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New Zealand Kindergartens – Te Pūtahi Kura Pūhou o Aotearoa

1926 –

This essay written by Beryl Hughes, Bernice Lindegren, and Patricia Lockhart was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1926 – 1993

The New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union (NZFKU) was established in 1926 to co-ordinate the work of the five Free Kindergarten Associations (FKA), whose voluntary workers, together with trained kindergarten teachers, were responsible for kindergartens throughout the country. Its work expanded with the growth of the kindergarten movement; by the early 1970s there were 75 associations between Kaitaia and Invercargill. By 1993 rationalisation had reduced these to 41, of which 37 were affiliated to the NZFKU.

The first kindergarten in New Zealand opened in Walker Street, Dunedin, on 10 June 1889. The credit for its establishment has usually gone to the Reverend Rutherford Waddell, of St Andrew's Church in Walker Street, but Mark Cohen, editor of the Dunedin Evening Star, had advocated kindergartens for some time. However, the group which established the kindergarten consisted largely of women, including Lavinia Kelsey. With the Reverend Waddell, she organised a public meeting in March 1889, with the object of forming a public kindergarten; at this meeting 'The spacious Town Hall was filled, many ladies being in attendance.' [1] Among them was Rachel Reynolds, who became the first president of the Dunedin FKA, and after whom the first purpose-built kindergarten in New Zealand (opened in 1914 in Dunedin South) was named. Kelsey was the first secretary; the finance committee was entirely male.

In the early years of the twentieth century, kindergartens were set up independently in the other three main centres. Mary Richmond, who had trained as a kindergarten teacher in the Froebel Institute in London, began in 1905 to raise funds which established the Wellington Free Kindergarten Union, later known as the Wellington Free Kindergarten Association. Martha Washington Myers, who had seen the work of kindergartens in the USA, was largely responsible for the establishment of the Auckland FKA in 1908. The Christchurch FKA was set up on the initiative of Elizabeth Taylor (wife of the mayor, Tommy Taylor) in 1911.

Realising the benefits of common policies and standards, delegates from the four associations met in 1913 to discuss the creation of a national body. But the outbreak of World War I prevented further action, and not until 1926 did the representatives of the four original associations and the Invercargill FKA form the NZFKU, with Helena Sidey (Dunedin) as the first president. All associations receiving a government grant could affiliate, and each could appoint a delegate to the standing committee.

Mother and child visiting a Free Kindergarten
Women and children at the Wellington Free Kindergarten, c. 1944.

From the beginning, the policy of having suitably trained teachers was put in place; Miss Weinecke, who taught the fourteen children of the Walker Street kindergarten, was Froebel-trained. Training initially took place 'on the job', but the newly formed associations soon set up training in the four main cities. Each awarded its own certificate until 1947, when a national training syllabus was drawn up. The graduates of 1950 were the first to be awarded the NZFKU diploma.

Although the essential work of establishing and maintaining kindergarten associations was always done locally by parents and others, the NZFKU's role at the centre was vital. When the associations were gazetted in 1959, the Minister of Education recognised the NZFKU as representing all the associations in the discussion of policy matters. In 1948, after many years of negotiation, the Union won an agreement from government to assume responsibility for teachers' salaries. Until the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Teachers' Association (NZFKTA) was recognised as a service organisation in 1958, the NZFKU worked hard for improved salary scales. It also encouraged teachers to raise their academic qualifications by setting up the I. M. Jamieson Scholarship for overseas study in 1955. This commemorated the outstanding service of Isobel May Jamieson, president of the Hamilton FKA from 1945 to 1962.

The NZFKU was not an executive body, but represented the associations in negotiations with government. Much of its work was concerned with finance, since finding money to run kindergartens had always been a major preoccupation. Government provided some funds from 1904 onwards, when it gave money to be divided among the four main centres for the furtherance of kindergarten interests. In the early days, however, the government contribution was very small and most of the fundraising burden fell on women. In Dunedin in the 1890s, women competed with each other to see who could get the heaviest collection tin at the wharf gates on pay-day. Government gradually increased levels of funding through building and equipment subsidies, session and maintenance grants, as well as the total cost of teacher training and salaries. These advances were made under the leadership of women such as Helen Downer of Rotorua, MBE (president, 1956–66) and Laura Ingram of Motueka, MBE (president, 1966–75). Women distinguished themselves in leading the Union: from 1926 to 1978, all the presidents were women. In the years after 1979, there were three male presidents.

Great expansion took place between 1972 and 1989, as successive governments increasingly recognised the importance of early childhood care and education. In the same period, the NZFKTA and the NZFKU worked, each from their own perspective, to achieve many policy changes which improved the services offered by free kindergartens. These included recognising special needs groups (1973–4), moving all kindergarten teacher trainees into the primary teachers' training colleges (1975), introducing mobile units to take kindergarten to rural children (1976), providing for additional staffing in kindergartens operating in areas of special need (the mid 1970s), and establishing a team of senior teachers to provide professional support for teachers and associations.

Between 1973 and 1993, the number of free kindergartens grew from 350 to 580. In 1992, 41 percent of children aged three and four attended free kindergartens, and over 4000 women were involved in voluntary work on kindergarten committees. Over the nine decades since the kindergarten movement began here in 1889, many thousands of women worked to develop an excellent service for preschool children.

Beryl Hughes, Bernice Lindegren, Patricia Lockhart QSM

1994 – 2018

The New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union (NZFKU), the umbrella organisation for the operation of kindergartens by regional associations, changed its name to New Zealand Free Kindergarten Associations (NZFKA) in 1994, after encountering confusion with the term ‘Union’. This name change was also about rebranding, after four North Island associations, including Auckland, had withdrawn from the NZFKU and reunited as the Kindergarten Federation, later named Early Childhood Leadership. This left 34 associations under NZFKA, compared with 55 under NZFKU in 1980, a reduction due mainly to amalgamations.

