Keeping Aboriginal voices close: Finding a third space in which to teach

We have worked together in the South Australia (SA) Department for Education, providing leadership and advice to 10 schools in the remote communities of the Aṉangu (Aboriginal) people. As a team, we have supported early childhood teachers, often new graduates, working in preschools, playgroups and child and family centres in these communities.

L to R: Penelope Cook, Makinti Minutjukur, Kerryn Jones, and Katrina Tjitayi

The Aṉangu Lands stretch from the far north-west corner of SA, down to the Great Australian Bight, and across to the Western Australia (WA) border. Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages are spoken in these communities and children learn English as a second, third or even fourth language. The Aṉangu people have a strong cultural connection to Country and many ‘traditional’ cultural ways continue to be practised.

As Piṟanpa (non-Indigenous) women, the challenge for Penny and I (Kerryn) to authentically conceptualise culturally welcoming, safe and respectful ways of providing early childhood education has given us the opportunity to learn from our Aṉangu colleagues, Katrina Tjitayi and Makinti Minutjukur.

In her paper Kurunta Kanyintja: Holding knowledge in our spirit, Katrina challenges Piṟanpa educators to ensure that young Aṉangu children experience their right to hear their home language and engage with their culture in the early childhood services they attend. In response to this challenge, it has become the shared responsibility of Aṉangu and Piṟanpa educators to find culturally competent practices.

At the heart of this shared responsibility is the building of relationships and the sharing of our knowledge and worldviews.

To develop relationships with Aṉangu, we are respectful of being visitors, not just to the Country, but to Aṉangu culture, which means being challenged to reprioritise our ‘western’ values. Katrina describes this as ‘being together in a good way’ and opening ourselves up to different ways of knowing and being that are neither ‘right nor wrong, just different’.

We have come to understand cultural competence through the lens of co-creating what Ann Haas Dyson describes as the ‘third space’ (Haas Dyson, 2016). Haas Dyson describes the third space as ‘not a single space inserted between the localised and global culture, but rather an intricate and layered space interwoven with meanings’ (2016, p. 50). By conceptualising and organising our early childhood services as embodying a third space that reflects both Aṉangu and Piṟanpa ways of teaching, learning, knowing and being, we create a pedagogy of place where we can teach with place in mind. We have also drawn upon the principles of Reggio Emilia to develop a pedagogy of listening, in seeking to find ways of working that honour Aṉangu voices. The third space becomes a pedagogy of strength where Aṉangu and Piṟanpa worldviews come together and seek to disrupt the discourse of disadvantage that exists, and to disrupt the assumption that the ‘white way is the right way’.

Educators have responded in innovative ways to the invitation for authentic and culturally competent practice in our early childhood services on the Aṉangu lands. The following are two examples of what this can look like in practice.

Milpatjunanyi—honouring Anangu literacy practices

Milpatjunanyi is a girl’s storytelling game, involving placing sticks and leaves on the ground to represent family members, and making marks on the ground with a bent stick or piece of wire (Goddard, Pitjantjatjara/ Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, 2001, p. 74).

Confronted by the image of a number of story-wires (long pieces of wire with a bent handle used for Milpatjunanyi) left at the front of the school gates, we learnt they were not allowed into the school, giving the message that Aṉangu ways of teaching and learning were to happen outside of school. To recognise the knowledge children bring with them and to teach with place in mind, many of our preschools have now set up spaces where Aṉangu educators, families and children use story-wires as a valued literacy practice and way of teaching and learning.

Strong Tjukurpa (story)—creating a shared philosophy

At the new Fregon Child and Family Centre, Aṉangu and Piṟanpa collaborated to develop a shared philosophy statement to describe this ‘third space’. Ten local artists documented this philosophy in a painting that is displayed at the entrance. Katrina explains this painting as a strong story for young families to have in their spirit:


Our philosophy

Our children are learning two ways: Aṉangu way and Piṟanpa way. Our children will grow strong and healthy when their families, their teachers and Aṉangu Education Workers (AEWs) work together to look after them and teach them in a loving and caring way. Our children learn first from their families about Aṉangu culture and Pitjantjatjara language. They learn stories and songs and when families share books they learn about reading and writing too. At our preschool, teachers and AEWs listen to family and support them to teach their children. The children hear English and begin to learn Piṟanpa ways too. The teachers and AEWs think carefully about all the children and plan good programs for them. We want our children to feel strong and happy living in two cultures. We want them to be confident to keep on learning at school and all through their life.

But this work is tricky. There is either the potential for two worldviews to clash, or the opportunity to create this third space. What does it take to work in this way? It requires Piṟanpa educators to know when to step back, suspend judgement, and surface assumptions. It requires us to open ourselves to other worldviews and to actively seek to understand and respect perspectives other than our own. It also means learning to recognise and live with ‘the rub’ of very different ways of seeing and being in the world.

What might a third space look like in your setting?


Goddard, C. (2001). Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary. Alice Springs, NT: IAD Press.
Haas Dyson, A. (Ed.). (2016). Child cultures, schooling, and literacy: Global perspectives on composing unique lives. New York, NY: Routledge.

Tjitayi, K., & Osborne, S. (2014). Kurunta Kanyintja: Holding knowledge in our spirit. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 10(1), 23–32.

ECA Recommends

Every Child Magazine
A Provocation to Reflection and Action This edition of Every Child magazine shares articles from some of the presenters at the 2018 ECA National Conference. Articles include: The Self-Reg early childhood educator; Keeping Aboriginal voices close: Finding a third space in which to teach; Learning to unlead: The practice of love and hope as a revolutionary approach to leading; Finding your identity as a leader in early childhood and much more.

This article was taken from the latest issue of Early Childhood Australia’s Every Child Magazine—A Provocation to Reflection and ActionTo purchase your copy click here or to subscribe click here

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.

2 thoughts on “Keeping Aboriginal voices close: Finding a third space in which to teach”

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Thank you Katrina Tjitayi, Makinti Minutjukur, Penny and Kerryn, for sharing your powerful stories about the possibilities and challenges of creating a ‘third space’ when engaging in culturally rich and complex communities. There is so much to learn from and reflect on in this post.

    Joseph Chebn says:

    Very exciting!

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