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Children’s play

by Peter Clayworth

Kiwi kids have long made their own fun, and playing in the bush has been a common pastime for generations. However, urbanisation and safety concerns mean that children are generally more closely supervised in their play than they once were. While most toys are imported, the New Zealand-designed Buzzy Bee remains iconic.

Traditional Māori and settler children’s play

Māori children’s play

Māori children traditionally played a wide range of games. Teka (darts), tī rākau (stick games), whai (string games), pouturu (stilt walking) and ruru (knucklebones) were played by both children and adults. Children made small kites called manu taratahi. Boys learned combat skills through mock fights using flax stalks. Pōtaka tā (whip tops), pōtaka tākiri (humming tops) and pīrori (hoops) were toys for all ages. Pīrori were made from aka (vines) and either thrown or propelled with a stick.

Māori children at play

In 1847 artist G. F. Angus described Māori children at play:‘They pass their early years almost without restraint, amusing themselves with various games of the country such as flying kites, which are formed of leaves, the game of maui [a string game]; throwing mimic spears made of fern stalks and sailing their tiny flax canoes on the rivers’1

The moari, or giant stride swing, was a pole with flax ropes suspended from the top on which people swung. Vines suspended from tree branches made tarere (simple swings). Children played piu (skipping), usually in groups. Other games included wī (tag), tī ringaringa (hand games), word games and guessing games. Children learned kauhoe (swimming) and kōkiri (diving) from a very early age. They played by exploring the bush, rivers and coastline, running about, fishing, hunting and gathering.

After the arrival of Europeans many games and pastimes were either suppressed or abandoned. Those that survived were mostly hand games, string games, tops, stilts and knucklebones, all of which had equivalents among European games. Children still played stick games, but often these were staged performances rather than spontaneous play.

Pioneer children

Most European children had few opportunities to play traditional games in the early years of settlement (from the late 1830s). In all but the richest families, once they were out of infancy children were regarded as extra working hands. Older children, especially girls, were expected to help look after younger siblings. Children had to fit their play times around their chores. Those living in rural areas or small towns played games of imagination and adventure, exploring nearby farmland, bush, rivers and coastlines. Inner-city children played in the streets or in any available open areas.

Wellington childhood in the 1840s

‘The fine white sandy beach from Pipitea to Oriental Bay was a precious possession … besides sea-fishing there were various streams, with Te Aro Swamp available where inungas and eels could with little skill and very homely fishing outfit, be easily captured … Boys could get conveniently lost for a day, be unseen and undiscoverable, amongst the flax bushes, and yet enjoy themselves to their heart’s content.’2

In the 19th century Pākehā girls came under social pressure to play quieter, more ‘ladylike’ games. Girls wore heavier clothing than boys and often had to look after younger siblings. Despite these limitations, many girls still took part in active outdoor play. They also often engaged in imaginative games, including playing with dolls and dressing up.

School days

Before 1877 only about half of New Zealand’s school-age children went to school. The number increased considerably with the Education Act 1877, which made primary education free and compulsory from ages seven to 13.

In 19th-century school playgrounds children were generally left unsupervised. Most schools did not have organised sport before the 1880s. Children played make-believe and traditional singing games such as ‘Oranges and lemons’ and ‘Nuts in May’. Children of all ages played these games, although in later years they were seen as only for the very young. Boys indulged in a lot of fighting and bullying. Boys and girls were often segregated, sometimes with a fence dividing their sections of the playground.

Many children travelled long distances to school. These journeys were times when children were free from school discipline and home chores. Children played games of exploration, adventure and mischief, on the way to and from school.

    • George French Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand. Vol. 1. London: Smith Elder and Co, 1847, p. 314. Back
    • Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand 1840–1950. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1982, pp. 8–9. Back

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

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.

