Playcentre Aotearoa

1948 –

Theme: Education: early childhood

Known as:

  • New Zealand Federation of Nursery Play Centre Associations
    1948 – 1961
  • New Zealand Federation of Play Centres
    1962 – 1963
  • New Zealand Play Centre Federation
    1963 – 1972
  • New Zealand Playcentre Federation
    1973 – 2017
  • Playcentre Aotearoa
    2018 –

This essay written by Naomi Morton was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Suzanne Manning in 2018.

1948 – 1993

Playcentre enabled parents to be actively involved in the preschool education of their children: 'A Playcentre is a co-operative — a group of families working together to enhance the development of the children and adults...' [1] In 1991 there were 16,672 families involved in 609 centres throughout New Zealand.

Although welcoming the participation of fathers, Playcentre was always predominantly a women's organisation. The unique strengths of Playcentre were the high adult:child ratio (1:5 in 1993) at all sessions, the carefully planned environment which encouraged children to learn at their own pace, and the opportunities for parents as well as children to gain skills, confidence, and support.

Playcentre, as it became known from 1973, had its roots in the progressive educational ideas of the 1930s, which placed new emphasis on early childhood. Adult education organisations such as the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and the international New Education Fellowship (NEF) were to give both educational and financial support in the early years. During World War II many women were alone at home with young children. While on holiday together with their children in 1941, Joan Wood and Inge Smithells discussed the need to provide relief for mothers and companions for children. Back in Wellington, further discussion with Beatrice Beeby led to the opening later that year of nursery play centres in Karori and Kelburn.

Three centres in Christchurch soon followed, initiated by Doreen Dolton, an adult education tutor. The concept spread rapidly, with centres opening in both urban and rural areas. Regional Nursery Play Centre Associations, starting with Wellington in 1941, were set up to co-ordinate existing centres and encourage the formation of new ones.

These early centres were funded by small contributions from parents, but an NEF grant enabled a loan of £5 to be made to new centres to purchase equipment. The Department of Internal Affairs also gave a modest grant. Recognition from the Department of Education came in 1946 with a grant of £100, and from 1948 the department paid an establishment grant and regular maintenance grants. By then a formal linking of the regional associations had become necessary, and the New Zealand Federation of Nursery Play Centre Associations was formed at a conference in Wellington in May 1948.

Late in 1947 Gwen Somerset and her husband, both noted educationists, retired and moved to Wellington. In Feilding, where they had organised a community centre, Gwen Somerset had set up a market-day play group for young children and a child development class for mothers. She was always keen to involve parents in their children's education, and was aware of the importance of play in early learning: 'Play is a reaction to stimulation or curiosity. Through play, exploration, manipulation and creativity are woven into thought. Play is a necessity in life.' [3]

Somerset became a lecturer and examiner for the Wellington Free Kindergarten Association, and Dominion Adviser to kindergarten associations throughout New Zealand. She was also invited to be supervisor of training for the Wellington Nursery Play Centre Association, where she revised the parent education programme and began visiting centres in the region. From the start, Somerset influenced the shaping of Playcentre philosophy. She became first president of the new federation in 1948, was Dominion Adviser until 1969, and edited the Journal for many years.

Eastbourne playcentre

Wadestown Playcentre Collection.

Demonstration playcentre set up outside the Wellington Public Library, May 1964.

Enthusiastic support also came from other adult education tutors, including Lex Grey of Victoria University College. In 1952 he moved to Auckland, where he became involved in developing playcentres and was elected president of the Auckland association. As its director of training (1952-63), he put special emphasis on the natural worth of parents as first educators. In 1963 Grey became preschool officer for the Māori Education Foundation and travelled throughout the North Island, helping Māori families establish centres in many rural and suburban communities. In the 1980s some centres in Māori communities decided to become kōhanga reo.

Centres operated initially in rented church or community halls, but local fundraising and government subsidies later enabled many to buy or build their own premises. Some centres employed a supervisor, who was usually paid a small wage; others opted for group supervision. All other work in the centres, including finances, administration, publicity, building and equipment maintenance, and assisting at sessions as 'mother helpers' (now 'parent helpers'), was always done voluntarily by the parents themselves. By 1993, the bulk of playcentres' income came from government funding on a capitation basis; the rest came from fees, which were kept as low as possible, and from fundraising.

