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Poi Toa games and exercises   > The game of Horohopu    > Links
Traditional Māori sport and games
Poi Toa – “Warrior Poi”
(Sourced from writings of Daisy Hemana)
The history of Poi Toa

The traditional poi (light ball made of raupo - swamp plant - attached to a flax rope, which can be either long or short) used in Māori action songs and dances originates from the archaic "Poi Toa".

Laila with poi toa

These artefacts were used prolifically by pre-European Māori - men, woman and children - in games and physical exercises to sharpen reflexes, increase flexibility and improve coordination.

Poi Toa originate from the ancient "ki". These were small woven flax baskets used to carry a single Moa (large flightless bird, now extinct) egg. To ease carrying, two (or more) ki would be joined by a length of plaited flax rope and slung over the shoulders or around the neck.

Today the term "ki" refers to the head of the Poi Toa.

Many Māori believe that the *sequence of :

  • Io Matua and Whaea Rikoriko
  • Ko Te Ao and Ko Te Po
  • Ranginui and Papatuanuku
  • Tane Mahuta and Hine-i-te-repo
  • Pakoti
  • Hinerauamoa

is the genealogy of the Poi Toa.

* The "sequence", which is "order or "genealogy", refers to The Beginning. The Beginning has no gender, hence the inclusion of Matua (male entity) and Whaea (female entity).

We then have the World (Te Ao), and the Long Night or Long Darkness (Te Po). Following are the gods (Atua) :

  • Ranginui (male - the Sky God)
  • Papatuanuku (female - Earth Mother or God - female)
  • When Ranginui and Papatuanuku separated, Te Ao Marama (the world of Light) came.
  • Then came Tane Mahuta (God of the Forests and bush), along with three female gods.
  • Tane had children with the female gods, in order to create resources for making poi toa ( e.g. raupo (swamp plant) harakeke (flax) etc.)
  • Pakoti is the God of Harakeke (flax).

Skills developed while practicing Poi Toa were transferable to weaponry use and fighting techniques.

Poi Toa constructions varied considerably, not only in ki weight and rope length, but also in design (with multiple ki and "tails") and decoration. Furthermore, records also tell of Poi Toa being adapted to "fire bomb" pa fortifications (Māori fortified village), and as Moa hunting weapons.

Poi Toa used commonly today have just one "ki" and one rope "tail".

Practitioners of Poi Toa in New Zealand utilise them in martial arts, kapa haka (traditional Māori performing arts), games and exercises. Whereas harakeke (flax), ti (cabbage tree or palm) and raupo (swamp plant) were the principal materials used in ancient Poi Toa, today synthetic materials are most prevalent.

In martial arts type exercises, the "ki" is often heavily weighted with a stone, to increase resistance and power, with ropes one to five metres long. Poi Toa used in kapa haka (performing arts) and games have lightly weighted ki with ropes less than one metre long.

These uniquely developed Māori implements have also been popularised around the world in the form of "fire poi", and are also used in aerobics classes and gymnastics disciplines.


Poi Toa games
Laila with poi toa
Takako with poi toa
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Skill Development Exercises and Games
(Source: Poi Toa demonstrations by Eruera Hemana)

Māori had names for each Poi Toa exercise, these varied from tribe to tribe, and as we have seen with the development of "fire poi" worldwide, the names of such exercises is better understood from within a local context. So it is a good idea to make up names, from the games examples following, which are suited for your own adherence.


Basic Poi Toa: Hand-to-Hand Passing

Initially have the players spinning the Poi Toa while standing still. Have them make big circles (with the ki or head of the Poi Toa) and then have them shorten their ropes to make small circle - and then letting out the rope to make big circles again.

Then move the players on. Have them practice spinning and handing over the Poi Toa to each other without the Poi Toa stopping – they can do this in pairs. Body and hand positions are crucial when successfully passing and receiving a spinning Poi Toa.

Next, divide the players into two equal teams. Have them standing still in a straight line with a two metre gap down the middle. Give the front person in each line a Poi Toa.

On “Go!” they pass it to the next one in line, and so on, until the Poi Toa reaches the last player in the line who then runs to the front of the line, still spinning the Poi Toa, and sits down. The rest of the team sits down also.

The first team "down" (having passed correctly and having kept the Poi Toa spinning) wins.

Could also have the players keep going until everyone has had a turn at being in the front of their line. (This activity can also be adapted into a circle).

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Poi Toa Relays

Arrange the players into pairs or into teams. If in pairs have them facing equidistant objects (e.g. cones) that they have to go around or touch before returning to their partner. Can also place obstacles (such as cones, hula hoops or car tyres), on the ground, that they have to negotiate as they run and spin. Have them run whilst continually spinning the Poi Toa.

Remind them about shortening and lengthening the rope. They can do top spinning (whereby the Poi Toa is continually twirled horizontally above head height), side twirling, front twirling, twirling whilst running backwards, while knee "walking", and many other variations. Have them hand the Poi Toa over to their partner, with the Poi Toa continually spinning.


Long train running

Use cones to mark out a distance of 25 metres. Sort out teams with equal numbers. Sides line up behind their cone, with the first team member (the "train engine") holding the Poi Toa .

On “go!” that person runs while swinging the Poi Toa round and round to the cone, 25 metres distant, and returns. They then hand the Poi Toa over to the next team member, making sure to keep the Poi Toa circling – it must not stop spinning! Then they go behind the new "swinger" (Poi Toa handler), and with both hands grab onto their waist.

