• Indigenous childrean eat native foods such as honey ants near Alice Springs as a part of the Children's Ground early education program. (Children's Ground)
An innovative new early childhood education program is helping Indigenous kids in the Top End connect with their first culture and overcome intergenerational disadvantages.
By
Nicola Heath

29 Nov 2016 - 11:29 AM  UPDATED 30 Nov 2016 - 4:18 PM

Roxanne Naborlhborlh holds up a flashcard to the class showing the young students a picture of a rock wallaby. “Kangaroo!” a few enthusiastic voices call out.

Naborlhborlh encourages the children to try again. “Rock wallaby!” comes the correct answer.

What makes this class unusual is not just that it is happening outdoors; it’s that Naborlhborlh is speaking Kunwinjku, one of the Bininj Kunwok languages of the Kakadu West Arnhem region in the Northern Territory.

The class is also run by Children’s Ground, an educational organisation committed to changing lives in Indigenous communities, where Naborlhborlh works as the coordinator of family engagement and media. The organisation's mission is to instigate long-term change by working with each child, family and community, so that children ‘learn, grow and thrive’.

The project is financed in part by mining royalties paid to Kakadu West Arnhem Social Trust, a fund established in the 1990s by Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) to invest in the social, cultural and economic development of the local Aboriginal, or Bininj, community.

“Everything is connected: the land, the language, the people, the family, the community, education, health, wellbeing.”

A holistic approach to wellbeing

Community concerns about the health, education and future employment opportunities of local children saw GAC partner with Children’s Ground in 2014. Children’s Ground CEO Jane Vadiveloo says it was a move that showed outstanding leadership from the trust and the Mirarr people, who wanted to achieve long-term change for their community.

“Children’s Ground is the vehicle for them to achieve that,” Vadiveloo says.

A 25-year strategy intentionally underpins the Children’s Ground model. “Communities are living with widespread intergenerational disadvantage, so those communities need the chance to live with widespread opportunity for a generation. You need to work with every child and every family in that community. You can’t just deal with one child or one family to the exclusion of others.”

Vadiveloo explains that the recent scandal exposing the alleged abuse of children at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre illustrates the failure of a system that is “reactive, short term, [and] piecemeal”. Meanwhile, she believes Children’s Ground takes a holistic approach that is “very much an Aboriginal world view”.

“Everything is connected: the land, the language, the people, the family, the community, education, health, wellbeing.”

What do the children learn?

The program focuses on children aged zero to eight years old because "a child’s first years are critical to their future wellbeing,” says Vadiveloo. 

Lessons cover literacy and numeracy, creative arts, health and wellbeing.

At least twice a week, the kids also go out ‘On Country’ where they are educated according to an entirely Aboriginal First Nations perspective. Vadiveloo explains the experiential program enables the children to go turtle-hunting, visit rock art sites. They also listen to stories told by Bininj elders who pass on traditional knowledge about moieties (social structure), bush tucker and the environment, like how to recognise the six seasons observed in the Top End.

“We have a strong commitment to a child’s first language and first culture as the primary foundation for learning,” says Vadiveloo.

"Nobody chooses to be poor, nobody chooses to live with disadvantage...so part of it is creating conditions that give people choice over their health, over their education, over their wellbeing.”

Western-trained teachers work side-by-side with local Aboriginal educationalists no a curriculum that has been designed around cultural knowledge.

“These children have first language speakers in their environment all the time.”

It’s a rich learning experience that privileges the child’s first culture, but also surrounds them with exposure to Western knowledge systems, says Vadiveloo.

“We want our kids to be strong in their first language and their land and their culture and their identity, but we also want them to speak and read and write English, and have strong numeracy.”

Two years into the program, every child aged four to five in the West Arnhem region is now engaged in early childhood education.

“It’s been an incredible response,” says the CEO.

Benefits for the wider community

Around 50 local people have found employment with Children’s Ground. 

More employment opportunities in the community have numerous benefits. Among them are improved economic independence for families and better outcomes for children, who Vadiveloo says gain from “seeing their families working, growing up in a generation where people have employment, where people are engaged, where people are actively involved in their own children’s learning journey”.

Staff from Children’s Ground have also worked with the local community to address concerns about non-educational issues, like housing. The organisation partnered with Fair Tradies to improve security, access to water and electrical safety in homes in the community. It illustrates Vadiveloo’s distinction that the organisation doesn’t “deliver to the community, [it] becomes part of the community”.

“The most important thing is local governance," Vadiveloo says. "Nobody chooses to be poor, nobody chooses to live with disadvantage, nobody would choose for their child to live with trauma and ill health and overcrowding, so part of it is creating conditions that give people choice over their health, over their education, over their wellbeing.”

 

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First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.

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