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Young people and the arts

by Kerryn Pollock

Whether they’re aspiring artists, promising performers or passionate producers of prose and poetry, New Zealand children and teens have plenty of chances to express themselves – in and out of school.

Arts participation

Creative arts participation by people under 30 is significant. Research commissioned by Creative New Zealand showed that in 2011, 36% of 15–29 year olds made or presented art more than 12 times in the previous 12 months. This was higher than older age groups. The same year 80% of 10–14 year olds participated in at least one arts activity outside of school, while 87% attended at least one arts event.

Too much art

In 2011 only 6% of 10–14 year olds were involved in more arts activities than they wanted to be. Reasons included having to do arts activities at school (61%) and parents making them do arts activities (15%). Of those, 18% said they enjoyed arts, but wanted to do them less.


The New Zealand Curriculum includes four arts disciplines: dance, drama, music and visual arts. (Creative writing is part of the subject English.) Years 1–8 include all four disciplines; years 9–10 include at least two; and students in years 11–13 can choose to specialise in one or more arts subjects.

Many schools put on shows every year and maintain orchestras and bands, which are often the basis of inter-school competitions. Programmes like JUMP JAM, which mix exercise and creative expression, are popular in primary and intermediate schools.

Dance, drama, music and other arts classes are available in most towns and cities after school and during weekends. Students attend regular classes and participate in annual shows for family and friends.

Workshops and mentoring

Arts agencies and organisations offer mentoring and workshop services for young people. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and regional orchestras run school programmes and put on special concerts for schools. The Royal New Zealand Ballet as well as other dance and theatre companies have similar arrangements.

The New Zealand Book Council’s Writers in Schools programme takes local writers into schools through the country, while Playmarket arranges for playwrights to visit school drama classes.


Orchestras and brass bands

The National Youth Orchestra was founded in 1959 by John Hopkins, principal conductor of the National Orchestra (later the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). Auditions are held each year and successful musicians are members of the orchestra for 12 months. They rehearse together before playing a main season around August and a summer season early the following year. Applicants must be aged 25 or under.

Magic time

In 2009 Michael McIntyre recalled playing with the very first National Youth Orchestra in 1959: ‘Above all there was the sheer wonder of being catapulted from the musical outback straight into the middle of something marvellously new and mind-blowing, the thrilling sound-world of an excellent symphony orchestra able to do justice to the great classics … So there we were, in the NYO, that magical, newly formed group of young, switched-on human beings, working and playing together like crazy.’1

In addition to the national orchestra there are city and regional youth orchestras, as well as the New Zealand Secondary Schools Symphony Orchestra based in Christchurch. The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s Sistema Aotearoa project provides children from low-decile schools with classical instruments and musical training.

The National Youth Brass Band was formed in 1970. Since 1997 the band has functioned as a Wellington-based summer school comprising auditions, rehearsals and concerts. Members can be up to 22 years old. The Salvation Army has a national youth brass band drawn from uniformed church members aged between 16 and 30.

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra is selected annually.

Chamber music and composition

The first Chamber Music New Zealand contest for secondary school students was held in 1965. It went on to become the longest-running youth music contest in New Zealand. A composition division was added to the contest in 1971. In 2005 the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra launched the NZSO Todd Corporation Young Composers Award.

Traffic stoppers

The New Zealand Youth Choir’s first concert was in St Peter’s Church in Willis Street, Wellington. There was no backstage space so choir members had to gather in the Red Cross rooms across the road. Traffic officers held up motorway traffic so the singers could cross the road to the church.


The New Zealand Youth Choir was formed in 1979. Singers have to be between 18 and 25, and are auditioned every three years. There are also regional youth choirs and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir, which started in 1986.

The Big Sing, the national secondary schools choral festival, started in 1988. Eleven regional competitions are held in June each year, and 18 choirs are selected to compete in the national finale in August. A composition division was introduced in 2000.

Popular music

Smokefreerockquest is an annual popular music competition for school students. It was founded in 1989 and was initially a Christchurch event. The following year the competition became nationwide. Many popular singers and bands have got their big break at Smokefreerockquest. Anika Moa and Bic Runga were signed to international record labels straight after the competition.

Smokefree Pacifica Beats started out as the Urban Beats Award at Smokefreerockquest, and became a stand-alone competition in 1998. Entrants’ performances must feature Māori and Pacific cultural elements such as Māori or Pacific languages and traditional instruments.

Founded in 2012, Switch is a popular music competition for intermediate school students.

Play It Strange

Play It Strange, founded in 2003, is a trust which helps young people develop song writing and music performance interests and skills. The trust administers a number of music competitions, distributes ukuleles to schools and runs workshops and mentoring programmes in schools.

    • Quoted in Joy Tonks, The NZSO National Youth Orchestra: fifty years and beyond. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011, p. 7. Back


Stage Challenge

Stage Challenge is an annual stage performance competition for secondary school students. It was first held in 1992. Performances are directed and choreographed by students, who also manage lighting, music, costumes, make-up, props and rehearsals. An important aspect of the event is its drug- and alcohol-free status.

Natural high

Stage Challenge participants are encouraged to get their thrills from performance rather than drugs and alcohol. Manager Alice Larmer has said: ‘That’s what Stage Challenge teaches … How to get a natural high without having to turn to drugs and alcohol, keeping those friendships alive, using those life skills that you’ve learned.’1

Around 16,000 students from 200 schools participate in Stage Challenge. Regional competitions are held and winners from these compete for the ultimate prize. Since 2005 primary- and intermediate-school students have been able to participate in J Rock, a non-competitive version of Stage Challenge.

National Youth Drama School

The National Youth Drama School is a week-long series of theatre, film, dance and songwriting classes for 14–19 year olds held in Havelock North during the April school holidays. It is aimed at students considering a career in the performing arts.

Theatre companies

There are a number of youth theatre companies in New Zealand. Auckland’s Massive Theatre Company (founded in 1991) mounts shows and runs free workshops for young people. Te Rākau Hua o te Wao Tapu Trust (1989) is a Wellington-based company that introduces at-risk young people to theatre and kapa haka (Māori traditional performance). Other youth theatre companies include Northland Youth Theatre (1984), Nelson Youth Theatre (2000), Hawke’s Bay Youth Theatre (2003) and Long Cloud Youth Theatre (2005) based at Whitirea Community Polytechnic in Wellington.


The Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival was first run in 1991. It is a competition for secondary-school students who act in and direct short excerpts from plays by William Shakespeare. Regional festivals are held first and the winners go on to compete in the national festival. Each year around 24 participating students are selected to attend a study tour of the United Kingdom.

Good start

Film-maker and actor Taika Waititi began his career at the Young and Hungry festival. He appeared at the 1995 event in Dave Armstrong’s Fast food.

The Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre (founded in 1994) showcases the acting and theatre production skills of 15–25 year olds. Each year three plays are commissioned from emerging playwrights and these are performed during the festival.

Capital E

Capital E is a creative arts centre for children in Wellington. It contains a digital production suite where children can make television programmes, movies, video games, music and soundtracks. Capital E is also home to the National Theatre for Children, a company of adult actors who perform shows for children.


Writing, dance and other arts


A number of awards are available. The BNZ Young Writer Award is an annual prize for secondary-school students. There is also a secondary school division in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition. The biennial Pikihuia Awards for Māori Writers include a secondary-schools category for short stories in either te reo Māori or English.

The National Schools Poetry award for secondary students began in 2003, and is administered by the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University of Wellington. The IIML also ran the National Schools Writing Festival from 2005 to 2011.

Early debuts

In 1898 Katherine Mansfield had her first story published. She was nine years old, and the story, ‘Enna Blake’, was published in the High school reporter, the journal of Wellington Girls’ High School. In 1995, 11-year-old Laura Ranger’s collection Laura’s poems was published. The following year it won best first book at the AIM Children’s Book Awards.

Since 1995 the Dan Davin Literary Foundation has run a short-story competition for secondary-school students in the Southland region. In 2002 the Wellington Children’s Book Association started the Jack Lasenby Award, a short-story competition for those in the Wellington region. It is open to Year 7 and 8 school children in odd-numbered years, and to adult writers for children in even-numbered years.

The Michael King Writers’ Centre offers a young writers programme for Auckland students, while Christchurch’s School for Young Writers is a non-profit organisation that has been tutoring young writers since 1993.


The Auckland Youth Dance Festival was launched in 2013. It is open to secondary-school students in the Auckland region. Bring It On is a secondary-schools hip hop dance competition which started in Auckland in 2003. It grew to also hold events in Wellington and Australia’s Brisbane and Sydney.

The Movement is a nationwide youth hip hop dance competition first held in 2013. The Urban Dance Youth Trust of Tauranga also began a hip hop dance competition in 2013.

Urban Youth Movement is a youth dance company associated with Black Grace, one of the country’s leading contemporary dance companies. Jolt Youth is a Christchurch-based dance company that brings together young dancers with and without disabilities.


In 2011 24-year-old Mikaere Gardiner won first prize in the National Youth Art Awards. Earlier that year he was in the news because he had been unmasked as ‘Eno’, the mysterious creator of street art in New Plymouth. His unmasking caused difficulties because he was an employee of the New Plymouth District Council, who viewed work like his as graffiti.

Art and design

The Waikato Society of Arts began holding the biennial National Youth Art Awards in 2009. They are open to 15–27 year olds working in all art media. Pop Youth Art Industries holds an annual art competition for 5–18 year olds living in Auckland, and the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga, Auckland, runs an annual youth art award for secondary-school students. Those aged 16–19 who live in mid- and South Canterbury can enter the Zonta Youth Art Awards and have their work exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery.

The Youthtown Creatifs Young Designer Awards are open to budding fashion designers aged 13–18. There are two categories – fashion design and wearable art.

Māori and Pacific arts

Primary- and secondary-school kapa haka (Māori traditional performing arts) competitions take place annually. Participants in these events often go on to compete as adults at Te Matatini, the national festival of kapa haka.

The Ngā Manu Kōrero National Secondary Speech Contest has been running since 1965.

The annual ASB Polyfest started at Hillary College in Auckland in 1976. The festival celebrates Cook Islands, Māori, Niuean, Samoan and Tongan cultures and school students compete on stage, having devised traditional song and dance routines. Auckland schools take turns to hold the festival.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Young people and the arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 October 2014