Learning through organised play in Auckland

Fun & Games is a free exhibition of games, books, photographs, archives and more drawn from Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections around the region. It opened on 11 December 2019 and runs to 1 March 2020 at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library.

The exhibition features several items showing young children playing at Auckland kindergartens. Kindergartens were started in 1837 by German educationalist Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852). Since their establishment in Aotearoa New Zealand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they have become a central part of daily life for many families and important cornerstones of the communities they serve. As well as a commitment to free play in Aotearoa, kindergartens and other types of childcare services for pre-school children reflect a tradition of organised play. By the 1920s for example, the Auckland Star noted that organised play took place daily at kindergartens in Myers Park and Victoria Park. Action songs and stories were listed as being amongst the most popular forms of education.

Image: Photographer unknown. Showing Myers Park with the paddling pool in the foreground, the kindergarten in the background, and Pitt Street Methodist Church visible through the trees to the left. 1916. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 236-7519.

In Aotearoa, the range of childcare providers includes the Auckland Kindergarten Association, Playcentre and Kōhanga Reo, as well as many private early childhood centres. Established in 1908 by a group of enthusiasts, the Auckland Kindergarten Association has become Aotearoa’s largest kindergarten association. Its original focus was philanthropic and centred on providing childcare for the children of the poor and needy. Playcentre, now Playcentre Aotearoa, opened later in 1941. It was set up by a group of mothers and staffed by parents who had attended childcare courses. Branches of Playcentre, which is unique to Aotearoa, remain cooperatively managed by parents and are supported nationally by Playcentre Aotearoa staff. Auckland Libraries holds the records of both the Auckland Kindergarten Association (NZMS 1275) and the Auckland Playcentre Association (NZMS 2164), which can be viewed in the Level 2 Reading Room at the Central City Library.

Image: National Publicity Studios. Mothers and children outside at Ōrākei Playcentre. 1970. Copyright: Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 895-A93894.

Image: Photographer unknown. Kōhanga Reo kids,Ōtāhuhu , 1991. Courtesy of Stuff Limited. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Footprints 03343

As views on children’s welfare and education, perspectives about women in the workforce, biculturalism and multiculturalism have changed, so too has childcare evolved over time. Significantly, the establishment of Kōhanga Reo since the 1980s reflects the start of a movement to preserve the language through an immersive Māori cultural framework with te reo speaking staff. The focus of this national approach is not solely on the social and cultural development of the child though, but the entire whānau. There are now over 460 Kōhanga Reo established throughout the country, including in Auckland, as well as overseas. This model has also been used at childcare centres where Pacific languages are spoken.

Despite societal, cultural and educational transformations, kindergartens have always had a strong focus on giving young children opportunities to learn as they play. The rationale being that learning through play is a fundamental part of a child’s holistic mental, physical and spiritual development. In line with this, the Auckland Kindergarten Association has always adhered to the progressive philosophy that young children are empowered through directed play. This was seen to provide a firm foundation for creating well balanced and confident individuals. The Auckland Star (23 September 1916) describes this approach stating:

To the grown-up mind, unacquainted with the principles underlying kindergarten work, it may appear the babies are playing; but the babies know better. They know that it is the little things of the present life which form the future.

The Auckland Kindergarten Association opened the Myers Kindergarten in Myers Park on 15 November 1916. Over a century later, the kindergarten is still running. It was however renamed KINZ Myers Park Early Learning Centre in 2002 and is no longer free, since this proved economically nonviable. The total cost of building the kindergarten and playground, as well as the land for the park, was £20,000. This was donated by businessman, philanthropist and Liberal MP, Hon Arthur M Myers, who was Minister for Customs and Munitions at the time.

The completed kindergarten, the fourth the association had opened, was claimed to be the “most up-to-date in Australasia” (Auckland Star, 4 September 1916). Equally cutting edge was its central location off Queen Street and within park grounds. This gave (and continues to give) urban children “an innovative safe place to learn and play” in a natural outdoor setting (Kerry Bethell. 2016. 100 Years Young: Celebrating A Century At The Myers Kindergarten. Epublication, p7). As reported when the kindergarten first opened, “children may be seen there [in the park] every afternoon enjoying to the full the novelty of games on smooth green grass instead of hot asphalt pavement” (New Zealand Herald, 18 October 1916).

Image: Auckland Weekly News. The handsome kindergarten building in Myers Park which the Hon. A. M. Myers, Minister for Munitions, has presented to Auckland, 9 November 1916. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19161109-38-6.

The range of locally manufactured playground equipment must have also made playtime particularly exciting for the children and included “a giant-stride, see-saw, rock-a-bye, swing … and long slide” (New Zealand Herald, 25 January 1916). The arrangement of park equipment in relation to the kindergarten was discussed at the highest level, with the Hon Arthur Myers, and Mayor, Mr J H Gunson, visiting the site a few months before its opening.

Image: W.T. Wilson. Myers Park playground and Kindergarten, 1910-1919. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 589-350.

The colourful glass and ceramic marbles on display in the exhibition at the Central City Library come from Myers Park and may be connected to the kindergarten. They are on loan from the Auckland Council Heritage Unit and were discovered by archaeologists five years ago during park upgrade works near the kindergarten and playground. Marbles is a centuries old game and whilst the marbles on display are not that old, some of them may date back to when the kindergarten first opened. They were perhaps lost during a particularly vigorous game of shooting, rolling and flicking marbles in the playground.

