Exploring Indigenous ways of knowing and being

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day is on Sunday 4 August 2019. This year’s theme is We Play, We Learn, We Belong. In this piece, we share the importance of Indigenous culture and language in the early years through case studies and the series Little J & Big Cuz. This animation follows the everyday lives of two Aboriginal school children as they explore themes of Indigenous identity, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

Image © Ned Lander Media 2016

Australian early childhood educators have a responsibility to value and promote greater understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being. This is enshrined in both Australia’s Education and Care Services National Law and the National Quality Framework.

For the majority of non-Indigenous early childhood educators, the key to authentically engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is ‘cultural competence’, according to the Educator’s Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF).

The National Education Leader of the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, Rhonda Livingstone, explains that cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. It includes developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences and gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and world views.

When educators use their cultural competence to building children’s knowledge, understanding and skills in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being, they address Learning Outcome 2 of the EYLF—Children are connected with and contribute to their world.

Finding a way in

Research conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research suggests providing children with opportunities to watch how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families relate to each other, and to non-Indigenous people, can with teacher guidance enable children to reflect on how to see and interact with cultures other than their own. As it is not always practical for educators to provide such opportunities face-to-face, digital technology presents an alternative way in.

The judicious use of digital technology in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings is supported in Outcome 5 of the EYLF and through national guidelines on screen time of up to an hour a day for children aged two to five years. The EYLF states that children are effective communicators when they engage with and gain meaning from a range of texts, both print- and screen-based, and when they use information and communication technologies to access information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world. Importantly, as research by Leon Straker et al points out, the inclusion of digital technology in ECEC settings is framed within an expectation that it will be used in collaboration with adults for intentional teaching.

Research on educational television suggests that, when coupled with expert educators, video can be beneficial to a child’s development by assisting them to understand different contexts, develop their emerging language and literacy skills, and support their social and emotional development. The Little J & Big Cuz television series and related learning resources aims to do this while supporting educators in including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, understanding and skills in their programs.

Little J & Big Cuz

Little J & Big Cuz is an animated series that follows the everyday lives of two Aboriginal school children as they explore themes of Indigenous identity, connection to country, traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Designed to provide pre-school aged children a window into the world of school, each 13-minute episode follows lead character, Little J, on his adventures as he comes to understand and enjoy the sometimes unfamiliar environment that school can be, and the greater world around him.

The series is an initiative of the Australian Council for Educational Research and was developed in partnership with Ned Lander Media, NITV, Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Screen Tasmania and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. Featuring the voices of PlaySchool presenters Deborah Mailman and Miranda Tapsell, the series received the 2018 Logie Award for Most Outstanding Children’s Program and is available to stream free online. A number of episodes have been revoiced in Indigenous languages and are also available to stream.

Each episode is accompanied by online resources including games for children, an ebook and suggestions for play-based learning that recognises the importance of communication and language (including early literacy and numeracy), and social and emotional development. The resources are accessible for all early childhood education learning spaces, including but not limited to: family day care; play groups; kindergartens; preschools; long day care settings; before- and out-of-school settings, and families.

Priscilla Reid-Loynes, a proud a Gamilaroi Yularoi woman and Indigenous Education Consultant for Little J & Big Cuz, says the resources – being rich in Indigenous worldviews, knowledges, pedagogies and curriculum—can enrich any child, family or community’s understandings of Aboriginal communities and Country, and are thus important for all children and educators.

Using Little J & Big Cuz in ECEC settings

Case studies developed as part of an evaluation of the success of Little J & Big Cuz, commissioned by Dusseldorp Forum, show that the series and education resources add value to educators’ existing programs.

Morphett Vale East Kindergarten, SA

Little J & Big Cuz has been used at Morphett Vale East Kindergarten as a transition activity between a meal break and the scheduled program of learning. The educators commented that the learning resources included questions that helped them guide the discussion with the children as well as lots of ways to incorporate activities to support the viewing of each episode. The educators also found that the teaching resources enabled them to consider deeper learning opportunities and to tie in ‘big picture thinking’ with the cultural aspects of the episode.

For the episode ‘Right under your nose’, the children could easily relate to the links between home and school culture and to the concept of ‘show and tell’, which is a part of their regular program for sharing news. After the episode, the educators set up a campsite in the playground and several of the children recounted the cooking part of this episode. The tools and technologies mentioned were familiar to the children because several of them go camping with their families. The blue fish in the episode reminded the children and educators of the Bony Bream in a local Ngarrindjeri story.

The episode ‘Hopalong’ was played in the Arrernte language while the educator read out the English subtitles… until the children asked the educator to be quiet as they found this episode self-explanatory even in a language other than English. The children’s interest in the joey, led the educators to incorporate further activities about Australia’s indigenous animals into their education program, as well as the teaching resources relating to habitats and sustainability.

Yera Children’s Service, NT

Yera Children’s Service educator Keiryn Christodoulou incorporated all episodes of Little J & Big Cuz into her early childhood group’s social and emotional development program. The children, aged between two and four years, comprised nearly equal numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

The television series was integrated into the transition from play to lunchtime. Keiryn observed that sitting down like Little J, Big Cuz and their friends do when in Ms Chen’s class helped the children make this transition. The children loved the stories and would be highly engaged for the short duration of each episode. Keiryn said the educator resources were authentic and resonated with the children’s own experiences.

In subtle and explicit ways Little J & Big Cuz modelled some of the behaviours Keiryn was deliberately trying to develop in the children, especially respectful and empathetic relationships with each other and adults. For example, when the episodes involved time in Ms Chen’s classroom, the children would model some of the behaviours of the onscreen children, such as sitting up and crossing their legs. Keiryn considered the stories a good way to show the children how to interact with each other by talking and listening with care, respect and empathy. Further, the series subtly assisted children to make the transition to preschool.

Keiryn discovered informally that children up to the age of 10 enjoyed watching the episodes. The older children who came into the Yera Children’s Service after school were content to sit with the younger children (a bit like the characters, Little J and Big Cuz) to watch the episodes.

Wulagi Preschool, NT

Educators at Wulagi Preschool used six Little J & Big Cuz episodes and all of the online games with 40 children aged between three and four years, 13 of whom identified as being Indigenous.

The episodes were played on a ‘smart board’ as a transition activity leading into the children’s afternoon learning program, or as an end-of-the-day activity. Each episode was shown twice so that the children could become familiar with the stories. The online games were played after some episodes.

The educators reported that, even though the children were tired at the end of the day, they were attentive to the stories and enjoyed following the various characters, especially Old Dog. The online games were seen as a useful end-of-day activity that was enjoyed by all the children and provided an oral language opportunity for the learning of new vocabulary.

Feedback from the educators included that the teacher resources provided a good starting point for the incorporation of Indigenous perspectives in the preschool curriculum. The picture book (ebook) of ‘Where’s Aaron?’ and website suggestions for each episode is seen as particularly useful.

The educators found that Little J & Big Cuz has the potential to support children through stories that specifically incorporate Indigenous perspectives as well as contribute to the EYLF, given the series’ emphasis on language and socio-emotional development.

Additional references and resources

ECA Resources


ECA Recommends

The Aboriginal early childhood practice guide
Edited by Jessica Staines and Red Ruby Scarlet

A must-have book for services, educators and teachers, The Aboriginal early childhood practice guide will help non-Aboriginal early childhood educators and teachers embed Aboriginal perspectives into their everyday curriculum. You can purchase a copy here on the ECA Shop.

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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

One thought on “Exploring Indigenous ways of knowing and being”

    Karen says:

    Great post and will share

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