANCE HALL on FRIDAY AFTERNOON at 2 o’clock, to inaugurate the [crèche], his Worship the Mayor in the chair. Subscribers and all Ladies and Gentlemen interested in the matter are earnestly invited to attend.’1

The Sisters of Compassion, led by Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, founded the first successful crèche in Wellington in 1903. No fees were charged by the St Joseph’s Crèche and full-day care was offered. It was one of a number of social services run by the sisters, which may in part explain its success – public donations supported a wider programme of good works, not just a crèche. The crèche (renamed the Aubert Childcare Centre) was still operating in 2011.

More crèches opened, but they were few and far between. The Heni Materoa Crèche opened in Gisborne in 1913. As well as providing day-care, it also took in children on a more permanent basis. The Citizens Day Nursery in Wellington ran from 1921 to 1985. From the 1930s, drop-in crèches, where women left their children while shopping, opened in city centres.


Educationalist Friedrich Froebel started the first kindergarten in Prussia (Germany) in 1837. Froebel saw children’s play as the basis for learning, which was an innovative idea at the time.

Exhibiting crèches

Temporary crèches were run at the large-scale exhibitions that took place from time to time throughout the country. Parents could stroll through the exhibitions at their leisure while their children were cared for at the crèche. The 1,000th baby who entered the crèche at the Christchurch International Exhibition (1906–7) received a prize. The building constructed to demonstrate kindergartens at the Centennial Exhibition of 1939–40 was later moved to Newtown in Wellington – it still housed the Newtown Kindergarten in the 2000s.

In contrast to crèches, which offered childcare, free kindergartens in New Zealand were primarily established to educate three to five year olds before they attended school. They were run by middle-class volunteers for the children of working-class families. The first was opened in Dunedin in 1889, and was followed by Christchurch (1904), Wellington (1906) and Auckland (1910). They offered part-day sessions only – this signalled support for stay-at-home rather than working mothers. Kindergartens were the main providers of pre-school education until the late 20th century.

Government first provided funding for kindergartens in 1904. Charitable fundraising was still required, but government contributions ensured welcome financial stability. When funding was stopped between 1931 and 1935, some kindergartens closed, salaries were cut and jobs lost. It was not until the post-Second World War period that government funding of kindergartens was significant.


    • Otago Daily Times, 9 July 1879, p. 1. Back

Government support, 1940s to 1970s

War influence

During the Second World War some women undertook paid work previously done by men. Others were involved with voluntary and community work related to the war. This highlighted the need for childcare services, though it did not immediately result in many more. The belief that women belonged at home with their children prevailed, despite wartime conditions.

Kindergartens, with their history of supporting women in the home, argued that demand for childcare was limited, but others (such as employers) said demand exceeded supply. Government action was confined to providing funds for kindergartens running two daily sessions to extend them to one full-day session, but not all kindergartens made this change.

The number of women and children using childcare and education services was small. Nevertheless, pressure on mothers to raise children, run the home and, in some cases, work during the absence of their husbands placed childcare and education on the government’s agenda.

Education and democracy

The belief that access to education, including in the very early years, was a democratic right grew in the 20th century. In 1942 a Christchurch school committee said that ‘free education from kindergarten to university is the birth-right of all New Zealand children irrespective of financial status.’1


The first playcentre was founded by a group of Wellington mothers in 1941 and others soon followed – by 1943 there were 18 in Wellington, Palmerston North and Christchurch. Playcentre, which is unique to New Zealand, was the outcome of a discussion among friends about the difficulties mothers faced raising children, particularly when their husbands were away at war.

By 1941 more families were interested in early childhood education. Like kindergartens, playcentres emphasised the education rather than care of young children, but the role of parent educators at playcentres was a key difference. Parents, who attended on a rostered basis, acted as supervisors and could attend playcentre-run child development lectures and courses from the mid-1940s. Playcentre first received some government funding in 1946.

The government steps in

In 1945 the government appointed a committee, which included kindergarten and playcentre representatives, to investigate pre-school education. In this period, existing services covered about 5% of four year olds. The 1947 committee report affirmed the value of pre-school education and recommended a state-run and state-funded national service and teacher training programme. There was little support for childcare services – the part-day kindergarten and playcentre models, which worked best for stay-at-home mothers, were preferred.

Fertility carrot

The Report of the consultative committee on pre-school educational services (1947) hoped that a national pre-school system would encourage women to ‘give childrearing pride of place, and help shape the desire to have more children.’2 While the fertility rate almost consistently dropped from the 1870s, which caused nationwide consternation, it had actually started increasing in the early 1940s, pre-dating the increased provision of pre-school education services. The post-Second World War baby boom increased demand for services, rather than the other way round.

State control was rejected by kindergartens and playcentres. Instead, the government funded and regulated pre-school education services, which were run by the existing voluntary organisations, and the government also funded teacher training. Kindergartens and playcentres received annual grants and the government paid kindergarten teachers’ salaries.


The number of children enrolled at kindergartens and playcentres rose substantially after the Second World War – from 7% of three and four year olds in 1950, to 18% in 1960, and 35% in 1970. Once other services were counted, this rose to 40% in 1970, which was high internationally.

While the distribution of pre-schools in high-, medium- and lower-income areas was reasonably equitable, socioeconomic factors influenced who went to pre-school. In the early 1970s children from high-status backgrounds were over-represented and those from low-status backgrounds under-represented. This was a reversal of the pre-war situation.


Growth in childcare services was slow but sure in the 1950s. Growth accelerated in the early 1960s when the economy was strong and female labour was in demand. This pattern continued after the economic boom ended in the mid-1960s. By 1966 women were 27% of the paid workforce, and 41% of married women were employed.

