ECE Diamonds

Joan Kennett – I’m going to look after children

Life member 1988

A life-long champion for children in early childhood care and education, and especially for Māori tamariki, Joan Kennett was never one to follow a conventional path. 

As a young child in a convent school, Joan remembers seeing a picture of Jesus with children of different cultures and saying: “When I grow up, I’m going to do that, I’m going to look after children.”

Leaving her Mosgiel home against her family’s wishes, fostering her first child as a single 23-year-old in the 1950s, Joan married a Māori man and moved to his family marae in Hawkes Bay – the first European in their whānau. By the time she moved to nearby Woodville, Joan had eight children in her care, some from the pa, one of whom was her own. 

Playcentre and its training paved Joan’s path into her early childhood career. Then, in the late 1960s, the YWCA in Palmerston North purchased the St Agnes private kindergarten and asked Joan to run it.

“When I went to visit, the children were sitting at desks,” recalled Joan. ”They each had a puzzle in front of them. I changed that place! St Agnes started to look similar to a Playcentre.”

With firm ideas about good childcare and staff training, Joan joined the Association (now Te Rito Maioha) and became a tutor teaching the Royal Society of Health Child Care Certificate established by the Association in 1969. At times she was horrified when she visited some other centres. 

“The staff were untrained and doing all the wrong things…There was little equipment and the children looked forlorn. Children quarrelling and tearing around aimlessly was, to me an inadequate preschool.”

Noting that no Māori children took part in Palmerston North preschools, Joan also set up a preschool for Māori children, using St Agnes kindergarten one afternoon a week. That was the beginning of Project Atawhai. Word got around. Concern turned to support, with the Department of Māori Affairs and city council getting behind it. Joan was funded for more sessions and more children. 

Joan’s commitment to Māori participation in early childhood education continued when she set up her own childcare centre, the Wānanga Preschool – calling it a preschool because the concept of childcare still met with disapproval in the 1970s. There was no government funding. Joan never took a wage, although she encouraged all her staff to join the new Early Childhood Workers Union in 1982. Wānanga Preschool was the first private centre to join the Consenting Parties’ Award in 1984. 

Joan Kennett was Te Rito Maioha’s longest-serving member and life member when she died in Palmerston North on 4 September 2021, aged 94. She fostered more than 23 children over the years as well as her formal work in early childhood education and care. 

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Joan’s full story and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa