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Early childhood education (ECE) Services in NZ

By 1940 childhood was internationally recognised as a distinct stage in human development. A child's value to the family was no longer seen as primarily economic. Instead, children were viewed in terms of 'emotional capital' as socially priceless. New Zealand followed overseas trends and introduced children's education initiatives in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The kindergarten movement, still outside the state system in the war period, benefited from these changes. Funded by voluntary contributions and limited government grants, by 1940 the movement needed more money to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers. In 1942 the government provided bursaries for trainees, and student numbers increased from 31 in 1941 to 72 in 1944. In the same period the number of kindergartens increased from 39 to 52.

Photograph of Joan Myrtle Wood, music teacher, educationalist, singer, and co-founder of the New Zealand Federation of Nursery Playcentres, taken between 1950-59.

The 1940s also saw the beginnings of the Playcentre movement, a less formal approach to pre-school education. Playcentres were first established in Karori, Wellington, with the support of women such as Joan Wood (above), Inge Smithells, Beatrice Beeby and Gwendolen Somerset. Other centres soon followed in Wellington, Palmerston North and Christchurch.

In 1947, additional assistance from government to both the Playcentres Association and the Free Kindergartens Association led to an expansion of pre-school education in New Zealand. (Notes from: New Zealand History Online)


The kindergarten movement in New Zealand first emerged in the form of Froebel societies, and were based on the teachings of Friedrich Froebel. The first free kindergarten was established in Dunedin in 1889. NZ kindergartens are administered through charitable associations as the philosophy is to maintain accessible, high-quality, early childhood care and education services.

Child saluting the British flag in a Dunedin kindergarten, date unknown, but is probably the first kindergarten established in 1889. Photograph obtained from the Dunedin Kindergartens website.

Children and staff of the Wellington Free Kindergarten, 1909, Taranaki Street. The group is gathered outside St Peter's Mission Hall. Photograph obtained from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Group of children with books at a Wellington kindergarten, 1930's. Photograph obtained from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Women and children at the Wellington Free Kindergarten, 1944, 196 Taranaki Street. This photograph dates from the time of World War II, and can be seen on the door a notice which states it is open to children of parents engaged in work of national importance. The Wellington Free Kindergarten moved from this building to 112 Tinakori Road on the 2nd of July 1960. Image obtained from The Alexander Turnbull Library.

By the 1940's it focussed on three key elements:

  • Fees would not be charged for attendance (although voluntary donations are requested and parents are expected to fundraise);
  • Kindergartens would be run by trained and qualified teachers, and supported by a professional team of senior teachers; and
  • Parental volunteers would assist in running and managing the service.

Kindergarten associations evolved independently from the government and in 1906 the government began to provide a small per child subsidy. In 1947 the Report of the Consultative Committee on Preschool Education (the Bailey Report) recommended that the state take over the operation of kindergartens, resulting in a partnership between the government and the kindergarten associations, and teacher training was then funded by the government. This led to a transition from kindergarten teaching being viewed as a charity work to one of a profession and a shift of the view that preschool education could benefit children prior to school.

NZ Kindergarten website.


Playcentre, an early childhood education and parenting organisation operates parent-led early childhood education centres throughout New Zealand and delivers the Diploma in Early Childhood and Adult Education. Playcentre is indigenous to New Zealand, but is now also established in Japan.

Their mission is stated as "Whānau Tupu Ngātahi - Families growing together."

Playcentres are co-operatively managed and supervised by parents with support from experienced Association and Federation personnel and provide sessional programmes for children birth to school age in mixed ages environments.

Eastbourne Nursery Playcentre, 1943. Image obtained from The Alexander Turnbull Library. Original caption reads: "A children's playcentre in a Wellington suburb. Several mothers got together, hired a hall, made toys and painted them, and got a trained kindergarten supervisor to mind the children. Now mothers can leave the children at the centre for one afternoon a week. In time the scheme will become more ambitious."