The Federation had several name changes over the years. In 1961 the word ‘Nursery’ was dropped, and ‘Playcentre’ as a single word was adopted in 1973. The Playcentre Federation elected its members from the 33 regional associations, and was responsible for liaison with government and assisting the work of the associations. A Federation Education Committee set up in 1963 provided encouragement and resources. The federation also published books and pamphlets by playcentre people, and produced the Playcentre Journal three times a year. Some positions at federation and association level were paid a small salary or honorarium.

Parent education continued to be a major focus, and centres had to maintain a level of training approved by the local association and the Ministry of Education. Each association developed its own parent education programme, based on observation of children's play, group discussion and practical assignments. Each stage was complete in itself; parents progressed at their own pace with the help of tutors, who were themselves parents. In the 1990s, women with playcentre qualifications were employed at every level of early childhood education. The leadership skills, experience and confidence gained at playcentre also provided thousands of women with a stepping stone to other ventures.

Playcentres welcomed all family members, from babies to grandparents, although participation by fathers was in earlier years limited to traditional areas such as finance and buildings. Increasing flexibility in gender roles had by 1993 seen more fathers become fully involved in playcentre life.

By the 1990s, Playcentre had a deepening appreciation of the relationship between Māori and Tauiwi. The 1989 conference passed a remit, 'That playcentre publicly endorse the Treaty of Waitangi', and set up a working party 'to ascertain areas of playcentre that are culturally inappropriate and to suggest improvements'. Its findings were published in a booklet, Whānau Tupu Ngātahi: Families Growing Together (1990). At the 1991 conference a rūnanga of Māori women in playcentre met for the first time.

Government restructuring of the education system in 1989 brought positive change—upgraded buildings and facilities, and more government funding—as well as more detailed regulations. Playcentre emerged with its philosophy unchanged and with renewed strength.

Naomi Morton

1994 – 2018

The government restructuring in 1989 brought some positive change for Playcentre, but also many challenges. The restructured education system and the newly articulated commitment to biculturalism created many challenges to work through. In the process, Playcentre re-affirmed core philosophies: parents and families learning alongside their children in a rich learning environment based on play and progressive education ideals. This was encapsulated in the vision statement of 2017 ‘Whānau tupu ngātahi – families growing together’ (the title of the 1990 Federation booklet). [5]

The commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi made at the 1989 conference had far-reaching effects on Playcentre. The rūnanga that met for the first time in 1991 became Puriri Whakamaru and developed a structure for representing Māori in Playcentre. Pākehā Treaty Worker positions were created to increase awareness and knowledge of Te Tiriti among Playcentre members, acknowledging that it was a Pākehā, not Māori, responsibility to provide this education. Consensus decision making in place of voting was introduced to the Federation from 1998. A commissioned audit of the Federation structure against the principles of Te Tiriti was presented to the 1999 conference, and recommended dual Tiriti-based Federation positions. These positive developments were also accompanied by much uncertainty and conflict over strategic direction as well as practical operation. It was a learning curve for the whole organisation, from centres through to Federation.

Concurrently, Playcentre adjusted to the Before Five education reforms. This resulted in massive building upgrade requirements, and also in funding changes, where bigger centres received more money than before and smaller centres received less. In response, the Federation set up shared funding schemes: an equity sharing scheme to allow funding to be shared with smaller associations, and regional property schemes to help fund building projects. This provided much needed relief for smaller and rural centres, who struggled to meet all the requirements within the new funding.

Playcentre also responded to the changes in tertiary education, by registering as a tertiary provider and gaining approval to deliver a Playcentre qualification, which was used in the new licensing agreement negotiated with the Ministry of Education. The changes necessitated greater national standardisation of the adult education programme, and inclusion of new elements alongside the core child development and group leadership skills, such as understanding the new regulations, increased health and safety awareness, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. By the end of the 1990s the qualifications system across the early childhood sector was under review, so the Playcentre licence was re-negotiated to take account of the newly developed Playcentre Diploma, approved in 2000.

Development in Playcentre’s Tiriti relationships continued in the new millennium. Regional Puriri Whakamaru rōpū continued as support for Māori parents, but national representation ceased, along with Pākehā Treaty Worker roles. In 2000, the first annual national Māori hui was held. Māori members also started meeting before national meetings as a Māori Caucus, more formally when the Tiriti-based two-house model of decision making was introduced in 2006. After many working parties and discussions, a Tiriti-based structural framework was introduced in 2011, and the first two co-presidents, Marion Pilkington and Maureen Woodhams, were elected at that year’s conference.

The Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Education, published in 2002, had far-reaching effects on the sector, although there were few concrete policies for supporting Playcentre. The subsequent funding review resulted in 20 hours’ free ECE funding for ‘teacher-led’ services, implemented in 2007. Playcentre was excluded from this funding until 2010, an example of the increasing marginalisation it was facing. Then in 2011, a government appointed taskforce recommended that Playcentre funding be cut, in order to focus on ‘teacher-led’ services. This generated large-scale protests from Playcentre members and supporters, and the government was forced to state that the cuts would not happen.

The requirements for tertiary education became more complex, and therefore paid positions were created to administer the Diploma programme, which had been previously run by volunteers. Access to tertiary funding now required greater standardisation of curriculum and delivery, and centralised data collection. This was followed by a sector-wide review of early childhood diploma-level qualifications, which resulted in the Playcentre Diploma being replaced in 2017 by new national qualifications. Playcentre continued to deliver these new qualifications, and tailor them to the needs of parents working as educators in the centres.

In response to the changing educational, societal and policy environment, the Playcentre Federation restructured in 2017/2018. The multiple regional associations were amalgamated into one legal entity, Playcentre Aotearoa. Four regional hubs were set up to support the centre, with paid staff. Centres continued to operate as autonomous but affiliated parent cooperatives, supporting and transforming parents in their local communities.

Suzanne Manning


[1] Pam Kennedy, 'Playcentre is Different', Playcentre Journal, No. 51, 1981, p. 3.

[2] The word 'Nursery' was dropped in 1962 and 'Playcentre' — one word — was adopted in 1973.

[3] Somerset, 1986 edn, p. 4.

[4] Pauline Kirton, 'Commitment to Biculturalism', Playcentre Journal, No. 75, 1989, p. 11.

[5] Working Party on Cultural Issues, Whānau Tupu Ngātahi: Families Growing Together, New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1990.

Unpublished sources

New Zealand Playcentre Federation records, 1948–1987, 1987–2002, ATL

New Zealand Playcentre Federation records, 2000–, Hamilton NZPF archives

New Zealand Playcentre Federation, annual statistics gathered for the Department of Education, 1948–1988

Published sources

Densem, Ailsa, The Playcentre Way, New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1980

McDonald, Geraldine, Working and Learning: A Participatory Project on Parent Helping in New Zealand Playcentres, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, 1982

Densem, Ailsa, and Barbara Chapman, Learning Together the Playcentre Way (revised ed.), New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 2000

Manning, Suzanne, ‘Democracy Meets Rangatiratanga: Playcentre's Bicultural Journey 1989–2011’, History of Education Review Vol. 43, No. 1, 2014, pp. 31–45

Morris, Beverley, 'It Was Good Fun Getting Here, But What Do I Do Now?', SET, No. 2 Item 4, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Wellington, 1983

New Zealand Federation of Nursery Play Centre Associations, Newsletter, 1952–1956; Journal and Newsletter, 1958; Journal, 1960–1961

New Zealand Play Centre Journal, 1962–1973; Playcentre Journal, 1974–1992

Penrose, Pat et al., Ups and Downs, Canterbury Playcentre Association, Christchurch, 1991

Somerset, Gwen, 'The Early Days of Playcentre', Playcentre Journal, No. 72, 1988, pp. 5–6

Somerset, Gwen, Sunshine and Shadow [autobiography], New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1988

Somerset, Gwen, We Begin Playcentre – Families Together, Play in Early Childhood, How Playcentre Works, New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1990 [revised and reissued from a set of four Introductory Booklets, first published by the Wellington Nursery Play Centre Association in 1953]

Somerset, Gwen, Work and Play, New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1986 (revised edition)

Stover, Sue (ed.), Good Clean Fun: New Zealand's Playcentre Movement, Playcentre Publications, Auckland, 1998

Whānau Tupu Ngātahi: Families Growing Together, Report to the New Zealand Playcentre Federation from the Working Party on Cultural Issues (Ropū Hanga Tikanga), New Zealand Playcentre Federation, Auckland, 1990

Wood, Joan, 'Early History of Play Centres, 1941–1948', New Zealand Play Centre Journal, No. 7, 1962, pp. 2–3

Further information

Playcentre Aotearoa website,

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Playcentre Aotearoa

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...


Posted: 25 Sep 2019

What our children learn in the first 5-6 is their life basis! Playcentre is an excellent start!