Wondering how to educate expat kids about Aboriginal history and culture? Museum Educator and British expat mum Tamsin Birch, is sharing her tips and valuable resources which have helped her children understand Aboriginal history and culture.
Since moving to Sydney in 2019, history buff Tamsin reveals that she needed to educate herself quickly to help her children settle into school life in Australia. You can follow her expat journey on her Instagram page @birchtamsin.
Let’s chat to Tamsin about life adjusting to Sydney.
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How Did Your Kids Feel About Moving To Sydney?
Our kids were 8 and 11 when we moved to Sydney and had really mixed feelings about the move. Our daughter had just finished primary school and was “ready” to make a change, but sad not to be going to the lovely secondary school we’d spent ages choosing for her. She was also sad to leave her friends and family behind.
Our son was anxious about stuff like snakes, spiders and sharks, but also about leaving his friends. We bought them both iPads so they could FaceTime and message friends back home, which helped, and booked a session with a family counsellor to talk it all through. They wrote down their worries. Funnily enough we still haven’t seen a snake or a shark since we moved to Sydney.
Our daughter settled faster than our son, which was a bit of a surprise. We ended up switching him to a different school, after which he’s settled very well indeed. He loves being more outdoorsy here and playing loads of sport.
Schooling In Australia vs England
The New South Wales state fees of $5600 per child per year for temporary residents were a real shock to the system, on top of everything we’d paid for as part of the move. Then we also had to pay for stuff like stationery and text book packs, ordered through a prescribed supplier, and there was very little in the way of secondhand uniform to buy – and no M&S or Tesco to buy basics.
With our son, we found some gaps in his maths knowledge due to the differences in the English and NSW curriculums – stuff he would have covered later on in the UK. So he’s needed a bit of extra tutoring to help catch up. Our daughter was actually fine and settled into school life pretty quickly.
It was hard to get to know other kids and parents because kids here seem to travel to school independently from a younger age, and where we live lots of people work and use childcare. There were class parent reps, but with Covid we didn’t get to meet many other parents until very recently.
The kids are also getting used to having a choice of food at lunchtime. The canteens at their schools are run by the PTA (“P&C”) and varies from sandwiches and wraps to full hot meals. I still can’t get them to try a meat pie or sushi rolls though!
They go to school in a suburb with a fabulous beach, so will both be doing stuff like sailing, paddle boarding, kayaking and even surfing in P.E. which is amazing in comparison to school back home!
Understanding Aboriginal History & Culture
My daughter joined school in Sydney in Year 6, and it came as quite a shock to her (after the English curriculum focus on good old “British values”), to find out that maybe the British Empire wasn’t such a good thing after all.
In her words: “Every time the teacher said the Brits were to blame for something, everyone turned and looked at me, like it was my fault.”
So, our kids had some adjusting and catching up to do! The written history of the modern Australian nation might start with Captain Cook, but human habitation of Australia goes back 60,000-80,000 years, and maybe even further. Australian Aboriginal culture is believed by many to be the oldest surviving culture in the world and there is still so much to learn.
Of course in Australian schools, Australian history (and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history) is the main focus of primary school history lessons. Even as a history nerd, I didn’t know much about Aboriginal history before moving here. I have since learnt a lot, and thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learnt to help other expat families living in Australia too.
Tips For Learning About Aboriginal History & Culture
Here are some ideas and resources we’ve found useful which you may want to check out.
1. Welcome to Country: Whose Country?
“I acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and the traditional custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work.”
Pretty soon after you get here, you’re going to see or hear a “Welcome to Country” or “Acknowledgement of Country”. If you visit a public place like Customs House in Sydney, look out for the printed Acknowledgement of Country and discuss it with your kids. Do they understand it? Do you?
Find out whose Country do you live on. Much of Sydney was the land of the Eora people, which encompasses many different groups. You can find out this information by looking at local Council websites and Wikipedia. Can your kids make an Acknowledgement of Country poster for your home? I recommend this article if you want to dive deeper.
2. Educate Yourself
First Nations matters in Australia can be highly sensitive, so it really is going to help your family to settle if you can learn about these too, as well as being able to support your kids with their schoolwork. You’ll also learn stuff which could come in handy for your Citizenship test down the line too.
