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Children and sport

by Ben Schrader

Sport is a big part of life for New Zealand children and physical education has long been part of the school curriculum. In the 2000s a wide variety of sports are offered – not only traditional ones such as rugby and netball, but also sports like cycling, snowboarding, fencing and triathlon. Many sports clubs offer junior grades, so children can participate in out-of-school sport.

Early sport, 1860 to 1919

School sport

Organised children’s sport began in boys’ secondary schools in the 1860s. Influenced by the sports programmes of elite English schools, New Zealand schools such as Christ’s College (Christchurch), Nelson College, Te Aute College (Hawke’s Bay) and Auckland Grammar School began to offer sports including football and cricket. Organised sport was a way of controlling and structuring boys’ games in a civilised setting.

Student initiative

At Christ’s College the introduction of organised sports was student-driven. In 1862 boys set up a games committee, which managed sporting activities, organised coaching, and prepared playing fields for codes such as football and cricket.

Rugby union became popular in the 1880s. Supporters valued its focus on strength and physicality because it countered what was, at the time, seen to be the effeminising effects of urban life. Most secondary schools therefore made sport compulsory, believing that it would improve boys’ virility.

Girls’ sport

Girls’ schools initially did not provide sport due to the idea that such activity was unfeminine and would compromise students’ fertility. But this began to change in the 1880s when tennis, swimming and croquet became available in many girls’ schools. Students at Wellington Girls’ High School (later Wellington Girls’ College) could even play cricket. Sport was seen by these schools as an essential component of a rounded education, giving students a break from academic work and fostering school spirit and moral character. It was perceived as encouraging pluck, stoicism, cooperation and teamwork.

Girls from working-class families, few of whom went to secondary school, had less opportunity to play sport. Whereas rugby was generally accessible to boys from the 1880s, it was not until the early 1900s that team sports considered appropriate for girls, such as hockey and netball (then called basketball), became widely available. Netball was favoured over hockey because it was less aggressive and more graceful. It was also a game that boys and men did not play, so there was no male angst about girls taking it up.

Fun day out

The 8 Hours Demonstration Sports and Art Union picnic in 1896 at Auckland’s Domain included a full programme of children’s sports. Events included a 100-yards handicap (running) race for boys, a 75-yards race for girls, a sack race (boys), skipping races (girls), and a tug-of-war (boys versus girls). More unusual events included a sock-darning race (girls), a spoon-cleaning competition (boys) and a nail-driving race (girls). The prizes were two handsome trophies for each event.

Sports days

In primary schools the emphasis of physical education was more on military-style drill; children’s play mainly involved imaginary or free-form games. However, many primary schools held annual sports days, either individually or with other schools, at local parks and domains. These comprised mainly athletic-related events, including running, skipping, sack races and tugs-of-war. Similar children’s sporting programmes were often hosted at picnics held by trade unions, business houses and other community groups. Some primary schools also ran an annual swimming sports day at local pools during summer. In the 2010s most primary schools still participated in annual inter-house, interschool and regional annual athletic and swimming meets.

Growth of sport

From the 1900s organised sports in primary schools became more common. This was partly driven by public concern that unstructured play led to larrikinism or anti-social behaviour. It was thought that getting children to play sport would take them off city streets and instil a greater sense of self-discipline.

Sporting clubs began to foster junior grades and offered a wider range of sporting activities for children. For example, by 1911 the Miramar Rangers Association Football Club in Wellington fielded a number of junior teams. Many of these players then went on to play in the club’s senior teams.

Tennis, boxing, sailing, swimming and many other sporting codes also provided coaching and competitions for children. Children’s sporting fixtures were usually played on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons, when some schools closed, or Saturday afternoons, after the end of the working week at 12 noon. Sport was not formally played on Sundays, which was generally treated at that time as a day of rest and religious observance.

Growth of children’s sport, 1920 to 1969

Greater participation

After the First World War a new cultural emphasis on fit bodies and public health encouraged increased participation rates in children’s sport. Prominent sporting figures became celebrities and sports clothing became fashionable – developments that increased the appeal of sport to children. By the 1920s thousands of children were engaged in some form of sporting activity, either at school or in clubs, where they received coaching from teachers and adult volunteers. Many others continued to play sport informally, with groups of friends at local parks or on the street.

Pictures and ice cream

Not all children threw themselves into sport. In 1923 John Caughley, director of education, criticised the ‘apathy of the modern schoolboy in undertaking clean, wholesome sport.’ He deplored their growing ‘preference for pictures and ice-cream’, which he condemned as ‘indigestible stuff.’1

Types of sport in the 1920s

An indication of the level and types of sporting activities children played is provided by a government sports census in 1924. It showed there were:

  • 12,000 rugby players (17.5% of all boys aged 10–15)
  • 2,253 cricket players (3.3% of all boys aged 10–15)
  • 1,170 football players (1.7% of all boys aged 10–15)
  • 1,922 tennis players, of whom 57% were female (1.4% of all boys and girls aged 10–15).