Financial relief

The 1969–70 Budget provided tax allowances for families who paid for childcare services. Working women could claim up to $240 per year ($4,200 in 2021 values) for housekeeping or childcare fees. This signalled a change in the government’s attitude.

While childcare roll numbers were little more than half those of pre-school educational services (primarily kindergartens and playcentres) in 1973 – 3,771 (care) compared to 6,514 (educational) – childcare growth was more rapid. The number of children in care increased 164% between 1963 and 1972, compared to 33% for those in educational services. However, most care was still provided informally in private homes.

    • Quoted in Christina K. Guy, Women on the home front: an S.O.S. from mothers. Wellington: Progressive Publications Society, 1943, p. 22. Back
    • Quoted in Helen May, The discovery of early childhood: the development of services for the care and education of very young children, mid eighteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1997, p. 211. Back

New developments, 1970s to 2000s

Growing demand for care

In the 1970s New Zealand society changed. More single mothers kept their babies rather than giving them up for adoption, and women sought some measure of economic independence through paid work. Women comprised 30% of the workforce in 1971 and 39% in 1980. The percentage of mothers who had pre-school children and were in paid employment rose from 21% in 1976 to 32% in 1986. Childcare was also seen as a women’s liberation issue.

The number of children in full-time care increased from 2,807 in 1971 to 5,300 in 1981. Charitable welfare provider Barnardos started home-based childcare services in the late 1970s. The increasing availability of childcare services contributed to a decline in playcentre numbers in the early 1980s.


From 1973 the government provided a capital-works subsidy for some non-profit childcare centres and a fee subsidy for children whom welfare agencies believed would benefit from daycare. Oversight of childcare was transferred from the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Education in 1986.

Distance learning

In 1976 the Correspondence School began offering education teaching services for pre-school children. That year there were two teachers and 50 children enrolled. By the late 1980s numbers increased to 17 teachers and 510 children. In 2009, 627 children aged five and under were enrolled with the Correspondence School.

Te kōhanga reo

Kōhanga reo (language nests) – where pre-school children and their families are immersed in the Māori language and tikanga (culture) – were a response to Māori self-determination activism, and a desire to reverse the decline in the number of fluent Māori-language speakers. Though Māori families had been involved with playcentre and similar initiatives, this was the first truly Māori-centred national childcare programme.

The first kōhanga reo opened in Wainuiomata in 1982. In 1985 there were 5,800 children enrolled at 377 kōhanga reo. By 1989, 11% of all children attending pre-school were enrolled at a kōhanga reo.

Pacific services

Lemali Tamaita a Samoa in Tokoroa (established in 1972) was the first Pacific pre-school centre in New Zealand. Others followed in the early 1980s, but they emphasised English-language education rather than Pacific languages and cultures. The Samoan A‘oga Amata, which opened in Wellington in 1985, and later in other cities, was more Pacific-centred.

Workplace services

Some workplaces opened childcare centres. In the 1970s, 25 centres were opened in tertiary institutions. The Public Service Association (PSA) union set up a centre for members’ children in central Wellington in 1981.

Commercial providers

Historically, private centres were small operations in private homes. Large commercial providers emerged in the late 1970s. The first Kindercare centre opened in Auckland in 1978. In early 2011 there were 36 centres in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. Australian provider ABC Learning Centres opened six centres in 2003 and operated 127 in 2011. Privately owned centres made up 23% of the sector in 2002 and 41% in 2019.

Name change

In the early 1970s the term ‘pre-school’, which had traditionally been used to describe education services for children below five, began to be replaced with the longer name ‘early childhood education’. In the 2000s it was usually abbreviated to the acronym ECE.

Education and care integrated

The government’s ‘Before Five’ reforms in 1989 integrated early childhood education and care for the first time. Government funding for childcare increased, and care and education operated under one regulatory framework. From 1996 all centres delivered a national curriculum called Te Whāriki.


Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the proportion of children enrolled at kindergartens and playcentres dropped. The ‘Before Five’ reforms resulted in more choices for parents, who increasingly preferred all-day services offered by combined care and education centres. This was associated with an increase in women’s workforce participation.


Most early childhood education services are licensed – this means they have to fulfil certain requirements in staffing, curriculum and premises outlined in the Education Act 1989. Licensed centres receive more government funding than licence-exempt centres. All care and education services and kindergartens are licensed, as are most playcentres and kōhanga reo. Licence-exempt services are mainly playgroups and Pacific early childhood groups. In 2010, 82% of all early childhood services were licensed.

Kindergartens traditionally had the largest number of enrolments, but were overtaken by care and education centres in 1994. In 2010 care and education centres had 58% of all enrolments at licensed services, compared to 28% in 1990. Kindergartens had 20% of all enrolments in 2009, compared to 40% in 1990.

Playcentre enrolments declined the most and dropped from 21% of all enrolments in 1990 to 8% in 2010. Kōhanga reo grew slowly in the mid-1990s to 10% in 1995, but then proportionally declined to 5% in 2010. Home-based services grew from 0.8% of all enrolments in 1990 to 9% in 2010.

Overall, enrolments at licensed centres grew from 110,073 in 1990 to 188,924 in 2010. The proportion of children in their first year of primary school who had attended an early childhood education institution also grew from 86% in 2000 to 95% in 2009.

20 hours free

From July 2010, all three- to five-year-old children could attend an early childhood education service 20 hours a week (up to six hours a day) for free. This only applied to services led by teachers (rather than parents).

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Early childhood education and care', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2021)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012