Story: Government and sport

Page 1. Support for children’s sport

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Government support for sport was focused on children until the late 1930s when adult fitness also became a state concern.

Sports grounds

In New Zealand’s colonial period, state support for sport was limited to some provision of grounds and the gradual introduction of games in schools.

In 1855 Canterbury’s provincial government set aside Hagley Park for recreation and public enjoyment. Two years later Wellington province created the Basin Reserve for the same purpose, with an emphasis on cricket. Prisoners from nearby Mt Cook Prison helped prepare the Basin Reserve, but most such developments relied on voluntary labour and private fundraising.

Public schools

The first public schools provided their students with simple equipment such as cricket bats and footballs.

The Education Act 1877, which established free, compulsory primary education, declared, ‘whenever practicable there shall be attached to each school a playground of at least a quarter of an acre’. In rural areas paddocks next to schools were utilised. Urban schools used nearby vacant lots. Military drill for boys was mandatory, while ‘physical training’ was a matter for individual boards.

Playing fields were rudimentary until the late 19th century, when local councils began to develop sports grounds.

The importance of physical health for young people was increasingly recognised. Classes performed gymnastic exercises outdoors. However, organised sport was largely confined to secondary schools, apart from annual sports days at primary schools.

The native schools established from 1867 were provided with sports equipment, as colonists believed that Māori boys who played cricket and rugby were less likely to take up arms against them in later life.

From 1902 it was compulsory for all public school children over the age of eight to be taught ‘physical drill’, unless their headmaster exempted them. Teacher training in this subject was systematised, and in 1912 Royd Garlick was appointed as New Zealand’s first director of physical education. The rise of ‘phys-ed’ coincided with the dropping of military training for boys under 14. However, impetus was lost with the onset of the First World War and Garlick’s death in 1915.

In the 1920s the focus of physical education became correct posture, rather than sport.

The value of sweat

In 1910 the Principal of the Auckland Teachers’ College argued: ‘The longer I live the more I am convinced of the need of active sweating exercise followed by cold baths, for young people – it cleans them physically and mentally.’1

Play areas

In the 1920s local authorities followed the North American example by employing supervisors, generally women, for children’s play areas. In Auckland their duties included organising games such as rounders and baseball. A few playground deaths were thought unremarkable.

The great depression of the 1930s brought change. The itinerant physical instructors who taught in schools were dispensed with in 1933 as a cost-cutting measure. However, the depression allowed local authorities to use unemployed relief labour to build swimming pools and playgrounds, as well as develop parks and reserves.

In the 1940s physical welfare officers employed by the Department of Internal Affairs encouraged the provision of playgrounds in new suburbs, ran after-school and holiday recreation programmes and fostered links between school leavers and sports clubs. By 1950 they had set up nearly 400 sporting and recreational organisations for children and teenagers.

After the Second World War

In 1946 physical education became a compulsory core subject in secondary schools. The next year a School of Physical Education was established at the University of Otago. Headed by Philip Smithells, it ensured school instruction became more professional. By 1970, 70% of secondary schools had gymnasiums.

Well equipped

During the 1950s a lot of playground climbing equipment was installed at schools. Usually of galvanised piping, it was often made locally. Taranaki frames and Wanganui roundabouts, along with horizontal step bars, appeared in playgrounds. New swimming pools were also built.


In 1988 a newly established Crown agency, the Hillary Commission, picked up on an international trend for modifying sports to make them suitable for children. It intitiated KiwiSport, which promoted simplified forms of sports to enthuse primary-school-age children and give them a grounding in basic sports skills. Almost 30 simple forms were developed, ranging from Kiwi cricket to Kiwi judo.

Over time the government came to prioritise adult sport. KiwiSport was eventually cancelled and in 1999/2000 only 10% of $33 million disbursed by the commission went to junior sport.

In 2003 the Hillary Commission was replaced by a new Crown entity, Sport and Recreation New Zealand, known from 2012 as Sport New Zealand. In 2009 it revived KiwiSport, and promised $82 million to be directed over four years to primary schools, secondary schools and regional sports trusts for use by clubs and community groups.

In Otago, for example, projects funded by KiwiSport included the North Otago Rugby Union delivering Rippa Rugby sessions in schools; Tarras School delivering the Grasshoppers tennis programme; the Turbo Touch Rugby Association introducing turbo touch in schools; and the Central Rock Climbing Club establishing a youth club.

By 2012 over 500,000 young people nationally were enrolled in such programmes.

  1. Quoted in Robert A. Stothart. The development of physical education in New Zealand. Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

David Green, 'Government and sport - Support for children’s sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by David Green, published 5 Sep 2013