The catalyst for withdrawal had been NZFKU’s reluctant acceptance of bulk funding, forced on kindergartens by the National Government in 1992, as well as perceived benefits for employer associations due to the 1991 Employment Contracts Act, which broke up collective agreements. Breakaway associations believed they could better survive the political climate independent of a seemingly unwieldy NZFKU. Concerns about the organisation’s capacity had been brewing, and attempts to restructure had failed.

The rebranded NZFKA was a weakened organisation during difficult times, but undertook constitutional changes to strengthen its operations. Long regarded as the ECE ‘flagship’ in terms of quality and funding, kindergartens were now branded by National politicians as having privileges that should be curtailed. Despite the kindergarten split, there was communication across the organisations, including shared political campaigns. In the 2010s this included collaboration on a Kindergarten Heritage Collection website, and the publication of Growing a Kindergarten Movement: Its Peoples, Purposes and Politics (2017).

With the election of a Labour-led government in 1999, kindergartens regained their ‘flagship’ status, alongside a Strategic Plan (2002–2012) to raise the quality of all ECE services with a benchmark teaching qualification, and, from 2007, 20 hours free ECE for 3–4 year olds. New funding streams encouraged the breakdown of half-day sessions; kindergartens adopted full day licences, offered school day sessions, and included younger children, and some associations established full day kindergartens.

In 2004 the organisation was reconstituted as New Zealand Kindergartens–Te Pūtahi Kura Pūhou o Aotearoa (NZK). With more education and care centres employing teachers, and concern at the growth of private for-profit services with longer hours which competed for children, NZK embarked on a stocktake, considering what might be distinctive and valued about the kindergarten brand, and undertook further surveys. [2]

Following the 2008 financial crisis, a National-led government returned to power and curtailed earlier ECE gains. NZK supported kindergartens to retain 100 percent qualified teachers, despite the policy funding only up to 80 percent qualified staff. From 2008 to 2017, NZK also worked to collaborate with government initiatives, particularly around increasing child participation, and sponsored issues papers to support proactive lobbying in difficult times. [3]

From 1993 there had been slow growth in kindergartens, constrained by a lack of capital for new buildings previously funded by government, but also by the shifting patterns of ECE provision. While the kindergarten share of enrolments had declined to 14.3 percent by 2017, this was offset by increased hours of attendance across the total of 658 kindergartens, by then grouped in 30 associations, which included Early Childhood Leadership. [4]

That year the new Labour-led government embarked on a new strategic plan, promising to reinstate support for 100 percent qualified teachers. NZK was positioning itself as a provider of ‘free public education’, given the government’s intention to ‘turn the tide’ in ECE away from ‘private profit-focused’ provision. [5]

Helen May


[1] Otago Daily Times, 5 March 1889.

[2] New Zealand Kindergartens, Te Pūtahi Kura Pūhou o Aotearoa, Issues Paper, NZK, Wellington, July 1995; Davison, C., Mitchell, L., and Peter, M., A survey of kindergarten provision: Results of a 2010 survey of New Zealand Kindergartens kindergarten associations, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, University of Waikato, Hamilton, 2010.

[3] New Zealand Kindergartens, Quality ECE: Worth the investment, NZK, Wellington, 2010; Economics of ECE, NZK, Wellington, 2011; Kindergarten: A Leader in Early Childhood Education, NZK, Wellington, 2012; Communities of Learning: The Kindergarten Offer, NZK, Wellington, 2016.

[4] Ministry of Education, ‘The National Picture: What does the ECE census 2017 tell us about ECE services?’ Retrieved 8 October 2018 from:

[5] Hon. Chris Hipkins, ‘Terms of Reference: Strategic Plan for Early Learning’, Ministry of Education correspondence, Wellington, 20 April 2018.

Unpublished sources

Cosson, Betty M., 'A History of the Training of Kindergarten Teachers in Auckland, 1908–1948', DipEd thesis, University of Auckland, 1970

New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union records, 1949–1974, ATL

New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union records, 1975–1992, NZFKU Head Office, Wellington

Published sources

Davison, C., ‘The sinking of the kindergarten flagship? Government’s plan to privatise kindergartens: the bulk funding story’, Occasional Paper 3, in C. Dalli (ed.), Occasional Paper Series No. 38, Institute for Early Childhood Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, 1997, available at:

Davison, C., ‘New Zealand kindergartens 2005–2010: Funding and operational changes’, Waikato Journal of Education, Vol. 17 No. 1, 2012, pp. 5–16

Downer, Helen, Seventy Five Years of Free Kindergartens in New Zealand 1889–1964, NZFKTU, Wellington, 1964

Duncan, J., ‘New Zealand free kindergarten: Free or freely forgotten’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 20 No. 3, 2007, pp. 319–333

Hughes, Beryl, Flags and Building Blocks, Formality and Fun: One Hundred Years of Free Kindergarten in New Zealand, NZCER/NZFKTU, Wellington, 1989

Lockhart, Patricia, Kindergartens in New Zealand 1889–1975, NZFKTU, Wellington, 1975

Kindergarten Heritage Collection website

Marshall, Brian, A History of the Auckland Free Kindergarten Association: 75 Year Jubilee, Auckland Free Kindergarten Association, Auckland, 1983

May, H. and Bethell, K., Growing a Kindergarten Movement: Its People, Purposes and Politics, NZCER Press, Wellington, 2017