Helen May

Adjunct Professor
School of Education


ONZM, BEdStud, DipEdStud, MA, PhD(Well), DipTchg


Helen May has spoken and published widely in the field of early childhood curriculum and the history and policy of early years education. She trained as a primary school teacher in the mid-1960s and in her early career taught 5–6 year olds. Later, when Helen had her own children she worked in childcare and for five years was the Coordinator of the Victoria University of Wellington crèche. In 1987 Helen began work in teacher education at Hamilton Teachers’ College and later the University of Waikato. During the early 1990s she worked with Margaret Carr on the development of Te Whāriki, the first national curriculum guidelines for New Zealand. In 1995 Helen was appointed to the first New Zealand professorial Chair in Early Childhood Education at Victoria University of Wellington. In 2005, she was appointed as Professor of Education and Head of Faculty of Education at the University of Otago, and from 2007–2011 was the Dean of the University of Otago College of Education. During 2011–2013 Helen was the Chair of the Education Panel for the Tertiary Education Commission's PBRF evaluation process and was a Deputy Moderator for the  2015–2019 PBRF round. Helen retired from Otago in 2016 and was appointed an Emeritus Professor and is currently based in Wellington at Victoria University of Wellington. Since 2018 Helen has been a member of  the judging panel for the Prime Minister’s Teaching Excellence awards.

Research Interests

Early childhood issues - policy, history, curriculum

Current research projects

  • Froebelian Endeavours, New Education and the ‘Researched’ Child from the 1920s to the 1960s (with Larry Prochner, Kristen Nawrotski, Alessandra Arce Hal, Yordanka Volkanova). Funded by the Froebel Trust, (UK) 2020-2023. My case study is titled ‘Let’s find out: Reimagining the young child as a research worker 1920-1960s.' This project follows on from a previous project (2017-2020) and is published in the book, Reimagining Teaching: Progressive Pedagogies in Experimental Schools in the early 20th century. (2020) Palgrave Press.
  • 60th Jubilee Book to be published in 2023 for Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood NZ – previously the NZ Childcare Association founded by Sonja Davies.
  • Chapter for the International Handbook of Froebelian Educational approach, scholarship and research. Editors: Tina Bruce, Yukiyo Nishido, Sacha Powell, Helge Wasmuth, Jane Whinnett. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London. ‘Discoveries at the back of the kindergarten cupboard’ is based on my work at Kaitiaki of Te Whānau Manaaki o Tararua Archive History Project.
  • ECE teachers talk teacher education: People, politics and pedagogy in Aotearoa New Zealand, AUT, (with A. Gibbons, S. Stover, D. Hill).


  • 1990: NZ Medal for Services to Education
  • 1990: Life Member NZ Childcare Association (Te Rito Maioha—Early Childhood Education https://ecnz.ac.nz/)
  • 2010: NZEI—Te Rui Roa Honorary Fellow Award
  • 2010: Award of Appreciation from Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) Los Angeles, USA
  • 2014-2016: President of the International Froebel Society
  • 2016: OMNZ for services to Education

Selected publications


May, H., Card, A., & Carroll-Lind, J. (Eds.). (2021). Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa: Life stories on the frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Rito Maioha–Early Childhood New Zealand.

Hai, A. A.,  May, H., Nawrotski, K.,  Prochner, L.,  Volkanova, Y., (2020) Re-imagining Teaching in Early 20th Century Experimental Schools. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Middleton, S., May, H. Eds. (2019) For Women and Children: A tribute to Geraldine McDonald, (co-editor with S. Middleton) Wellington: NZCER Press.

May, H. (2019 3rd ed.) Politics in the Playground: The world of early childhood in postwar New Zealand, Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

May, H., Bethell, K. (2017). Growing a kindergarten movement: its peoples, purposes and politics, Wellington, NZCER Press, pp. 323.

May, H., Nawrotzki, K., & Prochner, L. (Eds.). (2016). Kindergarten narratives on Froebelian education: Transnational investigations. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 224p.

May, H., Kaur, B., & Prochner, L. (2014). Empire, education, and indigenous childhoods: Nineteenth-century missionary infant schools in three British colonies. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 300p.

May, H. (2014). People, places and play in the 'child gardens' of Dunedin: Dunedin Kindergartens: Mana Manaaki Puawai O Otepoti 125 years old. Dunedin, New Zealand: Dunedin Kindergartens, 198p.

