Story: Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia

Traditional Māori society sought a balance between work and leisure. Leisure time was spent telling stories, performing waiata, haka and poi, playing musical instruments, dancing and playing sports and games. Leisure activities had serious purposes like transmitting knowledge as well as entertainment value.

Story by Ross Calman
Main image: Pūtiki pā, mid-1800s

Story summary

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In the early years of Māori settlement there would have been more leisure than later: the human population was low and food was plentiful. But within 200 years of human arrival, moa were extinct and so were some seal populations. Māori had to travel to find food, and store food for later. Increasing competition for food led to war, which reduced the time available for leisure.

Age and class

Children and the elderly had fewer daily tasks, so they had more leisure time. Children’s leisure activities also helped them learn. Teens and young adults took part in romantic activities such as wooing and composing romantic ditties.

Rangatira (chiefs) were involved in food production and war, so had no more time for leisure than tūtūa (commoners).

Social aspects

Work was done in daylight. At night – especially in winter – people gathered for conversation, stories and indoor games.

Some hākari (feasts) were linked to ritual and politics, but others were a chance to socialise and take part in leisure activities.

The rising of the star Whānui (Vega) was associated with the kūmara harvest festival – a time of feasting, haka, poi, taonga puoro (music) and tākaro (games). The rising of Matariki (the Pleiades) marked the new year – a time for celebration and arts such as dancing and singing.

Te whare tapere

Te whare tapere (the house of entertainment) included kōrero pūrākau (story-telling), waiata (songs), haka, poi, music and games. Stories were told to pass on knowledge and for entertainment.

There were waiata for every occasion, and they were rich with history, tradition and metaphor. Haka and poi took place at most gatherings.

Musical instruments were part of many rituals and were also played to entertain.

Sports and games

Sports and games were played at most social gatherings. The marae was the venue for kaipara (athletics and martial arts). In summer, water sports such as swimming, diving and surfing were popular. On winter evenings and in bad weather, people played games like tī ringaringa (hand games), whai (string patterns) and karetao (puppets). Children played with toys made from natural materials.

How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Leisure in traditional Māori society – ngā mahi a te rēhia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 September 2013