“Despite these changes [post WWII], the spirit of Kindergarten NEVER changes, it is the same spirit which inspired that small band of women, nearly forty years ago, to lay the foundation of this Association to which we all belong, an Association which has benefited thousands of children throughout the years, as it is benefiting the children of today.”
Rene Wilkie, Prinicpal, Annual Report 1945.
There’s something truly unique about kindergarten. It’s something that has lasted generations and withstood the challenges of changing times. At its core, there’s the philosophy of nuturing the metaphorical ‘seedlings’ that grow in the children’s garden for which kindergarten is named. This commitment to the development of young minds has stayed strong for more than a century. It has become a firm tradition in many kiwi households, as something that New Zealand families do.
Talk to our people who work here today and many will tell you of children whose parents and grandparents came to the same kindergarten. Some tell stories of how their husbands went to the kindergarten at which they now teach. Or how the teacher that played with them in the sandpit in their kindy days is now a valued colleague.
Some parents return to kindergarten with their three year old to see the familiar faces of teachers who have made a lifelong career at our kindergartens and have, literally, taught generations.
Marie Cochrane, who trained in 194X and taught for many years, has always been pleased to see her old charges. “It’s amazing when you meet up with people years later and see what the children have grown into.”
“We have grandmothers coming back with their daughters, and their children, and they’ve all been through,’ says Hilary Waller, Head Teacher at Edmonds Smith Street. “It’s a whole cycle. ‘Oh no, my kids went there, so my grandkids are coming here.’ It’s lovely.”
Even so, seeing hundreds, or sometimes thousands of children pass through the kindergarten can test even the strongest memory.
Head Teacher at Kidsfirst Cashmere, Sandra Laffey says that, “there’s the odd occasion where I’m going to say - Well, I know you were a gorgeous boy at kindy but I can’t remember your name!”
“...and you’re down at the supermarket,” says Hilary,” out somewhere, and it’s ‘Oh Hilary, do you remember me?’ and I’m thinking I should, I should, I should. But here’s this seventeen year old girl looking fabulous and I had her at kindergarten and I’m supposed to know who she is!”
But even beyond this, there’s a constancy to the kindergarten experience that has endured. It has not only survived for more than a century, but flourished, despite all the challenges over the years. Much has also changed along the way. From the way kindergarten now operates to the societal changes that have influenced behaviour, the teachers have seen it first hand.
In earlier days, nothing was thought of ‘the little ones’ getting on their trikes and biking home by themselves. This was something that occured well into the 1960’s.
Similarly, Liz Hinchey, Head Teacher at Lyttleton, recalls parents in those days turning up to collect their children... only to be told they’d left already and had probably beaten them home.
“When I first came here,” says Sandra Laffey, who has been at Cashmere since 19XX, “the children used to come, mostly by themselves, and park their tricycles up by the gate and then, at twelve o’clock, they would get on their tricycles and go home. Now, they’re in their four wheel drives. From tricycles to 4WDs!”
In earlier days still, teachers would say “good morning “ to the mother, promptly removing the child from her arms, while encouraging a speedy exit on the parent’s part.
“Of course, says Diana Weir, thinking back to the 1940’s, “we didn’t include the mothers in those days. I can remember mothers where, if the child was crying, we just took the child from the mother and didn’t ask her in or anything and she just had to go. They weren’t welcome. Yes, they just had to go! It was so different to now.”
Carol Eggleston confirms it. “They weren’t invited in. We weren’t very nice. Leave them to us, we know what we’re doing. The mothers were excluded.”
Diana adds that “Eva Millen, who was such a wonderful teacher, I can remember her just not letting the parents come in. She’d just say ‘You go now’.”
This is a stark contrast to the attitudes of latter years when parental involvement was heartily encouraged.
Parent help became an incredible asset to the kindergartens and events such as Father’s Mornings or Grandparents Day turned into regular occurences. Besides this, as former teacher Jan Baird says, kindergarten played an important role as a hub within the community.
“We used to be a focal point when people would come, get themselves a cup of tea, sit down, and you were there and they were there, and they had all morning and some would stay all morning and then take their children home. It was just such an important part of their life. And, I’ve seen so many people who have come in and been supported by the teachers and, in themselves, grown ... to even want to come in and be a teacher themselves.... I think it was society that changed.”
“Probably the changing role of women has made the biggest difference,” notes Sandy Bain. From the days before women had the vote, through the war years when women took to the workforce to help the country while the menfolk fought, through feminism and empowerment, the demands and pressures on mothers seem to have intensified with every decade.
“I blame,” says Hilary Waller, “ ....well, there’s lots you can blame! Women are busier, women are being pushed back into the workforce, so therefore they don’t have the time ...and this is really the reason why kindergarten, why Kidsfirst had to change. We had to cater for the needs of the community, of the parents who are being pushed back by the government, and financially, back into the workforce far too early for the good of the children. So that’s why we went to the schoolday. Life’s changed. I’ve been here 22 years and it has changed. But we get the children coming back with their children now and that’s lovely. They come in and they’re a bit overwhelmed and thrilled that we’re still here and that’s really special. People like to come back. But overall, yes, everything’s changed, everything changed in the last 20 years. And, of course, there’s a lot of competition, because when I first started there were no childcare centres. Or there might have been one or maybe two. But now they are everywhere and they’re just popping up all over the place. In the last five years we’ve had three, all starting up here, all within a few blocks, all big corporation preschools with all the money and they’ve got the artificial grass and the plastic stuff which parents actually, if they don’t really know, come in and go ‘wow, this is great’ and yet it’s pretty artificial. But they start there and often we get children whose parents find they’re not so settled, they’re not so happy, they do get bored .... so they knock on our door.”
She observes that there’s a benefit to a stable workforce and a commitment to employing trained teachers.
“Sandy Bain, President of the Association from to , and a teacher before that, notes that “Kindergarten has always prided itself on fully trained staff. Right from the beginning it was really important. There’s always been the will to make sure that this was viable.”
“I’m sure the philosophy is the same,” says retired teacher Mary Moore. “Definitely. But of course they’ve moved with the times because now there are computers in every kindergarten and the children of that age are using them. And they weren’t heard of when we were teaching all those years ago!”
But Sandra Laffey doesn’t think that technology has changed the children. “I don’t think children have changed a lot, in so far as they’re still just children. Even though technology is something we have to embrace, they still want to play in the sandpit and water, with play dough and painting... the children are no different. It’s society, it’s parents, children have more choices because parents give them more choices. they’re more articulate ... but I don’t think children have changed at all.”
Jan agrees. “As far as the children are concerned, there’s no difference, they’re still the same little people,” she says.
"In all our Kindergarten responsibility for the children’s guidance and development is shared on a basis of real friendship between parents and teachers. The mother is not robbed of her responsibilities and privileges but rather given an added incentive and opportunity to do the best for her young children.”
Rene Wilkie, Principal,
Annual Report 1942.
“Thank goodness the holidays are coming! I’m all wore out seeing Jimmy scrubs his knees and brushes his teeth for school! The teachers are far too fussy these days, wanting a clean towel each week and forever asking the kids if they’ve washed behind their ears!”
– an “indignant mother” 1942.
“Certainly attitudes to early childhood had grown up, if I can put it like that. There were subtle shifts, I think, with what was going on in society. Probably the changing role of women has made the biggest difference.”
former CWFKA President