Europeans have commented on Maori since 1642. These accounts, when examined beyond their own cultural views52, give us snapshots of how parents were socialising their children. After Abel Tasman’s confrontation in the South Island and James Cook’s travelling around the New Zealand coast, most of the earliest accounts of Maori were in the northern areas. Both Tasman and Cook were searching for prospective colonies. In 1807, John Savage added to observations. Others followed soon after. In their observations, the European methods of raising children with some form of punishment, was evident and they expressed surprise at shared parenting.

Games and Fun

The children were, “… robust, lively, and possess, in general, pleasing countenances; their actions are totally unrestrained by clothing, or bandage, until about eight years of age”74 which must undoubtedly lay the foundation of their future hardihood and healthy constitution”75. Babies, lying with no clothes for short times, with only the parental kakahu to cover them at other times, seemed to grow strong children76. As Polack notes,

“The children of either sex at an early age are able to run about long before those belonging to European parents can stand alone. They are early initiated by their parents into all the games, dances, and practices of their fathers... 77 and mothers”

Joel PolackPublished in his book 'New Zealand'

Their whole life was training. Everything they saw and did prepared them for adulthood. Children, boys and girls, had to be prepared for life as warriors, food producers, parents and marital partners in a society based on war as the ultimate sanction for misdeeds. “He toa mahi kai he toa mau tonu. A brave in battle is occasional. A brave at work is for all times”, was an expression of the roles the  child was trained for.

The son of a chief was expected to show his prowess in battle and other sons were expected to become warriors. Girls were included in the games as they were valuable as support, and in fighting itself78. The children were being trained therefore, to be loving and tender for their whānau in the kainga and hapu and to be fierce and cruel soldiers to others.

There were numerous training games to play and most were competitive and they were an active and fun way to learn. Any whare was used as an assembly-place by youth for games, called a whare tapere and at night. The whare were lighted by one or more fires made in small pits sunk in the floor. On fine summer evenings the marae was a place for youth. All athletic games were kaipara, while the most important were training with military weapons and exercises. The younger children were armed with light reeds which were dodged by agile movements and parrying and developed into heavier missiles. Another favourite exercise was wrestling which the girls joined against the boys.

Different forms of jumping and foot-races over short and long distances called for endurance. A game, ti rakau, consisted of the players tossing light rods from one to another sitting in a square, which called for dexterity and quick sight. Girls and young women as well as boys and youth played these including kapa haka and waiata.

Maori women, in semi traditional costume, playing a stick game alongside a meeting house. Ref: 1/2-117036-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22348174

In water exercises there was swimming, surf-riding, jumping, diving and swinging on moari79. They used both plank and small canoes which were called kopapa. Exercises had simple songs or short jingles for each. Waka races (waka hoehoe and whakatere waka) were practice for handling the waka. The game of koruru (jackstones, knucklebones) was popular for dexterity. Dart-throwing contests were sometimes quite large, social gatherings of the people80. All of these games helped train the children in necessary skills while having the vital attraction of fun.


52 Smith, Decolonising Methodologies 28.
74 Savage, John. Some account of New Zealand : particularly the Bay of Islands, and surrounding country: with a description of the religion and government, language, arts, manufactures, manners, and customs of the natives, &c. &c. Originally 1807. Dunedin: Hocken Library, University of Otago, 1966. 53.
75 Savage, Some account 45.
76 Elder, Samuel Marsden 118.
77 Polack, New Zealand 372-374.
78 Henare, He Whenua Rangatira 268.
79 Moari are giant swings usually out over water.
80 Best E, op cit. 130-132; Hiroa, Coming of the Maori 238-251.

The content of this web page was originally published in the Traditional Maori Parenting report published in March 2011 as commissioned by the Office of the Children’s Commission (OCC). The content is republished here with their permission as copyright owners of this work.

You can download the whole report from the OCC website.