Kōrero: Children’s play

Whārangi 2. The changing world of children’s play, 1880s to 2000s

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Changes in play, 1880s–1920s

In the late 19th century children were relied on less as workers. Many children had more time to play, but there was increased social concern over how they played. In particular there were fears of ‘larrikinism’ among boys, who might get up to mischief with time on their hands. Teachers who were sportsmen started coaching older boys in organised sports, especially cricket and rugby.

The rise of organised play

In the early 1900s girls were encouraged to be more physically active. By the 1920s schools had sports for older girls, such as women’s basketball (later called netball), tennis and hockey. Physical education was introduced to schools, along with military cadet training for older boys. The Scouts and Girl Peace Scouts (later Girl Guides) were both set up in New Zealand in 1908, providing organised recreation outside of school.

The channelling of time and energy into sport meant many of the rougher playground games disappeared from the schoolyard, although fighting was still a common boys’ recreational activity. Traditional games and make believe were now generally the preserve of the very young. Children of all ages still played games of exploration and adventure outside of school. For girls, outdoor play was made easier by the availability of less restrictive clothing and footwear.

Playing the time

Children’s games often reflect the times. In the 19th century children engaged in imaginary ploughing contests, pretended to be coaches and horses, and formed Ned Kelly-style bushranging gangs. With city living, games such as doctors and nurses became more common. Later, movies increased children’s interest in playing cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers.

Commercialisation and technology

Children’s play was increasingly influenced by commercialisation and technological change through the course of the 20th century. The advent of movies provided children with storylines for imaginative play, with depictions of cartoon characters, cowboys, pirates and glamorous heroines. Radio and comic books added to this repertoire from the 1920s. Even more sweeping change came with the arrival of television in the 1960s, particularly through children’s programmes. Television advertised toys and games, promoting everything from model cars and Barbie dolls in the 1960s through to computer games in the 21st century.

Modern playground rhymes

Playground rhymes of the 1990s and 2000s often included subversive parodies of traditional rhymes, giving children’s perspectives on the adult world. For example (to the tune of ‘Row, row, row your boat’: ‘Roll, roll, roll your dope/Scrunch it at the end/Spark it up,/And have a smoke,/Then pass it to a friend’. Another rhyme reflects New Zealand’s sporting rivalry with Australia (to the tune of ‘God defend New Zealand’: ‘God of nations/In the scrum/Kick the Aussies up the bum/If it hurts, serves them right/Blow them up with dynamite.’1

Manufactured toys

With higher average incomes, many 20th-century families could afford more children’s toys. Manufactured toys were widely available by the 1950s, although some toys were still homemade. Quieter pursuits such as scrapbooking, stamp and other collecting, and swapping activities really took off from the early 1900s. Manufactured board games such as snakes and ladders and Monopoly joined well-established card games and draughts.


Computer developments in the late 20th century brought a range of games. In the 2000s many children spent a lot of time watching television and computer screens, but still played games of exploration, adventure and imagination. Children’s viewing now influenced their play, and television references were introduced into rhymes for skipping and clapping games.

Wheeled fun

Bicycles and tricycles for children became more generally available in the early 20th century, increasing mobility. Skateboards were introduced in the 1960s and BMX bikes in the 1980s. Both gained great popularity among older children, especially boys. Ironically, as mobility increased some parents began restricting children’s movement due to concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger’. Some people feared parents were being overprotective, arguing that risk-taking should be an essential part of playing and learning.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Janice Ackerley, ‘The subversive world of New Zealand children’s playground rhymes.’ Journal of Folklore Research 44, no. 2–3, 2007, p. 223. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play - The changing world of children’s play, 1880s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/childrens-play/page-2 (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 5 Sep 2013