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Youth organisations

by Helen Dollery

Most youth organisations began as Christian groups aimed at producing good citizens. They provided fun and fellowship while teaching good morals and practical skills. Their massive popularity was challenged in the 20th century by the rise of teenage culture.

Christian youth organisations

Early youth organisations

Since the 1850s hundreds of thousands of young New Zealanders have joined organisations such as Guides, which have given them opportunities for adventure and new experiences. Boys and girls had fun in halls and camps while leaders sought to develop their minds, souls and bodies by encouraging active citizenship, resourcefulness and Christian belief.

Membership ages varied between organisations and over time. Initially most focused on those aged 12–18, but their popularity quickly saw similar groups emerge for younger children. They varied in how religious they were – the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Life Brigade were more devout than the Scouts or Guides – although all taught a Christian message.

Youth organisations arose in the late 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the British Empire. Members were seen as Christian soldiers and future defenders of the empire. At that time youth were increasingly defined as a group distinct from children and adults. Young people were seen as having too much spare time, and church leaders and parents worried about the devil making work for idle hands.


New Zealand’s first formal youth organisations were based on British groups which worked to solve the ‘problem’ of idle boys. The YMCA originated in London in 1844, and promoted Christian values. The first New Zealand association began in Auckland in 1855 and others soon opened. Camping was a common activity in the YMCA’s ‘boys’ work’ programme, and considerable fundraising went into developing large campsites. During the 20th century the YMCA expanded its reach, catering to all ages. Its youth work included active recreational programmes, team sports, and classes in practical skills relevant to future employment.

In 2019 the 13 affiliated associations of the YMCA in New Zealand operated 100 centres from Auckland to Invercargill. Their programme had expanded to include:

  • sport and recreation
  • education
  • out-of-school care
  • early childhood education
  • home-based care
  • fitness clubs
  • camping and outdoor education
  • youth development
  • accommodation.

The YMCA offers services to people of all ages and genders, with a focus on empowering and challenging teenagers and young adults.

Boys’ Brigade

The Boys’ Brigade started in Glasgow in 1883. A branch opened in 1887 in Auckland – the first outside the United Kingdom. Boys were seen as lacking role models and opportunities for physical and spiritual development. Military drill, physical training and moral lectures would keep them away from street temptations and develop them into good, capable men and potential soldiers. The organisation flourished and spread until around 1910, after which it declined because of a lack of leaders and the introduction of compulsory military training for 12 to 21 year olds. It revived in 1926 with the founding of the First Dunedin Company at the Caversham Baptist Church. After reaching a membership of around 12,000 in 1965, it had around 2,600 members in 2009. Since its inception the organisation has had close links with the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.

In the early 21st century the Boys’ Brigade offered a variety of programmes for 6–18 year old boys. It is closely linked to a new parallel youth movement, ICONZ, which offers church-based adventure and activity-based programmes for boys with the goal of enabling them to become ‘true kiwi icons’. Huts, campsites and lodges are used for ICONZ programmes. In 2014 Boys’ Brigade and ICONZ reported having an impact on the lives of 1,900 boys.

YWCA Girl Citizen’s creed

The Girl Citizen creed reflected the responsibilities of citizenship:

I am a New Zealand girl.
I was born in the land of opportunity.
I was born in a land where girls are educated.
I was born in a land where girls and women are beginning to feel that they are sisters, and, therefore, responsible one for the other.
I was born in a land where I may have Jesus Christ for my friend.
I must be a good citizen, for to me much has been given.1

Girls’ Friendly Societies and YWCA

In the 19th century girls were viewed as impressionable and in need of protection. Local church youth groups and Girls’ Friendly Societies provided venues for learning domestic skills and Bible verses, and avoiding ‘temptations’. The YWCA was established in Britain in 1855 and the first New Zealand branch opened in Dunedin in 1878. It spread to other centres, providing working girls with respectable accommodation and spiritual fellowship. YWCA’s ‘Girl Citizens’ were active in the 1920s and 1930s, providing a forum for girls to become involved in civics (the study of a citizen's rights and duties), in contrast to earlier YWCA groups’ emphasis on household skills.

In the early 21st century the YWCA is focused on ‘empowering girls’ and values diversity and inclusivity. It challenges ethnic and religious divisions and acts to support peace, human dignity and environmental sustainability. The international YWCA organisation is a strong advocate for the well-being of girls and women. The YWCA has a commitment to fostering women’s leadership at local, regional, national and international levels.

