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The architecturally designed Myers Kindergarten in Auckland, New Zealand 1913-16


Picture of Myers Kindergarten, taken after 1916 from the National Library Archive.

Picture of Myers Kindergarten, taken in 2010 picture from Flickr.

Myers Park, located in central Auckland city opened in 1915 as an early, influential, and significant urban renewal project and was also where a kindergarten and playground were built. The Myers Kindergarten was the Auckland Kindergarten Association’s fourth facility, but soon became its “showpiece”, as it was centrally located, architecturally designed, purpose built and a landmark within Myers Park. Anene Cusins-Lewer and Julia Gatley wrote a chapter The “Myers Park Experiment” in the book: Designing Modern Childhoods and suggests that the Myers park site reflects the desires at this time to shape, mold, and improve both the urban environment and the young citizens using the facilities through the use of urban design and architecture; in the moral conditioning of children, thus society.

Arthur Myers, a successful businessman and former mayor of Auckland agreed to fund the project to be named Myers Park, as well as initiated and funded the construction of the Myers Kindergarten and the children’s playground within the park. Additional laws for the protection of children were introduced, and the idea that the physical health of children was a state investment became widely accepted. This meant therefore a shift in the perception if children from family “chattels” or parental possessions to “social capital.” (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

Martha Myers (Arthur’s American sister-in-law) set up the Auckland Kindergarten Association in 1908, which framed the child as materially plastic, a moldable entity. In the 1909 campaign for Auckland’s free kindergarten, Martha claimed:

‘the children’s futures must me molded in their plastic youthfulness. By the provision of instructive toys and deployment of an appreciation of flowers and colours, training in melody and numerous other ways the children are made useful and intelligent, truthful, moral, decent and self-respecting. It is the young child placed in the sunshine of its proper environment. Auckland is a growing city with many neglected children whose school is the street and whose playground is the gutter. It is for these children that we want free kindergartens.’ (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

Consistent with the Froebelian foundations of the Myers Kindergarten programme, this photo shows the young children engaged with the coloured building blocks of the Froebel Gifts. (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

Photo from Designing Modern Childhoods, p.90. Women staffed the kindergarten, taking aspects of child-rearing out of the home and into the public realm.(Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

Picture of Crowd gathered outside the Myers Kindergarten building, Myers Park, Auckland, New Zealand. Photographed by an unknown photographer in 1951, from the National Library Archive.

The children’s learning experiences were enhanced through outdoor play, with a focus was on inspiring a mode of discipline and self-control by means of “organised play.” Activities, including sports, were seen as significant in the physical and psychological development of the child to “enlarge their imagination, have healthy impulses, with a desire to excel, a spirit of wanting to win.” (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

The playground was deemed important for improving a sense of community, “it becomes the nursery in which good citizenship is cultivated.” (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

The Architecture

Picture of Myers Kindergarten, taken after 1916 from the National Library Archive.

Plans and elevations of the kindergarten building designed by Chitwell and Trevethick, dated May 1915. Image from Designing Modern Childhoods p.94.

The architecture of the kindergarten was described as “an ornament to the city”, with views across the playground, extending to the city and harbour beyond. Set back from the street, it was consistent with the desire to remove children from street life. Formal spatial planning and detail: the splayed plan, segregation of functional units, isolation of ablution blocks, recessed balconies, gabled wings, and the use of red brick in conjunction with cement render, the name, “Myers Kindergarten,” is boldly inscribed on exterior wall surfaces. Bulky columns and beams allowed for voluminous internal spaces. These were ventilated by top hung windows and large bi-folding external doors. The north-facing part of the building allowed for much sun into the interior. These architectural solutions were in line with the design of therapeutic environments (with fresh air and sunshine). (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

In plan, the kindergarten comprised a large “circle room” girdled by three classrooms, a covered veranda equipped with a sandpit, and a director’s room. The “circle room” was an important feature of the Froebelian programme intended to facilitate the gathering of children in circle formation for group activities.

The spatial planning physically fortified the abstract utopian principle of a harmoniously structured social environment.

As with the Froebelian “gifts,” the interior fixtures and fittings were intended to stimulate “self-instruction” among the children – the hardware fittings and moveable furniture were intended to help children become self-sufficient in their immediate environment.

The metaphor of the child, growing like a plant is seen in the design of the kindergarten with the use of a green and white colour scheme, window plant boxes, externally the colours and textures of the kindergarten building were continued into the park’s pathway surfaces, and flowerbeds were planted at the front of the building.

New Zealand Building Progress describes the building as: “beautifully situated on a rising portion of the ground in the park surrounded by grassy slopes, shrubs and foliage, giving a picturesque effect, which must bear a wholesome influence on the minds of the children…and here the little ones are taken from the playground of the street and taught to live the beautiful.”

The “Myers Park Experiment” is a socially and historically specific exemplar of an Early Childhood Education site where urban; landscape, and architectural design, underpinned by notions of beauty, health and efficiency were deployed at varying scales for shaping and molding the physical condition and moral character of children. (Cusins-Lewer & Gatley, 2008)

Kindergarten and the 'Froebel's Gifts' offering free play

'Kindergarten' (or 'children's garden' as translated in German) was developed in the 1830's by a man named Friedrich Froebel, a practical and philosophical system that has now unfortunately lost much some of its meaning in 'kindergartens' today.

Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman describes the period in which kindergarten arose,originating as a radical and highly spiritual system of abstract design activities developed to teach the recognition and appreciation of natural harmony. Kindergarten has always included singing and dancing, as well as observation of the workings of nature—the growth of plants, the symmetries of crystals and seashells. One’s teacher was usually a woman and she led the class in activities that would have been considered as free play.

Unidentified kindergarten from the book, Los Angeles, c.1900.

Karl Blossfeldt, Natural Geometry, 1900-28

Blossfeldt took close-up photographs of plants and held that all of the forms of art could be found in nature. Froebel, a child of the enlightenment was also very interested in natural philosophy. With a father who was a Lutheran minister, his theories about human and nature development were inextricably intertwined with aspirations towards God. In his kindergartens the goal was to awaken the senses to what he understood to be the God-given structure underlying all growth.

But long abandoned, and thus hardly known today is the heart of the system—Fröbel’s interconnected series of twenty play “gifts” using sticks, colored paper, mosaic tiles, sewing cards, as well as building blocks, drawing equipment, and the gridded tables at which the children sat. (Brosterman, 1997)

Froebel's Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Gifts - Building blocks

Froebel's Seventh Gift - Triangular and Quadrangular tablets of coloured paper.

Anonymous artwork from the Norman Brosterman Kindergarten Collection.

Froebel's 14th gift - Paper weaving.

Paper Weaving Artwork by an anonymous kindergartner, from the Norman Brosterman Kindergarten Collection.

You can see their resemblance to the abstract (De Stjil) art at the time. Here is Piet Mondrian's New York City, 1942.

Froebel created The Froebel Gifts as a model of universal perfection and the key to recognising one’s place in the natural continuum. Froebel believed that learning the sacred language of geometry in youth would provide a common ground for all people, and advance each individual and society in general, into a realm of fundamental unity. (Brosterman, 1997) He envisaged that the Gifts would teach the child to use his or her environment as an educational aid and that they would give the child an indication of the connection between human life and life in nature; and that they would create a bond between the adult and the child who play with them. (Liebschner, 2006)


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