Outdoor playground at a playcentre in Eastbourne, 1944. Showing boys and girls playing on a slide, and a parent standing on the right. Photograph obtained the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Two children painting at easels at the Kelburn Playcentre, 1950. Photograph taken by the Evening Post, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Children at the Korokoro Playcentre, 1978. Photograph taken by the Evening Post, Alexander Turnbull Library. Original caption reads: "With a brand new building behind them, young engine-driver Michael Gore, 4, takes his passenger, Matthew Hickling, 2, for a make-believe tour of the Korokoro Playcentre grounds. The children are among fourteen tinies who moved house, lock, stock and toys from the old scout hall to the new centre in Singer's Rd, which was officially opened by the Mayor of Petone (Mr Gee) last Saturday".

The first playcentre was opened in Karori, Wellington in 1941 during World War II by a group of university- educated women, in order to assist women struggling to raise children while the men were off at war. The playcentre philosophy was “the good of the child and the good of the parents.” The organisation valued active involvement of parents alongside a child-oriented approach to education. The Playcentre philosophy emphasises the importance of child-directed learning through play, a concept that was not widely accepted in the 1940s and 1950s. Prevailing attitudes of the time were inclined towards strict, disciplinarian approaches to child rearing and a belief that real education began only once children started school. The Playcentre philosophy brings mother and child together, rather than providing a separate place for children’s education, which distinguishes it from the kindergartens.

The post-war economic and baby boom, led to the flourishing of Playcentres in new community facilities. The Playcentre movement grew into a federated organisation, established in 1948, thereby allowing regional differences and a decentralised approached to governance. However, enrolments in Playcentre have been decreasing and now comprise only nine percent of enrollments in ECE.

Playcentre website.

Early Education and Care Centres

Early education and care centres provide sessional, all- day, or flexible hour programmes for children from birth to school age. They may be privately owned, non-profit making, or operated as an adjunct to a business or organisation. The centres evolved as a necessary arrangement for children of ‘unfortunate’ mothers who had to work. These arrangements were seen as less preferable than care by mothers in the home or in kindergartens or playcentres. In the 1950s scandals of poorly cared for children in unsafe environments prompted childcare regulation in 1960. The New Zealand Childcare Association (NZCA)the Early Childhood Council emerged as a second membership organisation for centres. emerged in 1963 as a membership association that advocated for raising the reputation and quality of ECE services. In the 1990s

The number of early education and care centres increased as women entered the formal labour force in the 1960s and 70s, where working mothers needed full-day childcare arrangements, not the sessional programmes provided by kindergartens and playcentres. The number of services increased from 719 in 1990 to 1,932 in 2007, and is the fastest growing type of care in New Zealand. The number of children enrolled at these services increased by over 40 percent between 1995 and 2007, making them the largest source of enrolment at 54 percent. Data from 2007 indicate that private providers enroll the largest proportion of children over any other type of service . While early providers were community-based centres or businesses started by women, usually in their homes, there are now several chains operating in New Zealand. Kidicorp, Kindercare, ABC Learning Centres, and Forward Steps operate over 150 centres. In 2007, Kidicorp changed its auspice and is now a public charity. The ABC chain, a relative newcomer to New Zealand, is a publicly traded company listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange. Corporate chains represent less than 10 percent of centres in New Zealand, with the remainder community-based or privately-owned. Geographically, private centres are most heavily represented in the Auckland area, whereas community-based providers dominate the South Island.

Kōhanga Reo

Teaching preschooler's maori language. Photograph obtained from the New Zealand History Online website.

