Building Indigenous Perspectives In Preschools

Graham Strahle
| May 29, 2019

It seems from a recent SBS news report that many early childhood educators find it difficult building Indigenous cultural perspectives into early childhood learning. The will may well be present, but a fear about doing it the ‘wrong way’ may be deterring them from teaching children aspects of Aboriginal culture, including music.

Phillippa Carisbrooke’s SBS story, ‘Calls for childcare centres to make kids more aware of Indigenous cultures’, is excellent in how it highlights the issues. She looks at two childcare centres in Melbourne, Yappera Children’s Service in Thornbury and Windsor Community Children’s Centre in Windsor to see how they have incorporated culture into their learning programs. Yappera, in particular, has been leading the way in how it does this for Indigenous children through music, dance, storytelling, craft and bush activities. Indeed, its pre-school program is increasingly being sought by non-Indigenous early childhood education services around Melbourne seeking guidance on how to implement such programs.

However, a fear over ‘getting it wrong’ prevents many more preschools and childcare centres from taking on Indigenous cultural activities. “We hear lots of times that educators are concerned that they are going to do the wrong thing,” Community Child Care Association executive director Julie Price says in Carisbrooke’s story. “They do not want to be tokenistic, and they do not want to offend anyone. So sometimes that completely stops services from doing anything.”

The result is that an awareness and appreciation of Indigenous culture is not being introduced into the lives of young Australians. A blind spot takes its place and a golden opportunity in early childhood education is being lost, as Carisbrooke points out. The key thing she suggests for educators is learning more through professional development courses, speaking with local elders and organisations, and maintaining a positive spirit of enquiry in the classes they teach.

Adopting an appropriate mode of discourse is part of the challenge. In ‘Beyond ‘Othering’: Rethinking Approaches to Teaching Young Anglo-Australian Children about Indigenous Australians’ (Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 2001), Glenda MacNaughton and Karina Davis stress the need to prevent ‘us’ versus ‘them’ polarities from arising when teaching the subject of Indigenous people and culture. They found that outmoded binary notions take hold from very early on in children’s lives and tend to perpetuate “colonial understandings” about Aboriginal culture.

MacNaughton and Davis interviewed 37 Anglo-Australian children aged 4-5 years in Victoria and observed that these children “defined Aboriginal people through ‘their’ difference to ‘us’ and these differences were positioned as the exotic.” The authors noted furthermore that “Not one child shared any information that suggested that Aboriginal-Australians and Anglo-Australians have anything in common”.

They attributed the problem partly to teachers who presented a simplified picture of Indigenous people and culture “as consisting only of ceremonial dance and/or corroborees, as loving animals, as valuing art and craft, e.g. stick painting and weaving, having dark, brown or black skin, the production and use of boomerangs, living in stick type huts and being linked to their ‘Dreamtime’.”

In place of these simplicities, the authors call for a different type of discourse to be used in the classroom – one that recognises “the multiple identities, experiences and understandings that form and are formed by indigenous Australians”. Crucially, they advocate against “homogenising indigenous Australians into a collective ‘they’” and urge educators to “help Anglo-Australian children build identities that do not rely on a binary between ‘black’ and ‘white’”.

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