Playcentre began in 1941 primarily as a support service to women left raising children alone due to partners being away with the second world war. With isolation from lack of transport and low family incomes being the reality for many women, Playcentre's original aims were “to provide leisure for mothers and opportunities for the social development of the pre-school child” (Stover, 1998, p. 3).
The strategy used in establishing a Playcentre was for a group of mothers to roster themselves to care for children in a community hall, and develop management of their group with a strong focus on democratic processes. Playcentre leaders in the early years promoted an emphasis on parent education, which encouraged parents to be well read and have lively debates, both on childhood education and wider topics. These factors meant that, while Playcentres were products of their times and local community, they were from the start a site for women's empowerment and feminist thought (Woodhams, 2010).
The NZ Playcentre Federation was formed in 1948, bringing together already established associations in the Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury regions. The Federation was based on the original philosophies of child initiated play and the importance of parents as educators of their own children.
Playcentre is an internationally recognised early childhood organisation. Today there are 489 Playcentres affiliated to the New Zealand Playcentre Federation through each of the 33 regional Associations, and ten Playcentre established in Japan.