By Lucy Dowling-Brown
CERES Communications Intern
It is Friday morning and the sky is a slate grey ceiling above the swarming primary school children. They are buzzing with excitement, running past each other in a sea of mustard yellow and navy blue uniforms. Today is excursion day for grade two at CERES Environment Park. As the teachers attempt to quieten the group, birds fly overhead and chickens cluck in the distance.
Today the children of St Raphael’s Primary School are here to learn about the culture of Indigenous Australians. When CERES was founded in 1982, one of its fundamental goals was to provide environmental education to the community. Evident throughout the rich culture of Indigenous Australians, is their deep connection to the native environment. The land is so revered in Indigenous culture that many Elders, such as Bob Randall of the Yankunytjatjara people, view the land as another family member and have a deep responsibility within their culture to take care of the natural environment. This connection to the earth is prevalent throughout much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and is one of the key values here at CERES.
CERES Educator, Claire Mosley, impresses these ideas upon the children of St Raphael’s during her walk along the Merri Creek. She discusses the history of the local environment and urges the children to consider how it has changed and been damaged since indigenous communities inhabited it, to now.
“I want you to think about the beautiful, pristine places of the Aboriginal times that have changed so much” she says.
Through this walk along the Merri Creek, the children are given the opportunity to connect wider environmental issues, such as pollution, with their local environment.
They are also given the equally important opportunity to connect and interact with their local landscape. The joy to be outside, exploring and wandering along the narrow tracks beside the creek is palpable on the faces of the children. “This is my creek!”, one girl remarks in excitement.
Standing by the gurgling water, Claire describes the efforts of CERES staff members in cleaning up the Merri Creek. She describes, to the wonder of many children, that platypus have since been sighted along the creek. As the group walks from the water’s edge I hear one girl cry out to her friend as she points at the creek, “Look at all of these colours! I love these colours!”
The next class is led by Subik Baso under the large domed ceiling in CERES Multicultural Village. The children sit in a semi-circle, enchanted by his words and wild hand gestures. In his multisensory and vibrant teaching style, Subik teaches the children about traditional ochre painting. He shows them how the natural environment can be a source of creation, and explains how Indigenous paintings were an important communicative tool across differing Aboriginal communities. Sitting under this shelter, surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees, the children get a further sense of how Indigenous communities respect and are deeply in touch with their natural environment.
Following this lesson, the second grade children get the opportunity to crush and paint with ochre rocks. There is a resounding excitement within the class, as they crush the ochre against large flat rocks and mix it with water to create paint. With this paint, they draw lines and traditional symbols upon their arms. One boy remarks to the group, “I’m never going to have a shower again!”
While the class sits in the dirt both mixing and painting, Subik creates his own ochre paint. He calls groups of children over to him and paints colourful symbols upon their tiny enchanted faces. He paints the symbols emu (or barraimal) on the faces of the girls, and wedge tail eagle (or bunjil) on the boys. As the class concludes and the children walk off to have lunch, there is a sense of resounding joy to have dirt beneath their fingernails and sand covering their knees. One young girl says to her ochre covered friend, “You look amazing!” Her friend smiles with pride, and they walk off together chattering in excitement.
In their next class, CERES educator Tom Kelly tells the children about traditional storytelling and the Dreamtime. The kids of St Raphael’s surround Tom, and sit with eyes widened and mouths agape as he recalls the traditional stories of the local Indigenous communities. He describes to the children how indigenous communities use these stories to represent natural phenomena. In one such example, the children are given the opportunity to act out a story that tells of a great drought. They wear colourful costumes and are each given roles to play. Through this method, Tom conveys deeper meaning to the children through fun and interactive role playing. When speaking with Clare Spillane, a teacher at St Raphael’s Primary School, she explains that she thinks it’s great for the kids to experience these stories in an interactive setting here at CERES. She says that being in this setting brings together all of the ideas that they discuss in the classroom.
Once this activity is over, they form a circle and reflect upon what they have learnt. They discuss how this Aboriginal story illustrates key aspects of Australia’s natural environment, and sit in deep contemplation. One student asks quite honestly, “Are Aboriginal people still alive?”
The innocence of this question shows just how much of a gap there truly is between the cultures of Indigenous Australians and the greater Australian society. This short question asked by 7-year-old, illustrates the very pertinent issue of the lack of connection between mainstream Australian society and Australia’s history. This issue is one of the very reasons for the excursion in the first place and demonstrates just how important it is to provide the space for children to experience Indigenous cultures and ask honest questions.
After the class, Tom Kelly explains how he finds it difficult to deliver these stories in a culturally appropriate manner that is both respectful and engaging. He says that he finds it challenging to speak about the Aboriginal communities and their stories in the correct tense as to not infer that these communities are a part of Australia’s past, but instead are a vibrant part of the present. Despite these challenges, Tom seems confident when teaching, even though this was only his third time taking this class. He says, “When you are really passionate about something, it’s easy to pour yourself into it.”
On almost every week day at CERES it is not unusual to see hordes of school children running around under the trees and learning about a variety of topics. CERES offers a unique experience for kids to interact with the land and connect what they learn in the classroom to real life situations. To learn more about these excursions or some of the other educational programs, you can visit http://sustainability.ceres.org.au