The statistics for hockey only included schoolgirl players, who numbered 619 (1% of all girls aged 10–15). Netball (then known as basketball) was not included in the survey because statistics were unavailable. The census suggested that, despite the increased appeal of sport, most children were not playing it at an organised level.

Plea for a park

In 1923 a Remuera resident pleaded for the provision of a park near to the local school. Children were presently playing beside the suburb’s library, where they were throwing stones, making loud noises, breaking fences and generally creating a nuisance. A park would allow them to better expend their energies through playing sport and other games.

New infrastructure

Demand for sporting infrastructure in towns and cities continued to grow. New suburbs and schools were being built on the edges of cities and towns, and more space was set aside for sporting activities. Scrub-covered reserves were cleared, swampy flats drained and gullies filled in the mission to provide manicured sports fields. For instance, in 1928 the North Devonport Ratepayers’ Association offered to clear an area on the Vauxhall Reserve (Woodhall Park) for use as a football field for the Auckland suburb’s children. During the 1930s economic depression unemployed relief workers also built sports grounds.

Physical education

Sport in schools was given a boost by the first Labour government (elected in 1935) when it set up the Physical Education Branch within the Education Department in 1939. It was led by Philip Smithells, who overhauled the school curriculum to give greater priority to physical education, which became a compulsory subject in schools. This included increasing subsidies to schools to build pools for swimming instruction and so reduce children’s drowning risk.

Saturday sport

With the introduction of the 40-hour working week in 1945, Saturday morning became the usual time for primary-age children’s sporting activities; secondary-age children more often played in the afternoon. In winter, sports fields filled with mud-streaked children playing football, hockey and rugby, and outdoor courts became packed with red-faced girls playing netball. In summer, the fields turned into cricket ovals, dotted with boys in cricketing whites, and netball courts transformed into tennis courts. In both seasons parents and supporters gathered at the sidelines and cheered their players on.


A Saturday morning institution was the cancellation service for that day’s sporting fixtures on the ZB radio network. Thousands tuned in to hear whether their game was still on or had been transferred to another venue. On wet or cold winter mornings some parents and children hoped for a cancellation so they could stay warm in their beds.

Inter-school rivalry

Primary-age competitive sport was largely club-based. With the transition to secondary school, children often played for their school instead. Some inter-school sporting competitions were fiercely fought. This has included the Maadi Cup rowing regatta for secondary schools (since 1941) and the Quadrangular Tournament for rugby, between Christ’s (Christchurch), Nelson, Wellington colleges and Wanganui Collegiate (since 1925).

Parental support

The operation of both club and school sport was highly dependent on volunteer labour. Without the support of parents and teachers – as coaches, referees and managers – children’s sport would have withered.

Small-town fixtures

While larger towns and cities could maintain age-graded junior leagues where school and club teams competed against each other, smaller towns and rural districts could not support such a structure. Children would therefore turn up each week at a local sports field and be divided into teams for that morning’s play. With improved transport links between towns from the 1950s, and higher rates of car ownership, intra-district competitions became more common.

    • Evening Post, 26 October 1923, p. 7. Back

Greater diversity, 1970 to 2010s

New opportunities

The 1970s feminist movement created new sporting opportunities for girls. Games formerly considered the domain of boys – such as cricket, football and even rugby – became more accepting of girls within their ranks. Primary age girls and boys usually played in the same teams, but some clubs and schools had girls-only teams, especially in secondary-school grades. The gender transfer was generally one-way, with few boys taking up netball.

From the 1990s some schools and clubs also placed more emphasis on encouraging children with disabilities to participate in sport.


The Weet-Bix TRYathlon is thought to be the largest sporting event for children in the world. Every year the triathlon is held in 13 New Zealand towns and cities, where children swim, cycle and run various distances according to age. The emphasis is on children trying for a personal best. Between 1992 and 2013 more than 240,000 children took part.

The range of sports on offer also increased, including softball, basketball, touch rugby, skiing, snowboarding, cycling, multisport events, volleyball and fencing. Some sports had social-class associations, for example cricket and skiing had solid middle-class followings, whereas rugby league and softball tended to appeal to working-class communities. There were also ethnic differences. For example, in 2012 skateboarding and rugby league were more popular with Māori boys compared to all boys, and badminton, touch rugby and volleyball were more popular with Pacific Island girls compared to all girls.


