In Practice

IN PRACTICE: Exploring reconciliation with young children

Earlier this year I attended the Reconciliation Day events in Glebe Park with my family. This day is Canberra’s new public holiday and will be held on the first Monday on or after 27 May each year to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the first day of National Reconciliation Week.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this day. I had a thought that it might be a tokenistic celebration to show off to the rest of Australia our ‘progressive’ attitude towards reconciliation by making a public holiday out of it (a bit rich, I was thinking, considering the educational outcomes for Indigenous children in the ACT are among the worst in Australia). Nevertheless, I wanted to be there to show my support for our new public holiday and I’m really that glad I did.

I was blown away to see so many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians coming together to enjoy music and other cultural activities such as basket weaving, bush tucker talks, storytelling and children’s art workshops. On entering Glebe Park there was an enormous map of Indigenous Australia and people were being asked to add a little black circle to a place in Australia that was special to them. There were also many local community organisations inviting people to connect.

It all beautifully reflected the 2018 Reconciliation Week theme, ‘Don’t make history a mystery’ – Learn, Share and Grow’ by exploring our past, learning more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, and developing a deeper understanding of our national story.

Unlike some of our other public holidays which may have lost meaning over time (Queen’s Birthday comes to mind), Reconciliation Day is one I feel proud to continue supporting and I am excited to see how it will grow and develop over the years to come.

Back at my Early Childhood Centre, I learnt that a number of children had also attended and enjoyed the day just as much as my family did. I thought it would be a great week to start developing our Acknowledgement of Country in the Preschool Room.

As a provocation, I pulled out the stepping stones with the children and watched as they started to lay them out and hop along them. After some time I asked the children if they knew what any of the symbols/artworks represented. There were some interesting suggestions! Xavier thought the waterhole might be an eyeball. Lily suggested the shield was a pizza and Quinn thought the symbol for children was a star.

The conversations were very interesting as we guessed what they represented and talked about how some, like the symbol for rain and stars, were quite similar. Henry picked up the shield stepping stone and held it out in front of his face, explaining to the others that, “If you’re in a war you have to use this”. When I explained that these were Aboriginal symbols Henry said, “I know an Aboriginal story-Tiddalick the Frog!”

So off we went to the library to search for the story. While the children waited I asked if anyone knew what reconciliation was. I was met with confused faces but it turned out that ‘reconciliation’ or ‘silly-ation’ as it was shortened to, was a pretty fun (and silly) word to say! All the children started to say the word again and again, laughing at the sound of such a big, silly word.

I explained that reconciliation wasn’t such a silly thing. “What is ‘rec-on-for-do-silly-ation?” I was asked by one curious Illya, trying her best to pronounce the long word.

I thought for a moment then decided to go with a very simple explanation, “It’s when you do something that isn’t very nice but you say sorry and then you are friends again”. I told (what turned out to be a very intriguing story) of when I was a little girl and I did something that wasn’t very nice to my sister (I tricked her into eating my mud cakes). I felt really bad for doing that so I said sorry and luckily she forgave me and we could be friends again. “We had reconciliation,” I told the children.

Suddenly I was listening to a number of confessions about times the children weren’t very nice to others (calling Mums stupid, saying ‘poo poo’ to Grandmas, hitting dads with wooden blocks and hitting another child with a jacket to name just a few). I thanked the children for being so honest and sharing these stories (because sometimes it’s not very easy to admit to doing the wrong thing). Interestingly, when I asked the children if they had said sorry in these situations most of them said they had ‘forgotten’.

It’s important to remember that “reconciliation” is a much deeper and more complex meaning for Indigenous Australians. This conversation about reconciliation was the starting point for us, making the concept meaningful for the children. I am aware that we are only touching on the very start of this topic, but wanted to make sure we started in a way that children could connect with their daily lives.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find Tiddalick at the library, but I found another Dreamtime story, ‘Kootear the Echidna’. We spoke about the art work in the story and I even found an Indigenous print on fabric which we looked at and compared with the art in the story and on the stepping stones. Afterwards I asked the children, “Does anyone know who the Aboriginal people are?”

Henry’s reply astounded me. “They are people we respect.”

“Why do we respect them, Henry?” I asked.

“Because before we were even born they looked after our land.”

It can be very difficult to know where to start when teaching the concept of reconciliation to children of such a young age. Early Childhood Australia calls upon Adam Duncan, an Aboriginal early childhood teacher at the Wiradjuri Preschool who explains,

It’s all about conversations. It’s important to remember that we are all just people—there’s not a hard and fast separation in the way we treat each other. And the attitude that there is, is one of the hurdles in building relationships.

Adam is confident that the efforts of educators today will pay enormous dividends in the future, in terms of achieving Reconciliation in Australia. ‘As idealistic as this may sound, I think we shape the thoughts and attitudes of the children that we work with, in such a way that the intellectual side of Reconciliation is going to solve itself” he says.

‘If we can foster in the children a curiosity and, to some level, an understanding of the elements that I’m saying teachers need to be exploring, if we can get that spark, the kids will hopefully follow that throughout their educational career.’

We look forward to seeing how our Acknowledgement of Country continues to develop and we thank the children for their honesty and insight in the contributions they have made thus far.

Rebecca Morgan is an Early Childhood Teacher at Treehouse in the Park Early Learning Centre, operated by Northside Children’s Services.

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