Girls’ Brigade

The Girls’ Life Brigade – which became the Girls’ Brigade in 1965 when it amalgamated with similar organisations – was formed in England in 1902, with the motto ‘To Save Life’. It was preceded by the Girls’ Brigade, established in Ireland in 1893, and the Girls’ Guildry, established in Scotland in 1900. The first New Zealand company started  at the Caversham Baptist Church in Dunedin in 1928. Like the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls’ Life Brigade was based on education in Christian citizenship and military drill. It was aimed mostly at teenage girls, who were kept busy in Sunday school and Bible classes, and encouraged to develop domestic and vocational service skills. There were about 19,000 members in 1965 and 1,790 in 2015.

In the early 21st century Girls’ Brigade New Zealand focuses on ‘empowering girls to succeed in tomorrow’s world’. The aim is to combine confidence in outdoor activities, friendship, learning new skills and faith. Like Boys’ Brigade, it is associated with ICONZ, whose girls' programmes are aimed at 5–17 year olds and offer ‘values based activities in a safe environment’.

    • Sandra Coney, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986, p. 138. Back

Scouts and Guides


Robert Baden-Powell held the first Scout camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset, in 1907, and established the movement formally the next year. Lieutenant Colonel David Cossgrove wrote to Baden-Powell, with whom he had served during the South African War, asking for permission to organise scouting in New Zealand. The first troop was established at Kaiapoi, Canterbury, in July 1908 – one of the first outside Britain. Scouting grew quickly into the country’s largest youth organisation, aided by schoolteachers, churchmen and civic leaders supportive of youth citizenship training.

Cannon fodder

When Scouting arrived in New Zealand in 1908 one commentator was not enamoured of the militaristic youth movement: ‘Let Mars seduce the boy. Let the bloodstained god of war blast the boy’s fraternalism and flaunt in his soul the cheap aspirations of a proud-strutting, gilt-braided butcher, afire with desire for bloody deeds. A Boy Scout is an incipient assassin, a budding jingo, a germinating butcher of men – a boy being transformed into a blood lusting fool and tool to serve in the great class struggle as an iron fist for the employer class against the working class’1

The Scouts’ motto was ‘Be prepared’. Baden-Powell’s father was an Anglican priest and ‘the Scout promise’, the basis of membership, required religious belief. Scouts carried staves – an uncomplimentary early term for them was ‘broomstick warriors’. Their first hats were hand-me-downs from the military cadets, but these were soon replaced by felt ‘lemon-squeezers’ as worn by Baden-Powell. Uniforms were khaki and a cotton scarf was also worn. Initially this was secured with a knot, but from the 1920s it was threaded through a piece of tubing called a woggle. In the 1960s the lemon-squeezer hat was replaced by a beret.

Scouts was initially for boys aged 11 to 18, but younger boys wanted to join. In a master stroke of branding Baden-Powell got permission from Rudyard Kipling to use characters from his Jungle book to appeal to the younger boys. Scouts aged 8 to 12 were called Wolf Cubs or Cubs.

Outdoor games

‘Wide games’ were planned games that took place over a wide expanse of territory, and often over a period of hours. They could involve treasure hunts, tracking exercises and strategic decision making. Their purpose, apart from fun for the participants, was to put into practice the lessons learned in den activities, reinforcing the principle of Scouting as a hands-on outdoor movement. Bob-a-job weeks, when Scouts earned money for tasks, and bottle and paper drives raised funds and displayed active citizenship.

‘Dyb, dyb, dyb’

The Cubmaster was called ‘Akela’ and the group of Cubs was a ‘pack’. The Cub’s motto was ‘Do Your Best’. A pack meeting’s opening and closing was marked by a Grand Howl, where boys pretended to be wolf cubs. The motto was also shortened to a peculiar chant: ‘dyb dyb dyb’ (do your best) and ‘dob dob dob’ (do our best).


In 1965 there were 42,000 members of Scouts spread over 850 groups. A new junior section, Keas, aimed at boys and girls six to seven years old, was added in the 1970s. Girl members were trialled in scout groups from 1976, and were eligible to join in every stage of Scouting from 1989.

In 2017 there were 15,476 youth members of Scouts - 24% were female. Scouting New Zealand had a goal of reaching 25,000 members by 2025. In 2016 the Scout promise was translated into Māori for the first time.

Sea Scouts

The first Sea Scouts troop was established in Auckland in 1912. When Baden-Powell visited the country in 1931 he was disappointed at the small number of Sea Scout troops, given New Zealand’s fine harbours. A 1963 regatta in Auckland hosted 760 scouts from 42 troops, and in 1987 there were 29 Sea Scout troops in Auckland alone. In 2016 Auckland had 20 Sea Scout groups and there were six in Wellington.

