The great outdoors
From the earliest days of Māori settlement children had the New Zealand environment as their playground. Both Māori and Pākehā children played in the forests, rivers, coastal waters and open spaces. Children hunted, gathered plants, explored, climbed trees, lit camp fires, built huts, forts, dams and swings, and swam in their favourite spots.
Not all activities were benign. Fighting, destroying plants, stealing birds’ eggs and tormenting animals were all part of play. In the 21st century there were fears that children were becoming cut off from nature due to increased urbanisation, more indoor entertainment and overprotective parents. Many children, nevertheless, continued to thrive on outdoor play.
Urbanisation and technological change
In the 20th century New Zealand became increasingly urbanised. More traffic meant roads were no longer safe places for playing games such as hoop rolling and top spinning, while overhead wiring restricted kite flying. The development of sealed roads and footpaths was, however, ideal for homemade trolleys, roller skating and, later, skateboarding.
In the early 20th century many children still lived in relatively small towns. In the 1920s bicycles and tricycles became more widely available for children, expanding their range of travel. Even in larger cities, parks, areas of bush, rivers and the coast were often accessible. Both urban and rural children continued to explore and have adventures in natural settings.
Early playground conditions
At a school in Marton, in 1910, the ‘playground was bare earth with a morsel of gravel ‘round the “giant stride.” In winter it became a quagmire. Boys who fell over and muddied their clothes were allowed to stay out of school while a comrade scraped off mud with a pocketknife.’1
School playgrounds in the mid-19th century were often little more than muddy or scrubby paddocks. A few schools installed swings and play equipment, which became more widespread from the 1880s. In the 1890s a variety of citizens’ groups became concerned that many town children had to play on the streets. Following a US example, they campaigned for public playgrounds in New Zealand towns. Playgrounds tended to be aimed at younger children.
Playgrounds in the late 19th and early 20th century were equipped with swings, slides and sometimes a sandpit. Some had versions of the ‘giant stride’ roundabout. The jungle gym, introduced in the early 1930s, quickly became a favourite with children. There appears at first to have been little consideration for children’s safety. Climbing apparatus, roundabouts or swings were often placed directly over concrete, asphalt or gravel – all hard surfaces to fall on.
It’s a gym, Jim, but not as we know it
At the 1933 Christmas party for the children of the Onehunga Free Kindergarten, a novel piece of playground equipment was unveiled. The children were delighted as a local paper reported, ‘modern playground climbing apparatus, known as a “jungle Jim” created a vast amount of interest.’2
In the 1980s playground safety became a major issue among safety experts and concerned parents. Hard surfaces in playgrounds were replaced with bark chips or rubber matting. The heights of swings and jungle gyms were lowered, while some of the more dangerous equipment was removed. Playground equipment was designed to stricter safety standards, including kitsets built from solid plastic. Some parents were not so happy with the new ‘safer’ playgrounds. They feared that children were becoming too protected and would miss out on learning valuable skills if they were never exposed to risk. A further concern raised in the 1990s was the inaccessibility of playgrounds for disabled children.