Understanding and helping Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children connect to their Culture

Providing an inclusive learning environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is vital for the development of children in the early years. This is created by supporting culturally-strong learning, and promoting a child’s understanding of their culture.

“Culture is central to identity. Culture defines who we are, how we think, how we communicate, what we value and what is important to us…every area of human development, which defines the child’s best interest, has a cultural component. Your culture helps define how you attach, how you express emotion, how you learn and how you stay healthy.”

– Muriel Bamblett, VACCA

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are widely diverse, distinct and complex, and vary across communities in Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is not static or uniform. Like all cultures, it is continually interpreted and adapted according to the influences on the person or the community. However, there are common threads and beliefs that are shared amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today.

Someone is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander if they have one or two parents who identify and descend from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander family.

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child’s identity, culture and language come from their family and their relationship with the land and the sea.

There are also many people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent respectively, and they may identify as an Aboriginal and as a Torres Strait Islander person.

More commonly today, especially in urban areas, children are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent as well as another culture, such as European or Asian cultures, for example.Culture plays a key role in the child’s development, identity and self-esteem, and contributes to the overall well-being of the child.

Berrimba Child Care Centre is a Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Service based in Echuca, Victoria. Berrimba means “Forever Learning”. Berrimba has been an important part of the Echuca community for over 30 years. It provides a culturally safe, welcoming and supportive learning environment for many Aboriginal children to start their life-long journey with education. The staff work hard to make the children and families feel welcome and part of the community, and to connect them to culture.

Berrimba provides a range of services, including long day care, transport, Aboriginal Best Start, support to access funding for mainstream kindergarten services and much, much more. Berrimba is more like a family than a child care centre, with local Aboriginal Elders always dropping by. Culture is not only taught specifically to the children, but is an important part of everyday life at the centre.

Child-Rearing Practices

Being aware of and integrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child-rearing practices helps children and families feel that they belong, and supports important cultural practices.

UnderstandingAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child-rearing strategies, and embracing the importance of these practices, is absolutely crucial in ensuring continuity for children between home and early learning services.

There is no one way in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people raise their children, and families may draw upon child-rearing practices from a range of cultures. The child rearing practices of any one culture are no more valuable than those of another.In Aboriginal culture the extended family plays a crucial role in raising children.

“Child rearing…is literally a family and community concern and is not confined solely to the parents of the child”

Unlike the wider Australian society, the whole Aboriginal community contributes to raising the child, giving mutual assistance and support to the parents.

The mother is the main carer for the child, but aunties, uncles, cousins and older siblings share the responsibilities for caring and raising the child as well (in some communities the mother’s sisters or the father’s brothers are also called ‘mum’ and ‘dad’).

Grandparents are very important people in the life of Aboriginal children. They often fill the role of boss or protector for the children. They have real authority over their upbringing, and they teach them Aboriginal culture, values and beliefs.

Displaying an understanding of a child’s relationship to his/her kinship circle helps foster continuity and normality for the child, providing an ideal environment for development and learning.

An appreciation of learning practices is also vital in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child-rearing practices and accommodating the independent learning of the child.

The first thing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children learn from an early age is whom they are related to. And as they get older their peer group becomes an important part of their learning. The children in this group are usually related to one another (as well there are some outside their kinship structure) and they spend most of their time together, playing and caring for each other, almost without adult supervision.

In fact, in Aboriginal culture, it is normal or okay for adults to not interfere in the child’s activities (unless it is necessary). By not placing too many restrictions or guidelines on children’s play and exploration, adults expose the child to controlled dangers so that he/she can experiment and learn through risk taking. Within the peer group the child is so able to test his/her independence and develop within a caring structure.

It is from the interactions with peer groups and adults that the child learns how to behave.

Instead of telling the children how to behave or punishing them for misbehaving, discipline is commonly taught through humour, teasing and surprised responses, and sometimes even the use of scary beings.

“…it is expected that the children through trial and error and observation over a period of years will recognise what is expected of them and in so doing develop their own control.”