State Library and Tasmanian Archives Blog

A History of Play: Early Childhood Education in Tasmania

And old black and white photo of children playing on balance equipment.
AB713/1/11557: Kindergarten Union of Tasmania Pre-School unit van at Snug Community Centre, preschool children, 1970s.

Firstly, a confession. I have struggled to write this blog, to gather references and to find a quiet space to write an intelligent, interesting, engaging and informative piece on the history of early childhood education in Tasmania. My first effort was informative, but it seemed to lack something, and I wasn’t happy with it.  

Then, one day, I had an epiphany while walking after work. I feel an immense pride in the public education system in Tasmania. I send both my boys to public schools on the Eastern Shore in Southern Tasmania. My father was a well-loved, enthusiastic and dedicated Physics and Maths teacher in both public and private schools in Northern Tasmania. I still recall him enthusiastically telling me, “Tasmania has the best public education system in Australia.” When I studied at University, I was constantly meeting his past students whose choices were in some way inspired by his teaching methods.

This is how education began in Tasmania – with inspired, talented people dedicated to improving the lives of Tasmanian children.  

While researching this blog, I discovered one such person, Joseph Benson Mather, who was determined to provide an education to Tasmania’s poorest children. I and my colleagues went on to find dozens of stories of devoted parents, dedicated teachers, and generous communities who believed that young Tasmanian children deserved high quality early childhood education. Together, they laid the groundwork for early childhood education in Tasmania today, where amazing teachers encourage little children to learn through play, to be curious, and to love school.

Joseph Mather and the Ragged Schools

A drawing of 3 school kids in front of a door wearing clothes with holes in them. Text above the door reads: "Ragged school"
Illustration from Alexander MacLagan, Ragged School Rhymes, Edinburgh, 1851. Courtesy British Library

When an eight year old Joseph Mather arrived with his family in Van Diemen’s Land on September 10th, 1821, the colony was not much older than him. The family settled in Potters Hill, opposite the Memorial Church.

A piece of paper.
AE807/1/18, Index to Tasmanian Government Records and Colonial Newspapers (Wayn Index)

The family’s businesses were highly successful. Not only did they supply all manner of goods to the new colonists, they even issued paper currency before the first bank opened! In 1850, Joseph Mather and his son opened a drapery business in Liverpool Street, at the site now known as Mather’s Lane. Five years later in 1855, Joseph combined with other philanthropists to establish what were known as “Ragged Schools.”

The Ragged School Movement began in industrial London, and was designed provide education to utterly destitute children. Charles Dickens wrote that without the Ragged Schools, “the capital city of the world [will become] a vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice; a breeding place for the hulks and jails…”

An old black and white photo of a picture of a school. seen from the other side of the road
The Ragged School in Cascade Road, Hobart, later a Baptist church. ‘ Mount Wellington from top of Macquarie Street’, W.L. Crowther (1873)

At the other end of the world, the Ragged Schools were intended to provide education to street children in the poorest areas of Hobart – areas such as Central Street (now Watchorn), Wapping (near Theatre Royal), Anglesea Street (South Hobart) and the Wharf Area. As The Courier put it in 1859, Hobart’s Ragged Schools were intended for “…the young and the ignorant, whose parents may be too poor to value the education of their children, too careless to seek after it, or too poor to pay for it.”

By the time Joseph Benson Mather passed away in May 1890, he had established himself as a philanthropist, a businessman, and an advocate for poor children, from Hobart’s Ragged Schools to the Cascades Boys Reformatory (on the site of the Female Factory). In his obituaries, he was lauded as a respected, enthusiastic, and kind man.

The Children’s Garden: Kindergarten

A drawing of school kids standing in a circle with their teacher.
Emilie Poulsson, Finger Plays for Nursery and Kindergarten, Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1893. Digital copy available from Project Gutenberg.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the notion that children (especially working class children) needed to be disciplined and contained was still widespread (see our earlier blogs on the Orphan Schools and the Public School Curriculum). But a new idea was developing – that early childhood was a distinct period of innocence that needed to be nurtured and preserved. One of the most important individuals responsible for changing the view of early childhood education, and emphasizing the value of learning through play, was the German educator and philosopher, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852).

A drawing of a man.
Portrait of Friedrich Froebel, Syracuse, N.Y. : C.W. Bardeen, c1897. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-00127

Froebel compared children’s education and development to that of a flower garden, with each child requiring just the right amount of care and attention to unfold and expand in the right direction. His approach was revolutionary, not only because it proposed that children learned best through play, but also because Froebel insisted that education should nurture the whole child: their imagination, creativity, mathematical, musical, scientific, physical, social, moral and cultural abilities. Froebel’s ideas of child-centred, play-based education were adopted and extended by several other influential thinkers, including Dr Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and the New Educationists.

