Thinking about place …

‘It’s a stretch to think about place as curriculum, as pedagogy and yet place is part of what makes us who we are and who we might become. Place acts on us as much as we do on it.’

RELATIONSHIPS WITH PLACE

I was bent over using a sharp knife to trim the older leaves from the spinach growing in our vegetable garden. A few children were nearby digging or plucking leaves from the cluster of fragrant herbs growing in the adjoining plot, to make ‘perfume’ and ‘medicine’ for their games.

Anmol, a five-year-old Indian–Australian boy, was digging near me and chatting about the soil and the plants. Then, Anmol reached over with a fist full of dirt and asked me to open my hand. I thought he was going to show me something, but as I opened my hand he slowly emptied the soil from his hand into mine saying, ‘This is Gurundji country, always has been, always will be’. I accepted the humble gift and then we repeated the brief ceremony, substituting the words, ‘This is Ngunnawal country, always has been, always will be’. And then it was over, and Anmol returned to his digging and I returned to mine thinking yet again about the work we do with these young children to better understand the relationships we have with different places, and the diverse and complex histories that are linked to the places we share.

We have been using Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s song ‘From little things big things grow’(1991) for several years in our centre. We often read the book, sing the song and discuss the story. The children’s curiosity and concern about Vincent Lingiari is real. Their frustration with the inequities showered on the Gurundji people is palpable and their admiration for the tenacious courage demonstrated by the Wave Hill mob is obvious. But their favourite part of the story is when Gough Whitlam visits central Australia to give Gurundji land back to its rightful owners. Anmol’s impromptu performance in the garden reminded me just how powerful this story is and what an impact it’s made on our very diverse group of three- to five-year-olds.

OUR PLACE STORY

However, the Wave Hill Walkout isn’t our story. Our place story is located in a corner of our playground that we now refer to as our Reconciliation Garden. The central character in our Reconciliation Garden is a beautiful old Yellow Box, Eucalyptus melliodora. Our tree has been estimated by arborists to be at least 200 years old, making it a direct and very tangible link between our small early learning centre and the Ngunnawal people, who’ve lived here for many thousands of years and long, long before colonial settlement. The tree is located at the base of a small rise, and once the new grass was planted the gentle slope became a favourite spot for shaded picnics, or a place to roll, pencil-like, down to the base of the creamy, textured trunk.

The old tree is the home of parrots and noisy magpies. We’ve always enjoyed watching the focused work of birds making nests in the widespread branches, or perhaps in one of the many nooks and crannies created by the residual scarring left from long-fallen limbs. The tree is just always there, seemingly unchanging, very solid and yet, somehow comforting.

That was until a quiet afternoon several years ago when one of the reliable old limbs came crashing to the ground outside the playground perimeter. The fallen limb became an issue of great concern. Arborists were enlisted to check the tree and reassured us that all was well. Even so, the tree was immediately fenced off to await the verdict on what would happen next. We discovered that the tree was heritage listed and therefore (to our great relief) unlikely to be cut down. After a year of deliberation the decision was made to permanently fence off the drop zone with a pool-style enclosure.

THE RECONCILIATION GARDEN

It was sad to see the tree fenced in and off limits to us. It had been there for such a long period of time and now because of a naturally occurring event it was deemed to be some sort of terrible threat.

But then we started thinking differently about the tree and the space enclosed by the fence. We had a fire pit built at the base, and we started imagining the possibilities of using the space as a Reconciliation Garden. It seemed like the ideal spot. We talked about this with Indigenous friends who agreed that the site was perfect.

We officially opened our Reconciliation Garden on the first anniversary of the Federal Government’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. We had a smoking ceremony and there were dozens of people there, including children, families, local Indigenous friends, faculty staff, and the university’s Vice-Chancellor. The smoking ceremony, held at the base of the ancient tree, felt good and right. Sharing in the ceremony in this particular place enabled us to feel connected; to the tree, the land, each other and the sometimes painful histories of others who may have also gathered nearby at different times.

We have regular smoking ceremonies in the garden now, and also light fires in the fire pit just to cook or sit around and share stories. The tree remains steadfast as we gather nearby imagining the past and contemplating the present. The tree has become a focal point for thinking about the complex and evolving relationships we have to this country we call home.

PLACES WE LIVE IN RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW

We’ve started thinking of the time we spend with the tree and the fire pit as ‘curriculum moments’. The tree and the fire pit have had, and continue to have, an impact on us. We attempt to talk about what this impact is, and we share our thinking in an online forum that we’ve set up for our staff. It’s a stretch to think about place as curriculum, and yet place is part of what makes us who we are and who we might become. Place acts on us as much as we do on it. It’s significant to always consider that wherever we are in Australia, we are always on Indigenous land. This is the foundation for thinking about place as being both pedagogical and political.

So, like Anmol, we need to revisit this knowledge occasionally to situate ourselves in relationship to the places we share. The story of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurundji people reminds us that place is deeply significant-—but we also need to think about the places we live in right here, right now, and consider the relationships we have to the histories, the birds and animals, the people, and also the trees that constitute these places.

Carmel Richardson
Director
Wiradjuri Preschool Child Care Centre

References

Kelly, P. & Carmody, K. (1991). From little things big things grow [song]. Festival Records: Pyrmont, Sydney. All mentions of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) in this publication can be attributed to the following reference: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: DEEWR.