Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Domestic recreation and hobbies

by Kerryn Pollock

Relaxing hobby or useful work? New Zealanders often blur the boundaries when it comes to leisure activities around the home. Favourites include gardening, sewing and home maintenance. Meanwhile popular pastimes such as watching TV and socialising are almost always just for fun.

Opportunities for leisure

People enrich their daily lives by participating in recreational activities and hobbies. Many of these are carried out in the home. Time, gender and income have all influenced the extent to which people have been able to engage in recreational activities.


In the 19th century New Zealand was well known for the movement promoting eight hours to work, eight to play and eight to sleep, led by Wellington carpenter Samuel Parnell, who first refused to work more than eight hours a day in 1840.

At that time an eight-hour working day, and therefore more leisure time when work was over, was only possible if workers were united and bosses agreeable. Many New Zealanders worked much longer hours.

In the 1870s the time New Zealanders spent at work began to be regulated, starting with legislation that limited the working hours of women factory workers. Gradually more leisure time was allowed for. The 40-hour working week became law in 1936, and for many this created a free weekend and more regular opportunities for domestic recreations and hobbies.

‘Over the tea cups’

The popular magazine New Zealand woman’s weekly had a page called ‘Over the tea cups’ from its first publication in 1932. Readers sent in short stories about amusing incidents in their lives, sharing them in the same way they would if a friend was visiting for a cuppa and a chat.


For much of the 19th and 20th centuries women were busy with child-rearing and household chores at all hours and had to snatch opportunities for rest and recreation when they could. Men’s work time and free time was more clearly demarcated, although men who worked long hours had little spare time.

Women’s hobbies tended to be those that contributed to the family economy, such as sewing and knitting. Recreation might also include chatting with a neighbour over the fence or sharing a cup of tea.

Women from wealthy families were exceptions to this pattern. They often had servants, which freed them up to spend time reading books, playing musical instruments, doing fancywork (decorative needlework) and having afternoon tea with friends.

Life-stage also made a difference to leisure time. Women with school-age children had some spare time during school hours, but only if they were housewives – this time was not available for working women. Leisure opportunities diversified for both women and men when children left home.

Women’s work and leisure time became more separate as they increasingly entered the workforce in the late 20th century. Marrying later and having smaller families contributed too. Nonetheless in the 1990s and early 2000s surveys showed that women did almost twice as much household work as men and over twice as much childcare, both of which limited recreational time.


The opportunities for recreation and the types of activities indulged in were influenced by how much money people had.

In 2013 men still earned more than women, and they had been able to earn independent incomes for much longer. Housewives were historically dependent on their husbands’ generosity in dispensing spending money, while working men were able to spend part of their incomes on recreational activities away from the home, such as drinking in a pub.

Higher income earners had more disposable income than lower income earners to spend on recreational activities and hobbies that required money. They could also ‘buy’ more leisure time, for example by paying others to do chores. Long working hours could, however, negate this.

Some low-income earners worked multiple jobs and unsociable hours, leaving them with little time or opportunity for recreation and hobbies.

Recording recreation and hobby time

The first leisure surveys were carried out in the 1970s. Information on domestic recreation and hobbies for periods before this can be gleaned from a range of sources, such as personal correspondence, newspapers, magazines and oral histories.

Statistics New Zealand conducted the first Time Use Survey in 1998/99. This was repeated in 2009/10. It provided data on time spent on hobbies, reading and writing, listening to music and radio and consumption of mass media such as television.

Recreation with family and friends

Recreation at home

In the 19th and early 20th centuries families and friends often gathered in each other’s homes when they wanted to socialise. Private homes were acceptable places for women to get together. Although the pub was a very popular leisure site for men, not all men automatically headed there.

Social evenings often revolved around the piano, with one person playing and others singing or dancing. From the 1920s radios and gramophones replaced the piano in many living rooms and still provided music, an important social lubricant. Family and friends also played cards and other games together.

The growth of commercial leisure opportunities in the 20th century provided more options outside the home, but homes remained important recreational venues.

In a 1991 survey the home remained the most popular place for leisure. Though individualistic home-based leisure activities like watching TV and reading rated highly, talking with family, caring for pets and playing with children were also popular activities.

Limited options

A man born in 1910 recalled that when he was young, ‘there was a lot of visiting. There wasn’t the entertainment, like there was no television or anything. So you went visiting … There wouldn’t be a Sunday go past that we didn’t have visitors. Every Sunday. It was the thing to do.’1


Visiting family and friends and hosting them in turn was one of the most important forms of recreation for housewives. Visiting could be fitted around domestic duties and provided a rare opportunity for these women to leave the home without their husbands. For women in urban areas a simplified version of this was chatting with neighbours over the fence.

Whole families also went visiting.

In the 20th century women’s leisure options expanded beyond the domestic sphere, and leisure in general became more varied. However, leisure surveys showed that visiting and home-based sociability were still important towards the end of the century, and women rated this more highly than men.


The 2007/8 Active New Zealand Survey showed that walking was the most popular physical recreation activity and that 64% of New Zealanders aged 16 and over walked for sport or recreation over a period of 12 months.

Family and community events

Picnicking was a very popular recreational activity in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century. Huge community picnics were common events on public holidays. Families also attended community and church fairs together and it was not uncommon for children to go to community dances with their parents and bed down in the hall or barn.

Increasing car ownership from the 1920s allowed families and groups of friends to extend their picnicking range. The Sunday drive was a familiar ritual until the 1970s when petrol became more expensive.

In the early 2000s many local councils ran summer entertainment programmes. These included public events such as concerts and outdoor film screenings, which harked back to the community picnics of the previous two centuries.

