One Hundred Years of Montessori in New Zealand

10 April 2017 - Montessori

In 2012 the Montessori community celebrated 100 years of Montessori in New Zealand.

MANZ marked the New Zealand centenary at the 2012 Conference in Auckland. We invited our community to help build a timeline at the conference; many photos of early classes, people, events, teacher meetings, and workshops contributed to building a pictorial history of Montessori in NZ.

A gift of five centenary cards was given to each delegate at the conference.

Montessori in New Zealand – The Early Years

Dr Helen May, Professor of Education at Otago University, describes the ‘short-lived flirtation’ of the NZ education system with Montessori beginning around 1910-12. In her recent book, I am Five and I go to School, we learn that the first recorded New Zealand teacher to have experienced this ‘new method’ of education was Margaret Slingsby Newman, from the Auckland College of Education. Miss Newman travelled in 1910 to Rome ‘‘…where she studied and observed the Montessori method and undoubtedly met Maria Montessori herself. She may have joined Montessori’s 1910 training course, the first of the annual courses the educator established for international educators.’’ (May 2012, p.78).

There was also early interest by important figures such as James Allen, the newly-appointed Minister of Education. In December 1912, Mr Allen was on his way by ship to London for a conference on defence. On board, he met an Australian teacher, Martha Simpson, who had set up a Montessori class for five and six-year-olds at Blackfriars School in Sydney a few months earlier. She was on her way to train with Dr Montessori. Allen was interested in finding out more and travelled with her to Rome, met Dr Montessori and attended some training lectures. Allen left ‘‘with this interest in Montessori transformed to enthusiasm’’. (May 2012, p.81).

Wanganui Central Infant School ordered a set of Montessori materials in 1912 as part of the school’s objective to ‘‘demonstrate the latest approaches to infant teaching”. (May 2012, p.83). There are a set of showcase photos from 1919 (see above) showing a wide range of Montessori activities, including gardening and activities outside in the playground still in use in the school.

Montessori was also used in other state primary schools: Winifred Maitland, principal of Kelburn Normal School in Wellington, had Montessori equipment made by a local firm in 1915 and there are photos of Montessori activities being used in 1923 by the children.  Visitors to Wellington interested in Montessori were directed by the Department of Education to Kelburn School (May 2012, p.82).

Important people remained interested in Montessori, and New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey ordered a set of approved Montessori materials through the High Commissioner in London; however it was lost in a shipwreck, and the arrival of a replacement set was delayed due to a shortage of shipping during World War 1. Children at Eastern Hutt School in 1920 were also photographed using Montessori activities on their desktops in1920.

Emily Blennerhasset travelled to Sydney in 1915 with two other teachers to observe at the Blackfriars School.  She became the principal of Wanganui Central Infant School, and under her leadership, Montessori continued to be used in the school for many years. However, May (2012) notes that from 1922 annual reports to Parliament no longer referred to the Montessori method in Wanganui.   This fading of interest in state primary schools in New Zealand was similar to the declining interest in Montessori observed in Europe and the United States in the 1920s.

In New Zealand, Montessori did not completely disappear but became part of the Catholic school system. In her PhD thesis, Mary-Jane Shuker explains how an attempt was made to integrate Montessori into the Catholic school system in the late 1920s.  Mother Mary. St Domitille trained with Dr Montessori in Rome in 1925 and was tasked with establishing Montessori in the infant school of St Joseph’s Convent School. Several Catholic primary schools, including St Mary’s Catholic School in Lyttelton and Our Lady Star of the Sea in Sumner, retained Montessori in their infant schools until the 1940s and1950s, however, May (2012) points out that ‘‘there was little visibility of these endeavours or reference to them in the mainstream commentary of the time’’ (p.87).


May, H. (2012.) I am five and I go to school; Early years schooling in New Zealand, 1900-2010. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Shuker, M.J (2008). The historical evolution and contemporary status of Montessori schooling in New Zealand, as an example of the adaptation of an alternative educational Idea to a particular national context. (Unpublished PhD thesis). Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

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