Kōrero: Early childhood education and care

Whārangi 1. Early education and care, late 19th to mid-20th centuries

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In 1877 school attendance became compulsory from the age of six. The educational and care needs of younger children remained the responsibility of parents – they had to undertake this work themselves or find someone to act in their stead. However, concerns about child welfare, growing acceptance of the value of education for young children and recognition that some women had to work meant that kindergartens and crèches were slowly established.

Informal care

Family, friends and neighbours of parents have always cared informally for young children. Before formal child care was readily available later in the 20th century, they were often the only source of care. Wealthy women sometimes employed nannies to care for their children in the home.

Baby farmers

In the 19th century some single and married women paid people to care for their children, because they had to work or could not care for them themselves. These caregivers were sometimes called ‘baby farmers’ because they looked after many children at once.

While most provided a much-needed service, increasing state and community interest in child welfare, coupled with revelations of child deaths in care, led to paid care-giving gaining a sinister reputation. The trial and subsequent execution of care-giver Minnie Dean for child murder in 1895 was the most well-known example.

Early crèches

The first known crèches – as childcare centres were commonly called then – were established in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by voluntary organisations to care for the children of working women. Creches began in Auckland in 1887 and Wellington in 1903. Early crèches struggled financially and were unpopular with society at large because they supported working women and single mothers.

Good works

There was a significant class difference between the organisers and users of early crèches and kindergartens. They were set up by well-off, middle-class people with charitable interests for the children of working-class families. This divide is suggested by a crèche meeting advertisement published in 1879: ‘A MEETING will be held in the TEMPERANCE HALL on FRIDAY AFTERNOON at 2 o’clock, to inaugurate the [crèche], his Worship the Mayor in the chair. Subscribers and all Ladies and Gentlemen interested in the matter are earnestly invited to attend.’1

The Sisters of Compassion, led by Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, founded the first successful crèche in Wellington in 1903. No fees were charged by the St Joseph’s Crèche and full-day care was offered. It was one of a number of social services run by the sisters, which may in part explain its success – public donations supported a wider programme of good works, not just a crèche. The crèche (renamed the Aubert Childcare Centre) was still operating in 2011.

More crèches opened, but they were few and far between. The Heni Materoa Crèche opened in Gisborne in 1913. As well as providing day-care, it also took in children on a more permanent basis. The Citizens Day Nursery in Wellington ran from 1921 to 1985. From the 1930s, drop-in crèches, where women left their children while shopping, opened in city centres.


Educationalist Friedrich Froebel started the first kindergarten in Prussia (Germany) in 1837. Froebel saw children’s play as the basis for learning, which was an innovative idea at the time.

Exhibiting crèches

Temporary crèches were run at the large-scale exhibitions that took place from time to time throughout the country. Parents could stroll through the exhibitions at their leisure while their children were cared for at the crèche. The 1,000th baby who entered the crèche at the Christchurch International Exhibition (1906–7) received a prize. The building constructed to demonstrate kindergartens at the Centennial Exhibition of 1939–40 was later moved to Newtown in Wellington – it still housed the Newtown Kindergarten in the 2000s.

In contrast to crèches, which offered childcare, free kindergartens in New Zealand were primarily established to educate three to five year olds before they attended school. They were run by middle-class volunteers for the children of working-class families. The first was opened in Dunedin in 1889, and was followed by Christchurch (1904), Wellington (1906) and Auckland (1910). They offered part-day sessions only – this signalled support for stay-at-home rather than working mothers. Kindergartens were the main providers of pre-school education until the late 20th century.

Government first provided funding for kindergartens in 1904. Charitable fundraising was still required, but government contributions ensured welcome financial stability. When funding was stopped between 1931 and 1935, some kindergartens closed, salaries were cut and jobs lost. It was not until the post-Second World War period that government funding of kindergartens was significant.


Kupu tāpiri
  1. Otago Daily Times, 9 July 1879, p. 1. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Early childhood education and care - Early education and care, late 19th to mid-20th centuries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/early-childhood-education-and-care/page-1 (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012