May, H. (2013). The discovery of early childhood (2nd ed.). Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press.

May, H. (2013). Ngā Āhuatanga Hurihuri o te Tiaki Tamariki: The changing fortunes of childcare: 2003-2013. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa: NZ Childcare Association, 119p. Retrieved from www.mebooks.co.nz

May, H. (2013). Concerning women considering children: The changing fortunes of childcare (Revised ed.). Wellington, New Zealand: Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa: NZ Childcare Association, 388p. Retrieved from www.mebooks.co.nz

May, H. (2011). I am five and I go to school: Early years schooling in New Zealand, 1900-2010. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press, 320p.

May, H. (2009). Politics in the playground: The world of early childhood in New Zealand (Revised ed.). Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press, 368p.

May, H. (2006). School beginnings: A 19th century colonial story. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press, 252p.

Middleton, S. & May, H (1997). Teachers Talk Teaching 1915-1995, early childhood, school teachers college, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 380p.

May, H. (1992) Minding Children: Managing Men: Conflict and Compromise in the Lives of Postwar Pakeha Women, Bridget Williams, Wellington, 371p.

May, H. (1985) Mind That Child: Childcare as a Social and Political Issue in New Zealand, Blackberry Press, Wellington 95p.

Book Review

May, H. (2018). Between the Profession and the State: A History of the New Zealand Teachers Council, by Noeline Alcorn (2015). NZ Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 53, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40841-017-0098-8

Chapters in Books

May, H. (2019) Networking at the Wellington preschool 'Sunday Club’,  (Eds.) S. Middleton & H. May, For Women and Children: A Tribute to Geraldine McDonald, Wellington, NZCER Press,  pp. 100-110.

May, H. (2018) Advocacy and collaboration in the kindergarten movement of Aotearoa New Zealand: some Froebelian legacies, (with C. Wells) (Eds.) T. Bruce, P. Elfer, S, Powell, L. Worth,  The Routledge International Handbook of Froebel and Early Childhood Practice, London: Routledge,  pp. 79-82.

May, H. (2017). Documenting early childhood policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: Political stories - personal journeys. In L. Miller, C. Cameron, C. Dalli and N. Barbour (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Early Childhood Policy, London, Sage, pp. 151-164.

May, H., Smith, A. (2017). ‘Connections between early childhood policy and research in Aotearoa New Zealand: 1970s-2010s’. In M. and B. Van Oers (Eds.), International Handbook on Early Childhood Education and Development, New York, Springer, pp. 531-550.

May, H., & Carr, M. (2016). Te Whāriki: A uniquely woven curriculum shaping policy, pedagogy and practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. In T. David, K. Goouch & S. Powell (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of philosophies and theories of eary childhood education and care. (pp. 316-326). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

May, H. (2016). A historical overview of early education policy and pedagogy: Global perspectives and particular examples. In T. Meaney, O. Helenius, M. L. Johansson, T. Lange & A. Wernberg (Eds.), Mathematics education in the early years: Results from the POEM2 Conference. Springer.

May, H. (2016). Relocating, continuity and change: Dunedin kindergartens, Aotearoa New Zealand, 1890s-2010s. In H. May, K. Nawrotzki & L. Prochner (Eds.), Kindergarten narratives on Froebelian education: Transnational investigations. (pp. 166-180). London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

May, H. (2016). The early adventures of Anne and the politics of childcare. In C. Dalli & A. Meade (Eds.), Research, policy and advocacy in the early years: Writing inspired by the achievements of professor Anne Smith. (pp. 13-24). Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press.

May, H. (2014). New Zealand: A narrative of shifting policy directions for early childhood education and care. In L. Gambaro, K. Stewart & J. Waldfogel (Eds.), An equal start? Providing quality early education and care for disadvantaged children. (pp. 147-170). Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

May, H. (2013). Recollecting childhood at school in early twentieth century. In N. Higgins & C. Freeman (Eds.), Childhoods: Growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. (pp. 95-109). Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

May, H. (2010). Reframing some windows on early childhood education: An unlikely career. In J. Kidman & K. Stevens (Eds.), Looking back from the centre: A snapshot of contemporary New Zealand education. (pp. 139-157). Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.

