Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives through program and practice

As part of our Quality in Practice series, Jessica Staines, Director of the Koori Curriculum explores National Quality Standard 1.2 and shares ideas on how educators can embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives through their program and practice.

28 June 2021
Image: Construction play space, Koori Curriculum’s Embedding Aboriginal Perspectives Webinar

Jessica Staines is a Wiradjuri Woman, early childhood teacher and Director of the Koori Curriculum. Jessica has worked in early childhood for fifteen years for a range of service providers in both urban and regional communities. Whilst working in early childhood, Jessica naturally found herself supporting educators to become more culturally aware and confident in embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in their program.

Why intentionally teaching about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is important

It is important to be sure on your ‘why’ and your teams collective ‘why’. Why is it important to embed an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective in your program? Is it just important when you have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children attending the service or is it equally as important for non-Indigenous children as well?

When teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, contextualising the curriculum through culture is essential if we want to see them thrive in school and early education settings. Additionally, my ‘why’ is also linked to my understanding of how education is key in Closing the Gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to receive quality early learning programs, educators need to understand the trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people historically in mainstream institutions and the important steps they need to take to create culturally inclusive environments and build trust.

I also believe that embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in early childhood education and care is equally as important for the benefit of non-Indigenous children, regardless of whether there are any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children attending your centre. In this context, my ‘why’ is centred around creating an anti-bias, anti-racist and inclusive curriculum. Additionally, it's about celebrating culture, education, historical acceptance, race relations and reconciliation.

Tips for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives

For many educators embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in their curriculum is a daunting process. This can even be the case for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators as knowing about their culture and knowing how to translate it into an early learning context can be two separate things. Words like offensive, stereotypical and tokenistic when used in reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs can often have a debilitating effect. Educators are often so worried about doing the wrong thing that they tend to do nothing at all and suffer from a form of analysis paralysis.

Read the terminology guide from Narragunnawali on using respectful and inclusive language and terminology.

Educators need to start where they feel comfortable and confident and often these experiences can be seen as a tourist approach; for example, listening to didgeridoo music, painting with red, black and yellow colours and cooking bush tucker etc. Whilst these experiences may be touristy, everyone needs to begin somewhere. However, eventually we want educators to begin thinking more holistically and embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives within the curriculum instead of having it tacked on and separate.

Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in early childhood curriculums is a multifaceted approach that includes using Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pedagogies, using children’s interests as a vehicle for learning and creating culturally inclusive play spaces. The Koori Curriculum has general principles that we utilise when supporting educators to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in their program which are:

  • Including a balance of contemporary, traditional, urban, regional and local cultural perspectives.
  • Holistically programming and planning to embed an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective in context to children’s interests.
  • Ensuring culture is play based and not themed based teaching – this means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not the topic, theme or interest. Additionally, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resources, tools and artefacts are available at a service, ensure they are utilised in play and not used in cultural corners as a display.
  • Sprinkling culture across multiple play spaces instead of creating cultural corners.
  • Celebrating culture with all age groups and not only in the pre-school room.
  • Including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives every day and not only on significant dates or during cultural celebration periods.

These principles are general and overarching and educators should also seek local consultation to ensure they are aware of any additional protocols which they will also need to take into account when programming and planning. Consultation is how educators can stand behind their curriculum decisions with integrity and respect.

Visit our Aboriginal access webpage for advice on connecting with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

Whilst the Koori Curriculum principles are useful as a guide the obstacle that most educators face is developing their own cultural confidence and capacity. Many educators feel that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history was not taught well during their formal schooling and are now engaging in a process of unlearning and relearning.

I tend to feel that the work of embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in early childhood curriculums begins with educators first developing their own capacity. Some ways in which educators could begin are:

  • Joining supportive online learning communities such as the Koori Curriculum Educator Community on Facebook.
  • Listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Radio Stations and reading our National fortnightly newspaper called the Koori Mail.
  • Tune into podcasts such as Educator Yarns.
  • Attend local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community events.
  • Register for a Reconciliation Action Plan.
  • Book in team professional development workshops.
Image: Bush Tucker play space, Koori Curriculum’s Embedding Aboriginal Perspectives Webinar.

NAIDOC week is arguably one of the most embraced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural celebrations within the early childhood community. However, surprisingly many educators have no idea what NAIDOC stands for or the significance of the week which begs the question; how well can we possibly be ‘doing it’ if we don’t know what the celebration is about?

National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee is what NAIDOC stands for and celebrations occur each July to celebrate the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC includes an annual awards ceremony, poster competition and theme which serves as a provocation for learning and reflection. Additionally, during this special period there are many local community events taking place around the Country.

As mentioned above, a core principle of creating a culturally safe environment is to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives every day and not only on significant dates or during cultural celebration periods. However NAIDOC week can serve as an additional optimal opportunity for educators to make contact, connect and engage with their local Indigenous community.

It’s a good idea to pre-plan and organise the release of educators to attend NAIDOC community events where they can listen, learn, reflect and connect. It is here that educators can participate in cultural immersions experiences, build their cultural capacity and transfer this new knowledge and understanding into the program and practice throughout the rest of the year.

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