Last week the Productivity Commission confirmed in its Closing the Gap targets that two-thirds of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children struggle with developmental skills when beginning school.

This has caused early education expert and PhD candidate Rachael Hedger of Flinders University to question, “What are these children missing out on in their early years of learning?”  

Rachael Hedger is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Course Coordinator for the Early Childhood Initial Teacher Education degrees at Flinders University. She is a strong advocate for children learning through play. Her research focuses on how children can learn science concepts through arts-based practices.

Edge of the Crowd contacted Hedger on the development gap.

To alleviate it, Hedger said that Indigenous knowledge practices must be incorporated into early education.

“We need to ensure that early play experiences acknowledge and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing to allow children to connect to their culture and heritage in meaningful ways. Only then are they likely to be successful in assimilating their understanding and building on their knowledge and skills.”

“The representation of local Indigenous culture can be demonstrated in many ways, including through books, music, photos, flags, music, art, language, and artefacts.”

Nature is also an essential factor in incorporating Indigenous cultural heritage in early education.

“Embedding Indigenous experiences throughout different programs can include Indigenous plants in the garden (connected to the lands), bush kindy (walking on country) and yarning circles that include storytelling with children.”

Hedger found that a greater focus on play-based learning complements the shift towards including Indigenous knowledge practices in early education.

“In addition, children’s early school experiences need to continue the focus on play-based learning to support children’s transition to their school setting and achieve optimal outcomes. Coupled with this is the need for educators who hold a deep knowledge of Indigenous pedagogies to be able to cater for Indigenous children’s needs and support them effectively in their early years of life.” 

“Through play, children learn about themselves and the world around them. Play-based learning fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, skills, and dispositions through the varying scenarios that children come across in their everyday play situations.”

These arts-based learning experiences are integral to children exploring their emotions, expressing themselves and strengthening their capacity for creativity and confidence.

Hedger explained that the way early educators evaluate the development of Indigenous children must be reconsidered to ensure accuracy.

“We need to consider how we are measuring children’s developmental skills. If our assessment methods are devised using western cultures, then we are not seeing the whole child and the aspects of their mind, body, heart, and spirit that Indigenous pedagogies focus on.”

Hedger said that Indigenous assessment practices undertake a more holistic approach to evaluating development through considering aspects such as non-verbal language, the natural environment and social relationships. The absence of these factors in Western assessment methods may result in an unfair evaluation of Indigenous children and their development.

“Given an Indigenous child’s strong connection to their cultural and linguistic heritage, they are less likely to align with Western approaches to assessment.”

“Every Indigenous child is capable if we view them as such, situated in their community and family context, learning many ways of being and becoming within their unique culture.”