    • Janice Ackerley, ‘The subversive world of New Zealand children’s playground rhymes.’ Journal of Folklore Research 44, no. 2–3, 2007, p. 223. Back

The playground and the path to school

The journey to school

In the 19th and early 20th centuries children often travelled long distances to school, and many used that time to play. Boys hunted or shot at convenient targets with shanghais (catapults), bows and arrows, pea shooters and spring guns. Fights were a common pastime among boys, sometimes between ‘gangs’ from rival neighbourhoods or schools.

Travelling was ideal for games of movement, with hoops, tops, stilt walking, kite flying, and skipping. Children raced, and played tag, leap frog and follow the leader. Those children who rode horses to school raced each other and performed riding tricks. In the 20th century children carried out similar activities on bicycles and later with skateboards. In the 21st century many children no longer had this play opportunity, as they were driven to school by their parents.

Tip cat

The tip cat game involved a ‘cat’, a thin six-inch stick with pointed ends, placed on the ground. In the game’s simplest form, the cat was tapped on the end with a bat (or ‘dog’). As the cat flew into the air it was hit as far as possible. The winner was the player who hit the cat furthest. Tip cat resulted in much damage to school windows and bystanders.

School playground games

In 19th-century school playgrounds boys played many rough games such as bar the door (later called bullrush), tag (or tig) and king of the castle. In a game sometimes called ‘cock fighting’ boys had piggy-back fights. Boys also played games with knives, sticks, balls, tops and hoops. In conkers, each tried to break the other’s conker (a horse chestnut suspended on a string) with their own. In the game of soldiers players competed to see who could knock the most flowerheads off grass stalks with a stick.

Rounders and shinty

Before the introduction of rugby and cricket, older children commonly played games of rounders and shinty. They organised these games themselves, often making their own equipment and rules. Rounders was a summer game played by both girls and boys. It involved batting a ball and then running between bases. Shinty was a common winter game for boys. It resembled a violent form of hockey, whacking a ball around a field with improvised sticks.

Buck buck

In buck buck a group of boys formed a line bent over with horizontal backs. A player jumped on the back of the first boy and then made his way down the line. At the end of the line he asked the boy underneath, ‘Buck buck, how many fingers do I hold up?’ If the boy underneath answered correctly he was allowed to buck off the ‘rider’.

Games that have lasted

Since the 19th century girls have played games with singing and rhyming chants including hopscotch, skipping and clapping games. Cat’s cradle (a string game) was generally only played by girls. Both girls and boys played knucklebones and marbles. Versions of all these games continued in the 21st century. From the mid-20th century informal ball bouncing games such as handball and four square were widely played. A girls’ game from the 20th century that continued into the 21st century was elastics. This chanting game involved stretching long elastic bands between two players, while other players jumped in and out of the bands. The rhymes or chants used in all these games often contained a mixture of traditional elements and modern references.

Physical games

Traditional games

There are many games that children mostly learn from each other and play without adult direction. Some are of ancient origin, while others are more recent. Māori children had a wide range of traditional games. In contrast, during the early years of settlement Pākehā children had few opportunities to play traditional games from their countries of origin.

In the 1850s, once settlements were more organised, large community picnics became regular events. Adults and children played traditional singing and tagging games. At home, children were taught games by their older siblings or sometimes their parents or grandparents. In the schoolyard children generally learned games from other children, rather than adults.

With the spread of organised sports in the early 20th century many traditional games became seen as primarily for younger children.

Playground rhymes

Playground rhymes were used in games and as entertainment in themselves. A rhyme recited as the holidays approached was: ‘Two more weeks and we shall be/Out of the gates of misery/No more writing, no more French/No more sitting on a hard board bench/No more walking two by two/Like the monkeys in the zoo,/No more spelling, no more sums,/No more teachers to whack our bums’.1

Singing games

Singing games were most commonly played by girls. ‘Oranges and lemons’ was the most popular singing game. Two players held hands to form an arch, which the other players passed through as the arch-makers sang the song ‘Oranges and lemons’. At the end of the song a player was caught in the arch. Each caught player chose to be an orange or a lemon. When all players were caught the ‘orange’ and ‘lemon’ teams formed two human chains. A tug-of-war between the teams decided the winner of the game.