Girl Peace Scouts

David Cossgrove and his wife Selina also developed a girls’ scouting model in 1908, two years before the formation of Girl Guides in Britain. Girl Peace Scouts (aged 12 to 20) were closely modelled on Baden-Powell’s Scouts. The emphasis was on being active, but ladylike enough to allay public and parental concerns. They wore long khaki dresses, hats turned up at the sides, carried staves and always had a bugler. Their badge was a fleur-de-lis and their motto was ‘Be Always Ready’. Fairy Scouts catered for younger girls, who wore white dresses with sailor coats. Their troop leader was a Fairy Scout Mistress complete with wand. Their motto was ‘Be True’.

Girl Guides

In 1923 Girl Peace Scouts became part of the global Girl Guides movement, swapping their khaki uniforms for navy blue ones, and Fairy Scouts became Brownies. Like the Scouts, Guides were encouraged to hike, learn ju-jitsu, develop their tracking skills, and gain badges in topics such as New Zealand flora and fauna, and lifesaving. While the movement’s long-term goals were good citizenship and public service, the emphasis was on fun at weekly meetings and rigorous outdoor activities.

Girl Guides’ membership doubled to 18,000 between 1946 and 1956, and by 1965 there were 33,198. In the 1980s Guiding introduced a new junior section, Pippins, for 5–6-year-old girls. In 2016, 10,299 girls aged 5-17 participated in guiding.

    • Quoted in S. G. Culliford, New Zealand Scouting. Wellington: The Boy Scouts Association of New Zealand, 1958. p. 17. Back

Youth groups over time

Conscription of cadets

One of the earliest challenges to male youth organisations came when the Defence Act 1909 required boys aged 12 to 18 years to belong to either the junior or senior cadets at school. Scout numbers dropped from 15,000 in August 1911 to 8,000 in December. In 1912 Robert Baden-Powell visited New Zealand and the government acted on his recommendation that military training for boys under 14 should be dropped.

The product of empire

Youth organisations originated in Britain at the height of its empire. Badges, salutes, mottos, pledges, uniforms, parades, progression through ranks based on competency at practical tasks and terminology such as troops, patrols and battalions illustrate their patriotic and militaristic origins.

1930s and 1940s

During the 1930s depression government assistance for youth movements was meagre. Memberships lapsed as families could not afford subscriptions and uniforms. Recurrent polio outbreaks that closed schools and public facilities also kept children at home.

During the Second World War there were fewer adult volunteers, and limitations on imports of regalia, uniforms and publications. In keeping with the citizenship and service elements of youth groups, war work became a strong focus. Guides and Brownies, for example, made large camouflage nets for the army.

1950s expansion

Successive governors-general and their wives were patrons of Scouts, Guides and other youth organisations. Governments provided annual grants and radio time, and included them in official functions. Royal or official visitors were welcomed by clean, well-dressed Brownies, Scouts and Guides.

The 1950s saw strong growth in memberships. A post-war baby boom, peaking in 1961, put pressure on staffing and finances. Waiting lists became common. There were not enough trained adult volunteers and more women moved into the paid workforce, making it harder to hold traditional events like extended camps. The rise of teenage culture in the 1950s was disconcerting to the government and older generations. Youth organisations were encouraged to develop programmes that attracted teenagers to environments deemed conducive to high moral values.

1960s teenage memberships decline

In the 1960s youth organisations struggled to retain teenagers. They were perceived as conservative and uniforms were uncool. Some organisations developed programmes to attract teenagers. For example, senior Scouts and Rovers were phased out and replaced by a new section of Scouts called Venturers for 15 to 19 year olds. Handbooks were rewritten and uniforms updated. Despite this, teenage membership of the Scouts and Guides declined.

Rebranding and modernising

By the 1980s overall memberships were declining. Children and teenagers had more leisure choices. Youth organisations remained convinced that youth development mattered, yet their methods no longer captured or held as many recruits. Some, like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), moved into personal development programmes and social justice. From the late 1970s, the YWCA ran self-defence classes for girls.

In the first decade of the 21st century the Boys’ and Girls’ brigades introduced more casual options, which were popular. In 2004 the Boys’ Brigade partly rebranded itself as ICONZ Adventure. This offered adventure-based activities after school or on weekends for 8 to 11 year olds. Uniforms consisted of a T-shirt and a baseball cap – a far cry from traditional Boys’ Brigade formal uniform. The Girls’ Brigade followed by introducing iconz4girlz in 2009.

The Girl Guides changed their name to Guides New Zealand in 1999, and to GirlGuiding New Zealand in 2007. In the 21st century marketing for the Guides and Scouts focused on adventure and personal development. Similarly, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) focused more on values of caring, responsibility, respect and honesty, and accepted people regardless of their beliefs.