Te Kōhanga Reo grew out of the Māori movement to preserve New Zealand’s indigenous population’s culture and language and to honour the Treaty of Waitangi. Māori children did not historically participate in ECE to the same extent as Pākeha (European descent) children. Many Māori considered that kindergartens and playcentres did not meet their needs. Māori activist Donna Awatere stated:

"The education system is the major gate which keeps Māori out. There is an invisible sign over every kindergarten, playcentre, school and university. That sign reads, “Māoris Keep Out. For Whites’ Use Only.” White people can’t see this sign... Kindergartens are the first of the educational gates: a bastion of white power. Kindergartens have frightened Māori people off pre-school education... Māori parents won’t take their children there, not because they don’t want to, but because kindergartens, in particular, and playcentres to a lesser extent, don’t meet their needs."

Two members of Waitangi Tribunal, Chief Judge Edward Durie and Mr Paul Temm visit kohanga reo (language nursery) at Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt, 1985. Seen with them are (from left) Harehana Pupuke (5), Awhina Woods (4), Tautoko Ratu (6), Matariki Puketapu (2), Benjamin Cowan (1), and Tame Ngaheke (5). Photograph taken by the Evening Post, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The divisions between Māori and Pākeha stem from the differing language in the Treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840. The English version of the Treaty of Waitangi gave the Crown sovereignty over the land; the Māori language version however did not. A land war ensued in the 1860s and in the aftermath of the Crown’s victory, Māori land was confiscated. From that point forward, Māori became a largely landless population. By the 1960s Māori culture and language were disappearing as Māori were assimilated into the dominant Pākeha culture.

A political awakening of the Māori population began in the 1960s and 70s, in which self- determination replaced assimilation. A series of national meetings of Māori tribal leaders in 1979 culminated in the 1981 decision to create Kōhanga Reo, which literally translates as ‘language nests’, Kōhanga Reo were envisioned to strengthen and empower Māori families; and save and maintain te reo Māori (the language). As mother of the movement Iritana Tawhiwhirangi conveyed: “Kōhanga Reo are more than early childhood development but rather envisioned as Māori development”. It is a holistic approach in which Māori language and culture are passed from one generation to the next.

The first was started in Wellington in 1982 followed soon after by three more. Television coverage of Wellington Kōhanga Reo reached the rest of the country spurring rapid development. The Department of Māori Affairs provided some funding to establish kōhanga; however, Māori communities, such as in Mangere, also funded their own. The number peaked in 1994 at 800 and has now decreased to 407 licensed Kōhanga Reo in 2007. Kōhanga Reo enrol approximately 9,000 children, which represents a 52 percent decline in enrolment since 1995. Currently Kōhanga Reo enrol five percent of total enrolment in ECE (2008).

Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust was established in 1982 and formalised as a charitable trust in 1983 to manage the kaupapa (philosophy) of the Kōhanga Reo movement and to facilitate a partnership between the Māori people and the departments of government, in particular, the Department of Māori Affairs. As the governing body for Kōhanga Reo, the Trusts’ main functions are:

• To promote, support and encourage the use and retention of Te Reo Māori;
• To promote and encourage the establishment and maintenance of Te Kōhanga Reo Centres;
• To provide financial, advisory, and administrative assistance for the centres;
• To provide support and the means of obtaining support to people involved in the Te Kōhanga Reo Centres; and
• To liaise with government departments and other relevant bodies on aspects of preschool tuition in Māori language and the administration of the Te Kōhanga Reo programme.

Much of the information has been retrieved from a document by the New Zealand government in 1995 to facilitate public policy dialogue between New Zealand and the United States of America: Early Childhood Education Policy in Aotearoa/ New Zealand: The creation of the 20 Hours Free Programme, 2008. Prepared by Bushhouse, B, K.


  1. I am trying to track down the first year ECCE was taught at Auckland Teachers College. I know Maris ORouke and Clair Kay ran the course and originally it was only a one year Cert. Do you know?

  2. Hey, you wouldn't by any chance be able to tell me when this was published?

    1. Sorry, not sure why the date wasn't showing - have fixed this now! May, 8 2011 :)

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! From a passionate Playcentre president/parent



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