Kindergarten in Tasmanian Schools

The date at which kindergarten started as a part of the public system in Tasmania is a bit fiddly. There was a provision for kindergarten instruction in the 1885 Act, though attendance was not compulsory (that started at age seven). In Launceston in 1892, a Miss Fletcher opened a Froebel-inspired kindergarten. It was not free (though it operated at reduced rates), and parents and members of the public urged the government to adopt it as part of the public school system. The author of the Ladies’ Column in the Daily Telegraph visited the kindergarten and was impressed by the system of play-based learning, instructive games, singing, and movement in a cheerful atmosphere. She wrote,

“Everything is made so interesting and bright in the different branches of instruction that the children’s talents are being developed without the tiniest bit of drudgery and weariness that is so often felt by young children.”

‘Kindergarten’ Daily Telegraph 1 October 1892: 2.

Kindergarten methods began to be introduced in Tasmanian schools under W.L. Neale as part of his broader push to modernize Tasmanian education in the early 1900s (see our earlier blogs on Public Health in Public Schools and Teaching in Tasmania). This was part of the reason why Amy Rowntree was sent to the mainland to complete training in Kindergarten methods in 1912 – and her letters home are marvellous, simply glowing with enthusiasm as she wrote, “I want to be the very best, I want Tasmanian Kindergarteners to be able to compare with any.”

A group of children cleaning the floor of a room.
PH30/1/1136, image 6: Children playing at the Free Kindergarten in Watchorn Street, Hobart, c. 1910.

On the 15th of November, 1910, the first free Kindergarten in Tasmania began in a back room of the Central Street Free School grounds at 23 Central Street, Hobart (now Watchorn Street). The Kindergarten was centrally located and free of charge due to the philanthropy of Mr and Mrs Dobson and the Free Kindergarten Committee. Miss Ramsey from Sydney was appointed as head teacher with Miss Robey as assistant. The class was attended by twenty infants aged between three and seven.

The children participated in varied activities: weaving on hand looms, building with blocks, making sand castles, and of course, gardening. If you have a look through this remarkable photograph album, you can see how the space was cheerful and bright, and everything was “just their size.”

A group of children working outside in a garden.
PH30/1/1136, image 8: Kindergarteners in the children’s garden, Hobart Free Kindergarten, Watchorn Street, c. 1910

The Kindergarten was a great success and with community and government assistance other locations were established in Anglesea Street, Swanston Street, Lutana and Federal Streets. These were funded with a government subsidy of £100, but only if the public matched the funds. As the founders of the Free Kindergarten Association wrote,

“This work is not a charity in the usual sense of the word; it is a necessary and sure foundation for the improvement and uplifting of the future citizens of the state. It is a business investment for a business man.”

“The Kindergarten in Hobart” Hobart: Hobart Free Kindergarten Asociation, 1911.

Subscriptions could be sent to Alfred J. Taylor (the librarian of the Tasmanian Public Library). Taylor had long been an advocate of play-based education for children under age 8, writing in the Tasmanian News as early as 1895 that play-based learning took advantage of children’s natural sense of wonder in “a system of instruction that will best develop the faculties and character of the child.”

Free Kindergarten Associations

The cover of a book with 2 apples on the front.
Text on the cover reads" Cookery calendar from apple land. In aid of the Hobart free kindergarten association".

As the twentieth century progressed, kindergartens continued to be popular and successful, but administratively, they were still in a grey area. Many were free, and were run by Free Kindergarten Associations (and we have several of their records in our archives – see the “Further Reading” at the end of this blog). They were funded by a combination of government subsidies, community fundraising, philanthropic donations, and parent groups. To raise money, the Free Kindergarten Association held regular fund raising activities, including Jumble Sales, Annual Fairs, Balls, Concerts and Garden Fetes. They also had items for sale like this amazing “Cookbook Calendar from the Apple Isle” that was produced by Cox Kay (which also produced many of the iconic Tasmanian apple labels). The recipe calendar had a different recipe for each day of the year, including “The Best of All Recipes”:

The first page of the cookery calendar. Text reads: " The best of all recipes. How to preserve children's lives. Take one large grassy field. One half-dozen children. two of three small dogs. a pinch of brook and pebbles. Mix children and dogs well together and put them in a field, stirring constantly. pour the brook over the pebbles. sprinkle the field with flowers. spread over all a deep blue sky and bake in a hot sun. when brown remove, and set to cool in a bath-tub."

Not sun-smart perhaps, but still charming! There is no date on the calendar, but it must predate 1939, when the Free Kindergarten Association merged with others to become the Tasmanian Kindergarten Union. It might well be the calendar that was advertised in the Mercury in September of 1933 as a “remarkably good production…. In which each day has its own special cookery recipe.”

An old black and white photo of a group of children sitting at tables in a room. a teacher sits at a piano
AB713/1/916 South Queenstown Pre-School, in a rented hall in Queenstown, 1952. Described in Phillips and Sprod, More Adequate Provision, p 273.