From when it first opened, Myers Park Kindergarten also served as teacher training centre with hands on experience. This was an important part of the Auckland Kindergarten Association’s mission and helped provide a respected career path for women at a time when options were limited. This changing attitude is reflected in newspaper articles and adverts for student teachers during this period. The New Zealand Herald (27 January 1915) for example, observed that:

The day when young ladies with plenty of time but not quite enough pocket-money undertook kindergarten work because they happened to be fond of children is now past. The formation of the Auckland [Kindergarten] Association placed this most important work on a very different basis from the old system, where the main object of the school was to simply keep the child out of a busy mother’s way. To qualify as a teacher now means a thorough education, theoretical and practical, upon the lines laid down by the great teacher Froebal, upon whose system all modern kindergarten work is based.

The article goes on to stress the rigorous nature of this career, outlining the requirement of two years practical training and theoretical study before qualifications and endorsement could be granted by the association. The Government’s incorporation of kindergarten work into the educational scheme further elevated the status of this career, along with the establishment of an examination and granting of diplomas through the Education Board.

Image: Auckland Star, Volume LVI, Issue 294, 12 December 1925, p.12. Advert by the Auckland Kindergarten Association for enrolment of teachers

By the 1920s, kindergartens had spread to different parts of the city and region. This included the Campbell Free Kindergarten in Victoria Park (opened in 1910 and relocated to Tahuna Street in 1960), St James’ in Grey Lynn (opened in 1913, now the Grey Lynn Kindergarten) and Newmarket (opened in 1912, closed in 1953). Numbers of children attending these four kindergartens were recorded as being up to 250 pupils by 1923. Other branches that opened during this time included locations in Ponsonby (opened in 1926), Onehunga (opened in 1925 and known as Onehunga Cuthbert Kindergarten) and Otahuhu (opened in 1928). Photographs from a 1930s Auckland Kindergarten Association album show a number of these formative and more established kindergartens with their pupils and teachers. As well as documenting daily routines and life at kindergartens, the photographs show that despite the old-fashioned clothing, many of the games remain familiar, as are the big smiles from the enjoyment of play.

Image: Photographer unknown. Page Myers Park Kindergarten from an Auckland Kindergarten Association photograph album, 1931. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS_1275_02.

Image: Photographer unknown. Page showing Campbell and St James’ Kindergartens (1931) from an Auckland Kindergarten Association photograph album, 1931-1936. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS_1275_03.

Image: Photographer unknown. Page showing Ōtāhuhu Kindergarten from an Auckland Kindergarten Association photograph album, 1931. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS_1275_04.

Author: Dr Natasha Barrett, Senior Curator Archives and Manuscripts


Auckland Kindergarten Association. Records, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1275.

Auckland Playcentre Association. Records. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2164.

Kerry Bethell. 2016. 100 Years Young: Celebrating A Century At The Myers Kindergarten. Accessed on 29 November 2019, at: https://www.aka.org.nz/sites/default/files/3235_AKA_MyersParkBooklet_v4.3_Spreads.pdf

Tania Mace. A history of St James Kindergarten 1913-2013. Auckland: St James Kindergarten, 2013.

Tania Mace. For the children : a history of the Auckland Kindergarten Association 1908-2016. Auckland: Auckland Kindergarten Association, 2016.

Brian Marshall. 1983. A History of the Auckland Kindergarten Association. Auckland Kindergarten Association: Auckland.

Helen May and Kerry Bethell. Growing a kindergarten movement in Aotearoa New Zealand: its people, purposes and politics. Wellington: NZCER Press, 2017.

New Zealand Herald (Supplement). ‘The Training of the Child’. Volume XLV, Issue 13895, 31 October 1908, p1.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Free Kindergartens’. Volume LII, Issue 15828, 27 January 1915, p9.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Gift of Myers Park’. Volume LIII, Issue 16135, 25 January 1916, p9.

Auckland Star. ‘For the Children’. Volume XLVII, Issue 211, 4 September 1916, p7.

Auckland Star. ‘A Garden of Children’. Volume XLVII, Issue 228, 23 September 1916, p.17.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Myers Kindergarten – Classes Commenced – Pleasant Surroundings’. Volume LIII, Issue 16363, 18 October 1916, p5.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Myers Kindergarten’. Volume LIII, Issue 16378, 4 November 1916, p11.

Auckland Star. ‘Myers Kindergarten’. Volume XLVII, Issue 273, 15 November 1916, p2.

New Zealand Herald. ‘The Myers Kindergarten’. Volume LIII, Issue 16388, 16 November 1916, p5.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Myers Kindergarten’. Volume LIII, Issue 16388, 16 November 1916, p7. 

Auckland Star. ‘A Handsome Gift’. Volume XLVII, Issue 274, 16 November 1916, p4. 

New Zealand Herald. ‘The Child’s Garden’. Volume LX, Issue 18581, 13 December 1923, p.13. 

Auckland Star. ‘Educational’ adverts. Volume LVI, Issue 294, 12 December 1925, p.12.

Auckland Star. ‘Kindergarten Work at the Myers School’. Volume LVI, Issue 244, 15 October 1925, p11.

Auckland Star. ‘Organised Play’. Volume LVII, Issue 11, 14 January 1926, p9.

New Zealand Herald. ‘Free Kindergartens’. Volume LXVI, Issue 20232, 17 April 1929, p13. 


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