  1. Quoted in Greatest moments in New Zealand netball history. Chicago: Canada Hockey LLC, 2011, p. 98. Back

Reading, listening and watching


Reading for pleasure is a long-standing recreational activity. After school became compulsory in 1877 many more New Zealanders gained literacy. The opening of public libraries in the 19th century made spare time, and some money, the secondary requirement.

Though reading is popular with both women and men, surveys suggest women read much more. A 1979 survey found that 35% of males had read for pleasure more than once or twice over the past year, and this was the second-most popular leisure activity after gardening. However, 53% of women read for pleasure.

A 2012 survey found that 23% of men and 8% of women had read no books in the past year. Men preferred newspapers to books, and women books to newspapers.

Statistics New Zealand’s Time Use Surveys have recorded a much smaller gender gap, though this may be because the definition of reading is broader. In 1998/99 men spent 23 minutes each day reading and women spent 25 minutes. By 2009/10 habits had diverged a little – women spent 29 minutes each day reading and men 23 minutes.

Criminal couch potatoes

A 2013 study by University of Otago researchers using data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study found an association between television viewing during childhood and adult criminality. The risk of having a conviction by early adulthood increased by about 30% for each hour of television a child watched on an average weeknight. While other factors also contributed to criminal behaviour, the researchers said that restricting exposure to television could help reduce antisocial behaviour in later life.

Radio and television

Radio broadcasts started in the 1920s and coverage was almost nationwide by the end of the decade. At first listeners were treated to exclusively musical broadcasts, but these were soon joined by news bulletins, weather reports and sports coverage.

The radio occupied a prominent place in the New Zealand household. Housewives had it on while doing chores and families listened together in the evenings. By the 1950s, 75% of households had a radio, but a new form of communication just around the corner was to oust the radio from its central position in New Zealand living rooms.

Television broadcasting started in 1960 and watching it became the nation’s foremost recreational activity. It was by far the most prolonged free-time activity recorded by Time Use Surveys. New Zealanders aged 12 and over spent two hours and two minutes each day watching TV in 1998/99 and two hours and eight minutes in 2009/10. This compared to just seven to eight minutes listening to music or the radio.

Internet addiction

Spending time on the internet can cause relationship problems. In 2012 one-quarter of people polled in a survey felt guilty about the amount of time spent online, and 10% said their relationships were negatively affected.


Internet use took off in the late 1990s to become a firmly established domestic recreational activity. In 2011, 96% of internet users accessed it from home. Of these users 18% were online for at least 20 hours each week, 63% for at least 5 hours and the remainder for under 5 hours. Additionally 58% thought the internet was important or very important in their daily lives. The internet has become a more popular source of information than television or radio, but television and radio are still used more often for entertainment.


People started playing electronic games at home on computers and consoles in the early 1980s. The early games were aimed at children and teenagers, but gaming has since become an adult pursuit as well. By 2012 the average New Zealand gamer was 33 years old. Gamers played between half an hour and one hour at a time and most played every other day, rather than daily.

Gardening and making things


Gardening is a favourite hobby of New Zealanders and has rated highly in recreation surveys. The 2007/8 Active New Zealand Survey found that 43% of New Zealanders had gardened in the last 12 months – the second-most popular activity behind walking.

Stress relief

Even the early 19th-century British Resident James Busby found relief from his difficult work in gardening. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the garden of his property at Waitangi.

While there is evidence that traditional Māori communities cultivated ornamental (non-food) plants, gardening for pleasure was largely a European introduction. Early 19th-century missionaries were preoccupied with food production but did find time to cultivate ornamental gardens as well. Growing ornamental trees such as ash and oak was a hobby for some.

Gardening was an accessible pursuit open to people of all classes. Seeds and cuttings were gifted and swapped as well as bought. Women tended to look after flower gardens, while men were responsible for backyard vegetable gardens, although neither were restricted to those domains.

Vegetable gardening blurred the line between work and leisure because it provided people with cheap food. After the Second World War, increased pesticide and fertiliser use made commercially grown crops cheaper. Backyard vegetable gardening became less common and more of a hobby than a necessity, while ornamental gardening remained popular. Most backyards were devoted to family recreation. They were used for ball and water games and some had pools.

Home crafts

Like vegetable gardening, some home crafts such as knitting and sewing have been both leisure and work. Women made clothes and furnishings because it was cheaper than buying them, but many enjoyed this work and occupied their ‘spare’ time with it. In a 1979 recreation survey sewing was the most common craft activity for women – 55% had sewn over the past year, compared to 2% of men.

Tariff and import licensing changes in the 1980s and 1990s made shop-bought clothes and furnishings cheaper than home-made items, and knitting and sewing became recreational pursuits.

Recreation between the sheets

The 1991 Life in New Zealand Survey recorded a range of recreational activities, one of which was sexual activity. It found that 8% of males and 2% of females ‘enjoyed’ sex weekly.

‘Do it yourself’

Home maintenance was traditionally a man’s task and one he did in his spare time. While it was a form of unpaid work it could be satisfying and enjoyable – a hobby.

‘Do it yourself’ (DIY) has become a distinctive New Zealand practice. It originated in the self-sufficiency required of early to mid-19th-century colonists, many of whom had to build their own houses. This can-do attitude persisted and was reinforced during times of hardship such as the 1930s depression and the two world wars.

In the 1950s and 1960s DIY became a hobby rather than a necessity, affordable housing and economic prosperity providing the impetus for this change.

While no official statistics on DIY activity are recorded New Zealand is believed to have more ‘DIYers’ than other western countries, and women as well as men enjoy DIY.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Domestic recreation and hobbies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013