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Hi Joe!

Just a little background on our traditional Maori games. I teach PE at Kerikeri High School (NZ) and we have adapted many of our traditional games into the school environment. There is an entire Maori physical education concept, in NZ schools, based around traditional movements and values called “Te Ao Kori” (The world of Maori movement) – this has been revised from “Te Reo Kori” (The ‘language’ of Maori movement). We make most of our own traditional equipment, so it has a desirable cost/benefit ratio! I have included just games termed “tupea”, and if these are suitable I could send through rules for several of the more physically oriented traditional sports/games.


I appreciate the content on your web site, it is chock full of interesting and varied activities – I hope the games following will also have some contribution.



Harko Brown


The Process of Revival (A smidgen of sociology for your interest)


Traditionally hapu (extended families) lived on and around ancestral papa kainga (marae villages), which were the stimulating environments - the ‘hotbeds of creativity’ – in which games, and their artefacts, were devised and developed. Some hapu prized one game above all others - they would become expert practitioners of it and become kaitiaki (guardians) of ‘their’ special game and would weave it into their whakapapa (genealogy) - through legends, korero, play, rock art, carvings, tukutuku, raranga, tattoo and in other traditional ways. Conversely some hapu would effectively ‘bar’ games that an enemy tribe played or created, or they would hybridise their own version of that game and construct genealogies that were relevant to them. To comprehend the huge variety of games played by Maori in pre-European times one needs only to read the valuable accounts of ethnographer Elsdon Best. He researched, albeit by contentious methods, over one hundred Maori pastimes from within a few hapu (village) enclaves predominantly within the Tuhoe (central North Island) tribal region. His findings were sourced mainly from oral histories and records made nearly a century after the initial colonalisation processes had begun - after the devastating impact on Maori games adherence by the missionaries, after the destruction of traditional Maori society, after the horrific land war confiscations and then the ongoing ‘sky high’ death rates of kaumatua (the learned elders who were the ‘depositories of knowledge’) from disease, starvation and the phenomenon called ‘sorrow’ (caused by being forcibly alienated from their lands) - which combined to decimate games knowledges and tribal adherences. In this tiny area of NZ Best is credited with ‘unearthing’ a staggering number of pastimes and, as the Maori race was never homogenous, one can appreciate, the sheer volume of games that must have been played and produced by the thousands of hapu throughout Maori history. Unfortunately Best, and many other ethnographers, ignored many other related artefacts and traditional methods of recording games, and because of their predominant ‘Victorian’ attitudes and narrow sociological foci, ‘missed’, excluded or minimised many of the highly intellectual and technological Maori games – for example only two traditional boardgames have been ‘officially’ credited to Maori creation, they are Mengamenga and Mu Torere. However, Best’s Tuhoe works are still (by world standards) a rich collection and an invaluable reference resource from which many games, that had fallen into desuetude, have been passionately revived – especially during the Maori Renaissance period of the 1970s / 80s as many Maori academics, from several tribal areas, decided to share in their akotanga. With these developments have come commodifications, and societal remodelling, of many of the ancient pastimes. From kapa haka, to ki-o-rahi, poi toa, waka ama…to tupea - the kawa, tikanga and associated games artefacts have continued to evolve and grow and to culturally enrich NZ society. 






Following are a tiny selection of the many games that incorporate ‘ calculation, mental alertness and memorizing-powers’. Because tribes throughout NZ have different dialects, kawa, tikanga and traditions the names for such games collectives can also differ. Some areas place such games in a category called ‘kai’ - this term also encompasses fast imitation movement games and puzzles. The term ‘kai’ means ‘food’ in Maori language – ‘kai’ in this games sense is used to describe ‘food for the mind’. However ‘Tupea’, derived from a game of the same name, has become the most popular term for describing all games that require abstract cognitive ability and ‘intelligence’.




This is an information transmission game. One player holds a specially shaped rock and gently twists, turns or tugs a fine knotted flax rope (the ‘tupea’), as it is deftly pulled by their partner (who is blindfolded), over the rock’s long (15 – 20cm) slit groove. The rope (or tupea) cannot be taken off the rock and is always in motion, whether in one direction, or in a ‘back-and-forth’ movement. Elders devise the messages that the players send to each other. The object of the game is to pass a ‘secret’ message to your ‘blind’ team mate using the rope and rock only (no noise or other communications permitted!). She then ‘feels’ the vibrations, rope tensions and twists and through deciphering the pre-arranged coded ‘moves’ then guesses aloud what the message is or whispers it to one of the kaumatua (elders) for acknowledgement. Messages could be single words, well known proverbs, instructions or intricate storylines – the more skilled players, who devise and learn hundreds of ‘coded movements’, are set more difficult messages to encode and decipher. Players are usually in teams of two, however there are many common game variations and some competitions have player rotations (in teams of 10 or more) and time limits. Such games as tupea were played extensively in pre-European times by those tribes people who were charged with memorising their tribal knowledges.


PE adapting: have students find suitable rocks in an outdoor environment – they can be found ‘ready made’ or suitably ‘soft’ rocks could be shaped. These could be ‘stored’ in a decorative rock garden around the school somewhere. Rocks can be ‘personalised’ (decorated), so there is scope for inter-curricula co-operation between faculties. Have students pair off (or get into small groups) to devise their own codes. Have a list of ‘key words’ that will be used in the phrases – start simple, have them just transmit one word at a time initially, then advance to 2,3,4 at a time…..  In the gym tables can be setup along the centre line, for the problem solvers, and the rest of the group can do sprints as a method of time control for the opposing team. Huge letter/word cards and large boulders can also be integrated into this game – so the options for combining mental and physical activity are numerous. 