The Depression saw government funding to the kindergartens cut drastically. In 1938, there was some respite when the Commonwealth established Lady Gowrie child care centres in Australian capital cities. The next year the Tasmanian Kindergarten Union was formed from several local Free Kindergarten Associations.  Early childhood education continued to be provided by a mixture of parental support and the Kindergarten Union, with some government support in terms of teachers and learning spaces. Some kindergartens had their own buildings, some were held in rented halls – even on the wireless with ABC’s “Kindergarten of the Air” in 1951.

An old black and white photo of a kindergarten class on stage at the Theatre Royal
AB713/1/577, Kindergarten of the Air, Miss Anne Dreyer broadcasting from the Theatre Royal, 1951

This was not, however, entirely without controversy. In December 1951, an episode discussing the tradition of St Nicholas implied that there was no Father Christmas, prompting many thousands of angry letters to the ABC and this correction in the Mercury.

Some existing schools in Hobart (Anglesea and Barclay) were taken over by the Education Department in 1956, but it wasn’t until 1968 that kindergartens across the state were formally brought into the Education Department. These included bringing kindergarten to young children in regional Tasmania, sometimes in the open air next to a specially equipped Kombi van!

And old black and white photo of children playing on balance equipment.
AB713/1/11557: Kindergarten Union of Tasmania Pre-School unit van at Snug Community Centre, preschool children, 1970s.

Over more than 150 years, Tasmanians have worked hard to provide a high-quality public education to little children. It’s because of their dedication, foresight, philanthropy and hard work that Tasmanian kindergartens are what they are today – nurturing environments where children can play, create, and explore, guided by compassionate, devoted, and highly qualified teachers.

A group of school children playing with blocks inside
AB713/1/3197 : Albuera Street Infant School, children playing with blocks in kindergarten, 1950s.

Further Reading

Explore 150 years of public education in Tasmania

Primary Sources

Charles Dickens, “A Letter on Ragged Schooling” The Daily News, 4 February 1846. Reproduced at infed archives, accessed 18 September 2019

For some fabulous images of kindergartens (often labelled “Pre-Schools”) in the 1950s and 1960s, check out this list of images on the Libraries Tasmania catalogue.

If you’d like to do more research on the history of Kindergarten in Tasmania , we hold the following records:

NG529: Hobart Free Kindergarten Association (1915-1957)

NG814: The Kindergarten Union of Tasmania (1954 – 1988)

NG625: Barclay Kindergarten (1910-1977)

We also hold personal records of some Kindergarten teachers:

NG3480: Elspeth Phyllis Vaughan (later Elspeth Hope-Johnstone), Artist and Educator

Elspeth Phyllis Vaughan (later Elspeth Hope-Johnstone) was born in Hobart in 1926. Along with her two sisters, she attended The Friends School. She trained and worked as a kindergarten teacher in Melbourne. Upon her return to Tasmania she taught at the Augusta Road Kindergarten and at Lady Gowrie in Battery Point, where she was director for several years. In 1953 she was appointed Supervisor of Pre-School Education in the Tasmanian Education Department. She also lectured in Early Childhood Education at the former Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. In 1976 she was made a fellow of the Australian College of Education.

ED9/1/1146: 888/1913. From Miss Amy Rowntree. Transfer to Sydney for experience in Kindergarten work.

We included some of these wonderful letters in our earlier blog on Teachers in Tasmania, but you are very welcome to come into the History Room and have a look at the rest!

Secondary Sources

Kim Fletcher, Frederick Street Kindergarten, a history from 1910-1988. Legana, Tas. : K. Fletcher, 1988.

Elspeth Hope-Johnstone, “Kindergarten” in Alison Alexander (ed), The Companion to Tasmanian History, Hobart, Tas. : Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania, 2005.

Imogen Lee, “Ragged Schools” in Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, blog from the British Library., accessed 18 September 2019.

Joachim Liebschner, A Child’s Work: Freedom and Guidance in Froebel’s Educational Theory and Practice. Cambrdge : Lutterworth Press, 1992.

Ella Mainwaring, A Kindergarten is Born: A History of Barclay Kindergarten 1910-1977 Bellerive, Tas. : Livingston Printers. May 1977

Derek Phillips and Michael Sprod, Making more adequate provision: State education in Tasmania, 1839-1985, Hobart, Tas. : Government Printer for the Education Department of Tasmania, 1985.

Resources for Early Learning in Tasmania today 

Launching into Learning – free program for young children (birth – 4 years) that operates in all Tasmanian Government primary and district schools and Child and Family Centres

Information on current Early Years Education from the Department for Children, Education and Young People (including policy documents, learning outcomes and guides for families)

Working Together initiative

Bush Kinder at the Sustainability Learning Centre, Mt Nelson (a joint endeavour between the Department of Education, Aboriginal Education Services, Greening Australia, Independent Schools Tasmania, Tasmanian Catholic Education Office)


  • Leanne is an Archivist with the State Library and Archive Service

1 thought on “A History of Play: Early Childhood Education in Tasmania”

  1. katrina says:

    Wonderful. I have worked in Kindergartens for the last decade and reading your article appreciate them even more. Thank you. I do notice that not a lot has changed…every day setting out climbing frames!

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