Inspirational educator pushed boundaries for women, children

FREE-PLAY PIONEER: Marie Bell believed that ordinary people can make a difference.
FREE-PLAY PIONEER: Marie Bell believed that ordinary people can make a difference.

Marie Bell: b Wellington, February 19, 1922; m (1) Paetahi (Pat) Metekingi (dec), 1s; (2) Jim Bell, 1d, 1s; d Wellington, November 3, 2012, aged 90.

When Marie Bell's father enrolled her at secondary school, he was asked what he wanted for his daughter. He replied: "To be a good woman."

Overhearing him report this to her mother, Marie always remembered her retort: "Is that all?"

Marie far exceeded both parents' expectations.

In a lifelong career in the education sector, she pioneered the free-play method of pre-schooling in New Zealand, co-founded Wellington's ground- breaking progressive school Matauranga and gained a university doctorate in her 80s.

The eldest of three children, Marie, born Marie Heron, credited her mother for her feminism and her father for her academic interests.

At Newtown and Lyall Bay schools, the talented and hard-working pupil had inspiring teachers who introduced her to verse speaking, acting, and debating.

She was dux at Wellington East Girls' College, despite hating the constant "puritanical pressure" to succeed at exams. She was sure exam stress was the cause of her getting Bell's Palsy in her final year.

Convinced she would fail at blackboard drawing, Marie enrolled somewhat reluctantly at Wellington Teachers' College in 1938. However, she found it a "wonderful place" full of radical and progressive ideas.

She joined the Maori club, where she met Pat Metekingi. They married in 1943.

The couple planned to run a two-teacher country school, but World War II intervened; Pat joined the Maori Battalion and was killed a few months later at Faenza in Northern Italy.

Marie's father had also just died. Widowed at 22 with a baby, John, she found herself supporting her recently widowed mother and two younger siblings.

Marie had been offered a sole charge school, Matahiwi, on the Whanganui River in her husband's family territory, but an application for the post from a male teacher meant she had to move aside.

She was offered a home by the Metekingis, but decided to "get on with it and have a career". She returned to Wellington and gained a degree.

Colin Bailey, professor of education at Victoria University, advised a diploma in education, and Marie focused on early childhood, writing a mini-thesis on the type of preschool that might be good for Maori children.

In 1949, accompanied by her son and mother, she used her war pension to sail for London University and further study.

While there, she worked as a volunteer at a university nursery school in Chelsea that ran a progressive free-play programme which fitted her own ideas.

Free play is the belief that children's activity is a means of learning, and the activities that interest them should guide teachers' work.

While in London, the Bailey Report was published in New Zealand. It recommended the government take over the operation of kindergartens.

Professor Bailey and the newly- appointed preschool officer, Moira Gallagher, visited Marie in London, where a plan was agreed for her to bring play-based methods to New Zealand.

She returned home and was appointed director of the newly built Pahiatua kindergarten, and the free-play method was introduced.

MARIE commuted weekly to Pahiatua, where she cycled around on a borrowed bike, introduced dramatic play and told mothers to come and help - which they did. But weekly separations from her son became too difficult.

After two terms, she returned to Wellington to become supervisor of junior classes at Mt Cook School, the free-play approaches travelling with her.

Marie's work was soon noticed and she was encouraged to apply for a lecturer's position at Wellington Teachers' College.

Between 1953 and 1958, she ensured free-play methods became widely disseminated. Her students remember her as an inspirational educator who encouraged them to not seek to conform and not be daunted by resistance.

In 1954, Marie married Jim Bell and, in 1958, pregnant with their daughter Kathrine, resigned from teachers' college.

But she was soon lecturing on the Playcentre Supervisors' Course and continued this for 20 years.

She also became involved with Parents Centre. Through that and part-time teaching at the Kindergarten College, she spread the ideas that had influenced her in London.

While teaching Playcentre supervisors, Marie met the parents with whom she founded the alternative progressive school Matauranga, in Wellington's Aro Valley.

She was convinced the quality of children's relationships with their parents and teachers were important for learning.

The school opened in 1963 with 11 pupils. Marie was persuaded to be the teacher after the other parents agreed to look after the young boy, Simon, she and Jim had just adopted.

The school's basic principles were no corporal punishment, peaceful problem solving, parent involvement and contribution in daily learning, children working at their own pace with respect for each other and the value of learning through play and experiences of the world outside school.

Marie worked there till 1971, when the first cohort had gone through.

She believed strongly that with access to knowledge and support ordinary people can make a difference. She was committed to the democratic process and worked tirelessly to ensure women's and children's voices were not overlooked or dismissed.

While working at the Education Department between 1974 and 1982, she observed that women were often silenced at meetings. She developed an assertiveness training workshop and was frequently invited to offer this at women's conferences.

She was on the Wellington High School board in the 1970s, when it advocated doing away with uniforms. She also pushed boundaries by supporting the appointment to a senior school position of a woman in an openly de facto relationship.

Marie was an active member of the Labour Party and her work in her home electorate of Rongotai was relentless. At various times, she held almost every office at branch and electorate level.

She was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006. She was 80 when she started her PhD, an oral history of Parents Centre. She was the second-oldest person to get a doctorate from Victoria. 

Sources: Pam Cubey, Professor Helen May, Sue Shone, Dr Sue Stover.

The Dominion Post