Some sports remained more popular with children than others. Research in 1999 revealed the top school and club sports participated in by boys aged between 5 and 17 were: football (soccer) (17%), rugby union (16%) and swimming (14%). For girls in the same age group the top three were: swimming (17%), netball (13%) and horse riding (10%). Research in 2012 on the most popular sports played by secondary school students places rugby in the top place for boys and netball for girls.

The 1999 research also showed that 73% of school children participated in sport or active leisure during school hours and 68% played sport for their school or a club. About 30% did not meet the recommended guideline of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days, and more girls were inactive than boys. This issue has concerned public health campaigners because a lack of physical activity can contribute to childhood obesity and other health problems.

Private sports organisations

A new development in children’s sport was the 2007 arrival of the Australian-based private sports provider Kelly Sports. In partnership with primary schools and sports clubs, it ran:

  • pre-school programmes, known as ‘sporty shorties’
  • after-school and holiday sports clinics
  • summer football and netball leagues
  • a sports academy for promising athletes.

By 2013 it had 30 franchisees and operated in all the main cities. Its success could see other private operators move into a field previously dominated by schools and sports clubs.

Government support

During the 2010s the government funded children’s sport through the KiwiSport arm of Sport New Zealand. It provided grants to sports clubs to encourage skill development in a wide range of codes from basketball and tennis through to weightlifting and surfing.

A love of sport

The popular belief that New Zealand children and adolescents loved participating in sport was supported by research in 2012. It found 70% of boys and 60% of girls aged between 10 and 18 liked playing sport a lot and only 3.5% of boys and 5% of girls did not like playing it at all. Sport obviously remained an important part of most young people’s lives.

Identity and ethos

For most New Zealand children sport has contributed to their sense of self and how others view them. Since colonial times, to be good at sport has been a way to increase one’s self-esteem and earn the respect of both peers and teachers. To become a member of the first XI (cricket) or first XV (rugby) or the ‘A’ (netball) team at secondary school was a childhood aspiration of many. For children who struggled academically, sport was one way to prove their worth. Special praise was bestowed on the ‘all-rounder’, the child who excelled both at sport and schoolwork.

Rough play

In 1894 a newspaper correspondent expressed concern at the roughness of play at rugby games: ‘Many parents dread the football season coming round; they do not wish to put a stop to their children’s sport, but fear their being disabled, or even killed, on the football field.’ 1 The writer suggested if the violence was not curtailed then mothers would stop their children from playing the game.

In a cultural environment that placed such a high value on sporting performance, being less able could be a humiliating and alienating experience. For the uncoordinated child missing an easy catch, the chubby boy unable to keep up the pace or the body-conscious girl forced to wear revealing sports clothing, sport did little for their sense of self-worth, especially if teased by classmates. For boys who disliked the physicality of sports like rugby, having to play it was a harsh rite of passage. The main alternative to rugby, football (soccer), was considered a less manly game – boys who played it were often teased by their rugby-playing peers for being ‘sissies’.

Levels of engagement

Even children who were poor at playing sport could engage with it in other ways. This included attending sports games as spectators and barracking for a particular team, so becoming part of that team’s wider support base or collective identity. Following the fortunes of a particular star athlete or national teams such as the All Blacks, or watching them on television or online, was another way children and adolescents connected with sports.

McEvedy Shield

Every year athletes from Wellington boys’ high schools Rongotai, St Patrick’s (both Town and Silverstream) and Wellington College keenly compete for the McEvedy Shield. The event is as much about collective college identities as the particular athletes and events. All four colleges attend the meet at Newtown Stadium and shout and chant themselves hoarse cheering their athletes on. The college with most points at the end of the day wins the trophy. The boys from that college then erupt in wild celebration.

Competition and inclusion

From the 1980s the performance ethos of children’s sport was challenged by research that showed an over-emphasis on competition before basic skills had been mastered could lead to poorer performances and loss of interest in sporting activities. Researchers argued that children should be able to choose what sports they played and be given the opportunity to reach the highest level of their ability. There was a shift within schools (especially primary schools) to promote sporting programmes that had less emphasis on winning and more on setting realistic challenges that children could successfully meet. In this way more of them would benefit from sport and continue to enjoy it into adulthood. Young children began to play on smaller grounds, with reduced or lowered goal posts, and some games were modified to better suit children’s needs. One example was miniball, a variant of basketball.

However, critics ridiculed this child-centred approach for emphasising participation over winning and performance. This led a number of secondary schools to set up sports academies, where talented athletes could receive extra coaching and training to reach their sporting goals. Some sports clubs also provided special programmes for their most promising athletes.

Both approaches have benefited children and adolescents: the child-centred model better supported those who struggled to participate in sport, while the performance model enabled those with sporting talent to better realise their potential.

    • Poverty Bay Herald, 3 May 1894, p. 3. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Children and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013