Mu Torere:


The game is played by two players on a ‘papa takaro’ (games board) or scribbed into clay or sand on the ground. There are usually 8 kewai (points) on a board, shaped like an 8-pointed star, although some tribes played with over 40 kewai, and always 1 putahi (centre). On the 8 point boards each player has 4 pieces (usually distinctly coloured stones). Each player gets to start with all their pieces on one half of the board, placed on the 4 kiwai (points). The first move always has the starter moving one of their outer pieces into the putahi (centre). Each player then moves one piece at a time alternately, if a piece is on one of the kewai (points) it can be moved onto the (empty) central putahi or onto one of the two (empty) flanking kiwai – if a piece is on the central putahi it is moved to the vacant kewai. You cannot jump over another piece nor have more than 1 piece on a kiwai or in the putahi at the same time. The object of the game is to move your pieces into such positions as to prevent your opponent from being able to move.


Gym / court adaptation: The game can also played by 2 teams of 4 people on a large marked court (usually about 3metrs x 3 metres). Simply markout, with chalk or paint, an 8 pointed star with a centre spot. Alternatively 8 hula-hoops can be placed around a central one.





Whai, or string games (cat’s-cradle), ‘told’ stories and legends through successive hand, finger, teeth, arm, feet and multiple person manipulations. The ropes were manufactured from harakeke (flax) and ti (cabbage tree).The imagination of the audience transformed simple and intricate designs endlessly into ‘vivid’ mental images of the objects being depicted – for example, sacred mountains, landmarks, great eagles, Gods, heroines & heros! The patterns would be created in sequences to  create ‘moving picture’ storylines, for example to illustrate The Legend of Rahi the whai story tellers would conjure up images of Rahi’s Manu Tangata, Ti Ara’s fern leaf trail, the ‘melting’ forests, the scorching suns and mountainous explosions. Players would swap patterns amongst themselves, and during inter-tribal feasting, young and old alike, would be engaged in pattern & technique exchanges – difficult patterns would be collectables and could be swapped for 3 or more simpler designs. Once learnt and practiced, the designs became second nature, and a repoitre exceeding 100 patterns was common. Top exponents would pride themselves on completing patterns with speed and fluidity – especially during story telling. Teams of 3 or 4 people would also do ‘big screen’ productions..

Although early settlers also had a long European string game history, they record in amazement the ‘superior’ patterns of the ‘Natives’ and the speed and dexterity of their movements.


The PE adaptation is very simple – have students group into 2s, 4s ….or 10s. Give each group a short string band (about 2metres long) and a much longer rope band (10 – 20 metres long).  They problem solve large group designs from their small hand held one.



Manu Kopua:



All kite, or Manu Tukutuku, activities held a special place in Maori sports history. The selection of raw materials for the kite making, reciting appropriate karakia and waiata, constructing, flight testing and learning to skilfully manipulate (‘fly’) kites to a high standard was an artform much valued in pre-European NZ. The kite masters knew how to spin, rock, stall, bank, trick and turn their kites in light or strong winds. Visualisation and the application of a wide range of flight principles were vitally important attributes to gaining a ‘feel’ for the kite and having the ability to successfully control and manoeuvre it. In ancient times Maori would use kites to supply food and water to besieged allies, to power waka on fishing expeditions, to ‘fire-bomb’ villages, during initiation rites and to lift people up off the ground. Games with Manu Kopua were invaluable training for such kite uses. Ingenious games and associated artefacts were created to reflect the environment Maori lived in and to show off the kite operators skills and their design abilities. The game called Manu Kopua is played by converting any type of kite into one that has a ‘ki’ (small egg carrying kete or bag) attached to the underside of the kite. A large egg, or egg like object, is then placed in the ki (bag). The kite operator then flies their kite as high as they dare and then skilfully manipulates the kite to tip the egg out of the ki (bag/undercarriage) and tries to catch it before it hits the ground. Sometimes the catching is done in teams. Some kite designs are fitted with special attachments, such as double ropes, that help to release the egg by ‘tripping’ the ki in flight. Manu Kopua was very popular and the associated games varied immensely. Sometimes pebbles were placed in the ki and the kite was flown over a target to see if it could be hit or teams of catchers would see how many of the pebbles they could catch. During Matariki festivals sometimes Manu Kopua were flown at night with their ki filled with protectively encased embers, and these would be released at a high altitude to cascade earthwards like a meteor shower.


PE method: have students construct kites with a ‘tripable’, or releasable, under carriage. Timing or flight controlled ‘trippers’ can be installed or a system of double ropes used - this is usually done by attaching the kite to a heavy main rope and having a fine nylon string attached to the under carriage. There are two ‘double rope’ methods – a) have the fine string attached directly to the under carriage or kite so that the ‘payload’ can be dropped  b) ‘snake’ the fine string along the heavy rope using ringlets (Maori use a ‘gadget’ called a ‘karere’ to do this). Ofcourse today there is always the option of installing a remote control triggering device! Many activities can be devised - from catching to target games.