‘Nuts in May’ (or ‘nuts and May’) involved two facing chains of players dancing back and forward, each singing alternate verses. Other singing games included ‘Ring a ring o’ roses’ (also known as ‘Ring a rosy’), ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’, ‘London Bridge is falling down’ and ‘The grand old duke of York’. The titles and the lyrics of the songs clearly indicated their British origins.

Chasing and tagging games

Tag or tig was the most common chasing game. The player who is ‘it’ chases the rest and whoever is caught then takes over as the pursuer. Hide and seek involves the ‘it’ player trying to find the others who have hidden. Children were always developing variations of tagging games, such as ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’, stuck in the mud, and stiff candles. Games might involve sneaking up on the ‘it’ player, tagged players having to freeze, or tagged players being freed by another player’s actions. A wide range of tagging games continued being played in 21st-century playgrounds.

Māori and Pākehā games

At Ōhau, near Levin, in the 1910s, ‘[a]bout half the children came from two Maori pas in the district … I remember two essentially Maori games Cat’s Cradle and Homai, but the others were all traditional English games I think. These other included Fill the Gap, I Wrote a Letter, Twos and Threes, Green Gravels, Fox and Geese, Oranges and Lemons, Puss in the Corner.’2


The game known as bullrush has been called by many other names including bar the door, prisoner’s base, octopus and king o’ seenie.

The game requires a space on the playground defined by two lines. One player guards the space and calls on other players by name to run for the second line. If the ‘tagger’ catches the running player, they join in trying to catch the other players. If a runner gets through to the second line, all the remaining runners go for the line, creating general havoc. In later 20th century a number of schools banned bullrush, claiming it was dangerous. Despite the ban children have continued playing the game into the 21st century.

    • Brian Sutton-Smith, The folkgames of children. Austin: American Folkore Society, 1972, p. 63. Back
    • Quoted in Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand 1840–1950. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1982, p. 230. Back

Where children play

The great outdoors

From the earliest days of Māori settlement children had the New Zealand environment as their playground. Both Māori and Pākehā children played in the forests, rivers, coastal waters and open spaces. Children hunted, gathered plants, explored, climbed trees, lit camp fires, built huts, forts, dams and swings, and swam in their favourite spots.

Not all activities were benign. Fighting, destroying plants, stealing birds’ eggs and tormenting animals were all part of play. In the 21st century there were fears that children were becoming cut off from nature due to increased urbanisation, more indoor entertainment and overprotective parents. Many children, nevertheless, continued to thrive on outdoor play.

Urbanisation and technological change

In the 20th century New Zealand became increasingly urbanised. More traffic meant roads were no longer safe places for playing games such as hoop rolling and top spinning, while overhead wiring restricted kite flying. The development of sealed roads and footpaths was, however, ideal for homemade trolleys, roller skating and, later, skateboarding.

In the early 20th century many children still lived in relatively small towns. In the 1920s bicycles and tricycles became more widely available for children, expanding their range of travel. Even in larger cities, parks, areas of bush, rivers and the coast were often accessible. Both urban and rural children continued to explore and have adventures in natural settings.

Early playground conditions

At a school in Marton, in 1910, the ‘playground was bare earth with a morsel of gravel ‘round the “giant stride.” In winter it became a quagmire. Boys who fell over and muddied their clothes were allowed to stay out of school while a comrade scraped off mud with a pocketknife.’1


School playgrounds in the mid-19th century were often little more than muddy or scrubby paddocks. A few schools installed swings and play equipment, which became more widespread from the 1880s. In the 1890s a variety of citizens’ groups became concerned that many town children had to play on the streets. Following a US example, they campaigned for public playgrounds in New Zealand towns. Playgrounds tended to be aimed at younger children.

Playgrounds in the late 19th and early 20th century were equipped with swings, slides and sometimes a sandpit. Some had versions of the ‘giant stride’ roundabout. The jungle gym, introduced in the early 1930s, quickly became a favourite with children. There appears at first to have been little consideration for children’s safety. Climbing apparatus, roundabouts or swings were often placed directly over concrete, asphalt or gravel – all hard surfaces to fall on.