My husband was lucky enough to be offered some training through work, and he found this really valuable. If you get this chance, jump at it.
Here are some books I’ve read and love:
“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe (if you read nothing else, choose this one – it’s a must)
“Australia Day” by Stan Grant
“Sand Talk” by Tyson Yunkaporta
3. Aboriginal Books For Kids
I’d also suggest reading some of the below books with your children, as they are very clear and accessible to all.
Here are some books for kids that we enjoyed:
“Finding Our Heart” by Thomas Mayor explains the Uluru Statement.
“Welcome to Country” by Aunty Joy Murphy is a gentle spiritual book.
“Day Break” by Amy McQuire is a good way to help children (and adults) understand the controversy surrounding Australia Day.
“The Rabbits” by John Marsden is one my daughter used at school. It’s confronting (particularly the page about the Stolen Generations), but good for slightly older children.
“Young Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe is the kids’ version of his book.
“My Place” by Nadia Wheatley is a book my son used at school and a great exploration of Sydney through time, through the eyes of fictional children.
“Stories from the Billabong” by James Vance Marshall is a lovely collection of ten traditional stories from the Yorta-Yorta people.
“Fair Dinkum Histories” by Jackie French is similar to “Horrible Histories” telling the story of Australian history, warts, poo and all.
The first book in the series “Shipwreck, Sailors and 60,000 Years” is a fun and easy read.
See also: “The Upside-Down History of Down Under” by Alison Lloyd and Terry Denton.
4. BTN “Behind The News” (TV programme)
ABC’s “BTN”, the Aussie equivalent of good old “Newsround”, is excellent at explaining things to children. There is a weekly edition of Behind The News which many kids watch at school. The Behind The News website also features a searchable catalogue of clips. I recommend this particular clip which discusses the arrival of Captain Cook from the indigenous perspective.
Can you tell your Kylie from your boomerang? (And I’m not talking Minogue or Jenner!) If you can’t get to Uluru, many museums in Sydney have exhibits featuring Aboriginal and First Nations artefacts which are geared to helping understanding of indigenous history and perspectives. (Note that there is an entrance fee for most museums.)
The Australian Museum: The Bayala Nura exhibition contains many objects illustrating the diversity and richness of Australia’s Indigenous communities.
Note that photography or filming of First Nations artefacts may not always be permitted and the names and images of deceased people are also a highly sensitive matter. If in doubt, ask a staff member.
6. Heritage Sites In Sydney
Greater Sydney is full of places where you can get a better sense of the rich Indigenous history of this continent.
For example, you probably know Balmoral Beach, but have you ever stopped to look at the rock shelter on The Esplanade, just across the road from the playground? Archaeologists have dated it to at least 3600 years ago.
Walking the Spit to Manly? A small detour at Grotto Point takes you to see some Aboriginal engravings, and there are also some near Bondi Golf Course.
The book “Aboriginal Sydney” by Melinda Hinkson contains a full guide and I highly recommend it, whilst the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service website contains some information on the sites it manages. Why not make one of these places your next family day out, or have a look on your way home from the beach?
7. Sydney Harbour Trust
Keep an eye on the Harbour Trust website for family-friendly activities and webinars which often incorporate Aboriginal history.
8. Other Walks, Workshops and Tours
The Royal Botanic Gardens runs an Aboriginal Culture Tour a few times per week. It’s $42 for adults, $25 for kids, but children under 7 go free.
9. NAIDOC Week Events – July
NAIDOC Week is held annually in July across Australia, and events are held in Sydney to celebrate.
10. Social Media
Last, but not least, here are some of my favourites to follow on Instagram:
Found some more? Let us know in the comments below!
It’s worth reminding your kids that their own ancestors probably weren’t the ones responsible for the bad things that have happened in the past. But that they should be mindful that the arrival of Captain Cook and the First Fleet is viewed by many as an invasion which disrupted and destroyed a long-standing and peaceful culture.
We should all do all we can to learn about and respect First Nations cultures in Australia, and in other parts of the world.
A big thank you to Tamsin for her wealth of resources to help educate other expat families about Aboriginal History & Culture. If you would like to share your expat story, please complete this form to be featured as our Expat Story of the month!
How To Educate Expat Kids In Aboriginal History & Culture