Carr, M., May, H., & Podmore, V. (2010). ″Te Whäriki″: Neuseelands frühpädagogisches Curriculum 1991-2001. In W. E. Fthenakis & P. Oberhuemer (Eds.), Frühpädagogik international: Bildungsqualität im Blickpunkt. (2nd ed.) (pp. 175-190). Wiesbaden, Germany: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

May, H. (2010). Refashioning the colonial kindergarten: A political story from Aotearoa New Zealand. In K. Neumann, U. Sauerbrey & M. Winkler (Eds.), Fröbelpädagogik im Kontext der Moderne: Bildung, Erziehung und soziales Handeln. (pp. 95-111). Jena, Germany: Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.

Smith, A. B., & May, H. (2006). Early childhood care and education in Aotearoa-New Zealand. In E. Melhuish & K. Petrogiannis (Eds.), Early childhood care and education: International perspectives. (pp. 95-114). Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Edited Journal

(Prochner, L., May, H. ) (2018) Special Issue: Lessons and legacies of early childhood history, (with L. Prochner eds.) Early Years an International Research Journal, vol. 38, issue 2,  ‘Editorial, pp. 119-239

(Prochner, L., May, H. ) (2018) Special Issue: New histories in the field of early childhood education and care ,  Early Years an International Research Journal, vol. 38, issue 4,  ‘Editorial’ pp. 335-336. https://doi.org/10.1080/09575146.2018.1452765

Journal Articles

Moss, P., Dahlberg, G., Grieshaber, S., Mantovani, S., May, H., Pence, A., … Vandenbroeck, M. (2016). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Early Learning Study: Opening for debate and contestation. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17(3), 343-351. doi: 10.1177/1463949116661126

May, H. (2015). Nineteenth century early childhood institutions in Aotearoa New Zealand: Legacies of enlightenment and colonisation. Journal of Pedagogy, 6(2), 21-39. doi: 10.1515/jped-2015-0011

May, H. (2014). A flurry of advocacy: The incomplete story of a proposal for an exemplary PG ITE for ECE. Early Education, 55, 21-26.

Prochner, L., May, H., & Kaur, B. (2009). ″The blessings of civilisation″: Nineteenth-century missionary infant schools for young native children in three colonial settings: India, Canada and New Zealand 1820s-1840s. Paedagogica Historica, 45(1-2), 83-102. doi: 10.1080/00309230902746495

May, H. (2009). In the footsteps of Froebel: A New Zealander's perspective: Past and present. International Educational Research Exchange on Early Childhood & Preschool Education [translated from Japanese], 5, 4-17.

May, H. (2008). Towards the right of New Zealand children for free early childhood education. International Journal of Child Care & Education Policy, 2(1), 77-91.

May, H. (2007). 'Minding', 'working', 'teaching': Childcare in Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1940s-2000s. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 8(2), 133-143.


May, H., & Mitchell, L. (2009). Strengthening community-based early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand: Report of the Quality Public Early Childhood Education Project. Wellington, New Zealand: NZEI Te Riu Roa. 22p.


Occasional Paper

May, H. Working for Children and Social Change: Tracing the endeavours of three Scottish lady teachers who immigrated to New Zealand in the early 20th century (with K Bethell). The Red House, Wellington, 2021


May, H. Secrets Searches and Surprises: Catherine Jubilee Robertson 1890-1979, Cyril Robertson Bradwell 1916-2008. Wellington, 2018

May, H. Recollections of a Childhood in Kenya. The Red House, Wellington, 2021

Other publications

May, H. (2019) ‘Foreword’ in Mitchell, Linda, Democratic policies and practices in early childhood education: An Aotearoa NZ case study, Singapore: Springer,  pp.v-vi.

May, H. (contributor) (2019) The First years Nga Tau Tuatahi’s 40th issue: 'Reflections on the changing landscape of infant and toddler education', The First years, Nga Tau Tuatahi, vol. 21, issue 1, pp. 8-9

(May, H.) (2019-20) ‘The Prime Minister and the baby in the swing. Space, issue 56 summer, pp. 4-5.

Web publications

Bethell, K., May, H (2020)  “So far from home”: Tracing the endeavours of three Froebel teachers from Edinburgh who migrated to New Zealand in the early 20th century


May, H.(2020) "A Froebel trained ‘Scot’ from Edinburgh” : Miss Isabel Little (1876-1937).