It’s a gym, Jim, but not as we know it

At the 1933 Christmas party for the children of the Onehunga Free Kindergarten, a novel piece of playground equipment was unveiled. The children were delighted as a local paper reported, ‘modern playground climbing apparatus, known as a “jungle Jim” created a vast amount of interest.’2

Playground safety

In the 1980s playground safety became a major issue among safety experts and concerned parents. Hard surfaces in playgrounds were replaced with bark chips or rubber matting. The heights of swings and jungle gyms were lowered, while some of the more dangerous equipment was removed. Playground equipment was designed to stricter safety standards, including kitsets built from solid plastic. Some parents were not so happy with the new ‘safer’ playgrounds. They feared that children were becoming too protected and would miss out on learning valuable skills if they were never exposed to risk. A further concern raised in the 1990s was the inaccessibility of playgrounds for disabled children.

    • Quoted in Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand 1840–1950. Wellington: Council for Educational Research, 1982, p. 177. Back
    • Auckland Star, 16 December 1933, p. 15. Back

Toys – from homemade to mass market

Improvising toys

Māori children had a range of toys, including teka (darts), pōtaka (tops), pīrori (hoops), manu taratahi (kites) and pouturu (stilts). Karetao were a type of carved wooden puppet or jumping jack with arms that could be moved by a string. Small flax canoes were floated down rivers. Children made small model for games of mock combat.

Making a shanghai

A suitable prong was cut from a tree and trimmed. A piece of bootlace 7–10 centimetres in length was tied to each side of the prong, then a 20–22-centimetre length of elastic was tied to the bootlace. A holder for missiles – a small oval piece of leather from an old boot – was attached to the elastic with short pieces of boot lace. With a collection of small stones as ammunition, the shanghai was ready to go.

In the early period of European settlement the majority of settler children largely relied on homemade toys. Kites, stilts, bows and arrows, model boats, wooden animals, rag dolls and wooden dolls were all produced from material at hand. An essential boys’ toy was the shanghai, a home-made catapult used for hunting and general mischief. One ‘toy’ that was purchased rather than made was the pocket knife – a vital piece of equipment for the colonial boy.

Hoops and tops were among the most common 19th-century toys. Iron hoops could be purchased cheaply from a local blacksmith and trundled about with a stick. Tops could be made at home from a convenient piece of wood. The whip that propelled the top was constructed from readily available flax.

Manufactured toys

The children of wealthier families had a much wider range of toys, including manufactured items. Specialist toy shops were found around the colony by the 1860s and department stores also had toy sections. Most toys were imported, including mechanical wind-up metal toys, lead or tin soldiers, miniature tea sets, dolls’ houses, and wax or porcelain dolls. Teddy bears and golliwogs made their appearance in the 1890s. Boys already played with improvised guns, but with mass production toy guns became widely available. In the 1960s some parents began to campaign against the sale of toy guns on the grounds that they encouraged violence.

Toys for the very young

In the 19th-century infants’ toys generally consisted of improvised items such as rattles made from household materials. Many dolls and soft toys were home-made. In the 20th century mass-produced teddy bears and other infants’ toys became widely available. The development of plastic greatly extended the range of infants’ toys. In the later 20th century the idea that toys should help child development meant many more toys were designed specifically for the very young.