The new "swinger" then runs to the distant cone (with their attached "carriage"/team mate) and returns. They then hand the Poi Toa over to the next player waiting inline, and then they grab that player’s waist also.

So now there are three players, all attached to each other, racing to complete the 50 metre course. The process continues until all the players have had a go at being the "train engine", have kept the Poi Toa spinning, and have remained attached.

The first team to finish correctly wins.

Remember that the first person who runs will cover the greatest distance (so if there are eight in a team they will need to run 400 metres) and the last person will only have to run 50 metres.


Basic Poi Toa: Spinning and Throwing

Have the players pair up and standing five metres apart in two lines. Walk along one of the lines and hand out the Poi Toa (one Poi Toa between a pair). Get them used to throwing and catching the Poi Toa to each other.

In the beginning remind them to spin the Poi Toa in a vertical and clockwise manner (right handed in relation to their body) before releasing it. Have the catcher grab the rope part only, before the Poi Toa makes contact with the ground. They can experiment with the throwing positions as the lesson progresses.

As their confidence and ability improves, have the lines move much further apart to ten and twenty metres. When they are ready, have them really give the Poi Toa some air – ten or twenty metre heights should be no problem! The players will automatically perfection their foot movements and time their hand and eye coordination to complete the catching and passing skills.

A competition could also be included into this lesson - for the pair who can throw and catch the furthest and/or a Poi Toa distance throwing competition.

Target throwing can also be introduced. Spread a mat out on the ground, and from twenty metres or more, see who can land their Poi Toa onto it.

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Circle Catching

Players, and the Poi Toa holder/thrower, form a large circle. The players are numbered off, e.g. 1,2,3,4…1,2,3,4…so each person has a number.

The Poi Toa holder then readies the players : “I will call out a number from one to four - when you hear your number you must run into the centre of our circle and try to be the first person to catch the Poi Toa…. "Ready, ready" - (the holder spins and releases the Poi Toa high up into the air) …number three!”

Then all the number "3"s sprint into the centre and try to be the first to catch the Poi Toa before it hits the ground. The Poi Toa thrower needs to throw accurately and to perfectly time the calls. The Poi Toa can only be caught on the rope (not the head or "ki" part) and if two players both catch the Poi Toa at the same time the player who caught it closest to the end of the rope wins.

Offer some type of inducement to the players for encouragement and/or have a competition – e.g. first to make three catches.

The Poi Toa thrower can also experiment by throwing two or more Poi Toa up at once (make sure the Poi Toa separate during flight) and/or call out more than one number.

With small groups a variation is to start by calling out the individual’s names, e.g. “Rakura!”, and throw a single Poi Toa up into the air, to give each person an opportunity to practice catching and to experience initial success.

The circle method is also a great way for players to get to know each others names – use just one Poi Toa and have players call out the name of the person they are going to pass to.


Sprint Catching

Have the players get into five equal teams, and to line up facing you.

Ask the front people in each line to come forward and, in a straight line, have them get into a crouched sprint start position (or it could be from a lying on their stomachs position, etc). Then have them go through the “on your marks…set…Go!” sprinters technique.

While you are calling this, spin two Poi Toa, and release them at the same time you say “Go!”. The sprinters race out, 15-20 metres is a good distance, and try to catch a Poi Toa. Give one point for each Poi Toa caught and play until one side has 20 points.

Another variation on the sprint/catch theme is to have, for example, six players lined up in the sprint formation – on “Go!” throw five Poi Toa up into the air. Players are to catch only one Poi Toa each). Each time one player drops off (or more if catches are not made) until the final, when there are just two sprinters left to compete for one Poi Toa

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This is a modern adaptation of the traditional game called Horohopu. Playing on a full sized basketball gymnasium court is ideal.

There are two sides which play in opposite directions. Each team tries to score on their respective end gym wall. The object of the game is to have fun and to score more points than your opponents.


Start of play

Players from both sides spread out around the gym. One side gets to throw off. One player with the Poi Toa stands inside the five metre zone (see the "handling" section), of the end gym wall they are defending, and spins the Poi Toa – they then release it, throwing it, towards a team mate.


Handling the Poi Toa

Players move freely about the gym, trying to get into catching & scoring positions. Players try to catch the Poi Toa on its rope.

» NB : they must not catch the ki, before the ki (round Poi Toa head) touches the gym floor.

If two (or more) players catch the Poi Toa at the same time, the possession goes to the player who makes the catch the closest to the end of the Poi Toa rope.

Once a player has made a successful catch they must keep spinning the Poi Toa until they release it.

» NB : the poi must be kept twirling/spinning at all times.

Once the catch is made other players have to keep three paces distant until a throw is made.

The player quickly throws the Poi Toa in the direction of another team mate. The player with the poi cannot walk or run, but they can pivot around.

Usually cones are used to mark a line five metres out from the wall – no throws can be made to a team mate within this five metre zone.



The method for scoring.

A player must have one hand on the end gym wall and successfully catch the Poi Toa with their free hand. If this is done correctly (see the "handling" section) it is worth one point.


Hand-Overs (giving the Poi Toa to the opposite team)
Occur when - the Poi Toa is not thrown/released quickly enough : the Poi Toa stops spinning (when a player has it in their possession); the Poi Toa ki contacts the gym floor; a player walks while holding the Poi Toa; there is sufficient reason to merit it being done (ref/player discretion) and after a team scores.

Many thanks to Daisy Hemana, Eruera Hemana and Harko Brown for these texts and photos.

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Related Links
Home of Poi and fire twirling
Other traditional games on this site
Māori kite flying
Mu Torere


 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.