New youth initiatives

Youth mentoring

New strategies developed in the early 21st century to support youth and contribute to their personal development. One approach was a national youth mentoring programme. A network was established in 2000 to connect young people with mentors and provide advice, resources and training for those mentoring others. A website acts as hub for young people and mentors and there are regular national conferences that focus on issues confronting young people and strategies to support them. 

Ara Taiohi – supporting youth development

Ara Taiohi was established in 2010 to advance youth development by supporting a range of individuals and organisations working with young people. Ara means 'path' in Māori and 'taiohi' means young person. 

Ara Taiohi is a contemporary version of the National Youth Council set up in the 1960s as an umbrella organisation for those working with youth, including Scouts, Guides, Boys’ and Girls’ brigades. It became increasingly involved in youth advocacy and closed in 1989. Various national networks were set up and finally consolidated in Ara Taiohi – a network aimed at providing 'one voice’ for the youth sector. It organises an annual Youth Week campaign, biennial national wananga and regional workshops for those involved in youth development work. Ara Taiohi supports lesbian, gay, queer, trans, and bisexual youth through advising mainstream youth organisations on how they can provide safe and positive activities for all young people.

Outward Bound, adventure and travel

Outward Bound

The Outward Bound Trust originated in Britain. It opened its first school in 1941 at Aberdovey, Wales. It has no religious foundation, but shares with many other youth organisations a focus on outdoor pursuits. New Zealand’s Outward Bound School at Anakiwa in the Marlborough Sounds opened in 1962.


Outward Bound students are dropped off in the bush by boat for overnight solo experiences. This is an excerpt from the diary of one student: ‘It rained after Frank left. The bush filtered a lot of it and I hardly got wet. Feel lost without a watch. Very peaceful just lying here by myself. Did some sit-ups and press-ups. Sat and thought what I want to do with my life.’1

Participants originally stayed at Anakiwa for 16 days but in the 2000s course lengths varied. An intensive and disciplined regime of group outdoor pursuits in spartan conditions (including a solo overnight stay in the bush) sought to impart self-reliance and self-belief. Courses were initially for men only and it was not until 1973 that the first women went through Anakiwa. The focus for many years was on youth but over time this widened to include disabled groups and people aged from 13 to 80. By 2010 more than 48,000 people had been through Anakiwa. In 2017, 1,681 people engaged in an Outward Bound challenge at Anakiwa. Thirty-three per cent of those participating in Outward Bound courses that year were aged 13–17, and 35% were between 18 and 26.

The Spirit of Adventure Trust

The Spirit of Adventure Trust aims to develop character by offering young people trips of up to 10 days on a sailing ship. The trust is funded by voyage fees, members’ subscriptions, grants, donations and sponsorship. Volunteers assist the professional crew and support the ship on port visits.

‘Roughing it’

Camping was an integral part of many youth organisations. Physical exercise in rural settings, self-discipline and ‘roughing it’ were considered both morally and physically beneficial.

The trust’s first vessel, the Spirit of Adventure, operated from 1973 until 1997. The three-masted Spirit of New Zealand came into service in 1986 and in 2010 spent around 340 days at sea. Most voyages were out of the ship’s home port of Auckland but it also sailed around the country. Around 1,000 to 1,200 15 to 18 year olds took part each year, and by 2015 more than 70,000 young people had taken a voyage.

Youth hostels

Youth hostels originated in Germany in 1909 when Richard Schirrmann, a schoolteacher, founded the first hostel as a place for travelling youth to stay in the countryside. The idea spread to other countries.

In New Zealand a Youth Hostels Association was formed in 1932 by Christchurch woman Cora Wilding, who wanted to set up hostels similar to those she had seen while travelling in Germany. She persuaded several Banks Peninsula farmers to provide accommodation for trampers. A chain of hostels on the West Coast followed. From 1934 until 1938 she acted as honorary organiser, preparing handbooks, visiting all the hostels annually, and arranging a youth hostellers' visit to Britain in 1937.

Early hostels were run by volunteers, so their opening hours were limited. Youths staying at hostels had to do chores. A national council formed in 1955 and by 1965 there were 39 hostels and more than 7,000 members. In the early 21st century youth hostels formed part of an international network of cheap accommodation popular with backpackers. Members of the Youth Hostel Association can stay in youth hostels at reduced rates and receive discounts on travel and activities.

    • Don Grady, Outward bound at Anakiwa. Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1987. p. 76. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Helen Dollery, 'Youth organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Helen Dollery, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 31 o Hānuere 2019