Toys of the 1950s

In his poem ‘1950s’ Bill Manhire lists toys from the era: ‘My cricket bat. My football boots./My fishing rod. My hula hoop./My cowboy chaps. My scooter./Draughts. Happy families. Euchre./Ludo. Snap. My Davy Crockett hat./My bicycle. My bow and arrow./My puncture kit. My cat./The straight and narrow. Fancy that.’1

Toys for fun and learning

In the mid-20th century more toys became available at lower prices. In the 1930s and 1940s New Zealand toy manufacturers had an impact on the local market. Jack Underwood, who began manufacturing metal toys in his basement, went on to set up the Fun Ho! toy company. Hector and John Ramsey mass-produced the classic Buzzy Bee designed by Maurice Schlesinger and developed a range of other wooden toys from the 1940s. New Zealand toy companies were largely swamped by large overseas manufacturers in the later 20th century. Fashions for particular toys such as hula hoops, yo-yos, frisbees and diabolos (toys that are spun on a hand-held string track) were promoted through the mass media. Clockwork and then electric train sets were coveted by children of all ages.

In the 20th century toys were increasingly designed to be educational as well as entertaining. Meccano construction sets had been imported into New Zealand since the early 1900s. They consisted of metal pieces that were bolted together to make vehicles and buildings. In the later 20th-century Lego sets, with plastic push-together blocks, became the construction sets of choice. Changing attitudes are reflected in the fact that Meccano was largely seen as a toy for boys, whereas Lego was regarded as suitable for girls and boys. Lego retained its popularity into the 21st century.

    • Bill Manhire, Victims of lightning. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010, pp. 32–33. Back

Toys, commercialism and technology

Doll crazes

The arrival of the Barbie doll in 1959 coincided with the introduction of television to New Zealand in the 1960s. Advertised on television, Barbie became the doll that young girls had to have. Barbie was soon challenged by the Sindy dolls. In the 1980s there were Jem dolls, originally from a television series, while in the 2000s the Bratz dolls spawned their own spinoff films, a television series and music albums. In contrast to the glamour of these doll ranges, the Cabbage Patch Kids of the 1980s had exaggerated chubby, baby-like features.

GI Joe and Action Man action figures produced for boys were extremely popular from the 1960s onwards. The term ‘action figure’ was used to avoid any idea that boys were in fact playing with dolls, an activity traditionally seen as strictly for girls.

Controversial toys

The golliwog – a doll with dark skin, frizzy hair and outlandish clothing, which first appeared in the 1890s – fell out of favour in the 1960s, condemned as a racist caricature. The Barbie doll, representing a young, slim, blonde white female, came under fire from feminists in the 1970s, accused of presenting girls with an impossible body image and a poor role model. The multi-ethnic Bratz dolls of the 2000s were seen as sexualising children through their somewhat raunchy outfits.

Indoor games, collectables and models

In the late 19th century quieter indoor pursuits became more fashionable, including playing with painting sets, jigsaw puzzles, board games and card games, and collecting activities. Children cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines, then pasted them into newsprint scrapbooks. Building up stamp, cigarette card and postcard collections involved the joys of both collecting and swapping. The spread of indoor pursuits reflected an increase in prosperity and the wider availability of games and collectable materials.

Collectable items were often used to promote products. Cigarettes, tea, chewing gum and breakfast cereals are among the products that have used cards in this way. Some companies also produced albums for pasting in entire sets of cards. Small plastic animals in cornflakes packets were used as toys by young children and as collectors’ items by older children. Fast-food companies such as McDonalds gave away plastic toys with food purchases.

Toy soldiers were available in lead and tin forms in the 19th century, to be replaced by plastic soldiers in the 20th. In the 20th century building model aircraft and other vehicles from kits became a common hobby for boys. Models and collectables were both influenced by television and films, such as Thunderbirds, Star wars and the James Bond films.

Top toys of 2011

Top sellers from the 2011 pre-Christmas survey by the retailer Toyworld included Cookie Pie Pup, a toy dog that responds to commands and barks; Elmo Rock singing toy; Lego building blocks; Transformers plastic toys; Sylvanian Families animal figures; and outdoor gym sets. The biggest seller was the Beyblade Battle Set, a spinning-top game.

Computer games

Many children played Space Invaders and other games in the video arcades that were set up in the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s gaming consoles were widespread. The general availability of home computers in the 21st century meant that for many children computer games became a standard form of entertainment. This has led to public concerns over both the content of some games and whether children are now spending too much time in front of screens.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013