Embedding Indigenous culture in everyday learning and activities

Published on Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Last updated on Wednesday, 29 September 2021

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All Australian children, from the earliest age, deserve to learn about our ancient country and the rich and diverse cultures of First Nations people that continue to this day.

By embedding cultural learning in the early years educators can impart the wonder of Indigenous knowledge, and support Aboriginal children’s sense of identity and belonging, as well as promoting a culture of understanding and respect towards cultural diversity for all children.

Recent research by Know Your Country revealed a gap in Australian’s basic knowledge of First Nations’ culture and heritage, with 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24 saying they would have liked better First Nations education when they were at school.

This finding underscores that the next generation should learn more about our unique Indigenous cultures.

Led by First Nations people and organisations, and convened by World Vision, the Know Your Country campaign aims to place First Nations Cultural Educators in every Australian primary school.

This campaign provides impetus for early years educators to review and grow their current practices.

In a recent interview for podcast Mamamia, Aunty Phyllis Marsh, a First Nations Cultural Educator at West Moreton Anglican College in Queensland, discussed how cultivating understanding should start from the earliest age and begins by taking children outside to explore the natural world around them.

Describing her approach, she said “Little kids love to learn, you need to fill their heads with wonder and play.”

Aunty Phyllis described how she connects children with ancient wisdom through nature, encouraging them to be eco-explorers as she guides them in their discovery of native plants growing on country, and sharing knowledge of how they were used.

Highlighting the Banksia flower, a recognisable floral symbol of Australia, she described how generations of Aboriginal people used it to create ‘nature’s cordial’ – a sweet drink made by dipping the flower into water. When the flower head was dried out it was also used as a hairbrush or as a fire torch.

Reflect on your practice

Make a start by reflecting on where your service is right now. How is this learning supported and what resources do you provide to celebrate and connect with Indigenous culture? What do educators know or not know on the topic? How are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives included in your practice?

The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives can be linked to each of the seven quality areas of the National Quality Framework.

“Educators recognise that diversity contributes to the richness of our society and provides a valid evidence base about ways of knowing. For Australia it also includes promoting greater understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being.” (Belonging, Being & Becoming – The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (P.14).

Understand Indigenous culture and engaging with local knowledge

With a history stretching back 65,000 years and over 500 different First Nations around the continent, incorporating Indigenous Australia within your learning program can be daunting.

Educators with a non-Indigenous background or limited experience with Indigenous culture should be supported to equip themselves with the knowledge and confidence to engage with content appropriate for young children.

For educators the key to authentically engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is to ensure ‘cultural competence’ – this encompasses an awareness, respect and understanding of the diversity around you. If required, educators should seek professional training to ensure they have a solid understanding of culture and how to communicate this knowledge.

One of the best resources that educators can access is their local community. By connecting to people or community groups who have knowledge and expertise on living culture, educators can build relationships with these communities and invite them to participate as part of the learning program.

Additionally, incursions and excursions exploring topics such as storytelling, music, art or ‘caring for country’ are all powerful learning experiences to support a child’s development and understanding.

Connecting with your local area Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities could include Indigenous national park rangers, artists, businesses or community groups who can share their own specific cultural knowledge.

Here are some suggestions for engaging with local Aboriginal communities:

  • Find out who the Traditional Custodians of your area are, and the language they speak
  • Find out what land or nations your families may have connections with
  • Provide opportunities for families to identify with the Aboriginal culture in your care environment
  • Form links with your local Aboriginal community
  • Find out what relevant community events are celebrated in your local area and get involved

Embed Indigenous culture in your practice

Special occasions such as NAIDOC week or National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Day (4 August 2021) provide a great opportunity to celebrate Indigenous culture but be mindful that to be meaningful, knowledge of culture needs to be embedded in your daily program.

This will result in a richer learning experience for educators, children and families as well as avoiding potential ‘cultural tokenism’.

According to Deborah Hoger, Dunghutti woman and early years Indigenous educational resources specialist: “Through sustaining the focus on Indigenous Australia throughout the year through activities and excursions, and new books and activities that engage across a range of diverse topics, we can help foster in our children a well-rounded knowledge of Australia’s First Peoples, and help them to develop a respect for diversity and an understanding and appreciation of cultural difference.”

Links to early years learning resources

Narragunnawali – Reconciliation in education: An extensive suite of quality early learning resources to promote reconciliation and to strengthen children’s knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions.

Resources encompass elements of Early Years Learning Framework and can be used as they are or adapted to suit the local community context.

Little J and Big Cuz: This animated series follows the lives of two Aboriginal school children as they explore themes of Indigenous identity, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Each episode is paired with online resources for preschoolers including games, an ebook and suggestions for play-based learning.

Ideas to create learning opportunities could include:

  • Share dreaming stories with children as a valuable, creative and fun way to talk about culture
  • Set up a native or bush tucker garden – use native herbs in playdough, cooking or for sensory play
  • Engage local artists in the community to share their skills e.g. weaving or painting
  • Visual arts experiences such as making and painting with ochre – include Aboriginal art techniques such as cross-hatching and dot-painting
  • Adopt the practice of yarning circles with children and educators sitting in a circle inside or out on land to talk, listen or share stories and ideas
  • Movement experiences could involve learning of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal dance movements, or kids could create new movements by mimicking Australian animals.

References and further reading

Education NSW: Embedding Indigenous perspectives in Early Childhood Education and Care Services

CELA: Avoiding the trap of cultural tokenism

The Spoke: Exploring Indigenous ways of knowing and being

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