First Nations education: CHILDREN’S GROUND

First nations education for kids at Children's Ground (Lunch Lady Magazine)

Margaret Kemarre (MK) Turner OAM and Leonie Kngwarraye Palmer are respected Arrernte Elders, grandmothers, professors, cultural advisers, translators, teachers and social justice champions who helped establish Children’s Ground: an Aboriginal-led organisation that are creating a First Nations education system and a new future for children filled with promise, hope and empowerment.

Tell us a little about yourself, MK.

My name is Margaret Kemarre Turner. I was born in 1938 on the 18th of October at Spotted Tiger, up in the hills a few hours north of Alice Springs. My name was Neil but I married into the Turner family. I grew up at the station called Mt Riddoch, where my dad and my mum were working. I got picked up from Mt Riddoch by the Catholics when they were moving all the Aboriginal people from Arltunga to the new mission at Santa Teresa. The water at Arltunga had cyanide in it and it wasn’t good for people to live there.

I lived in the girls dormitory and then I got married there in September 1955. I was seventeen years old, and my husband was thirty-five. But he was a good man. He was a mechanic—he was everything—including a tradesman. He worked in the hospital garage. We raised our children in Santa Teresa and then we came into Alice Springs, as my husband had a job at the airport, then at Tangentyere Council and at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD), where he worked as a driving instructor. In Santa Teresa I worked at the shop, and then when I came to town I got a job at IAD doing language work.

I have six children: five girls and a son. And I’m a great-grandmother. I can’t tell you how many I’ve got. I’m actually a great-great-grandmother—I stopped counting when my toes and fingers ran out!

Tell us a little about yourself, Leonie.

I was born in Arltunga in 1948 and grew up here. Then we went to live in Alice Springs, in Palmer’s Camp. That’s the traditional home of my grandmother. When I was twelve, and my brother was fourteen, we got picked up by the priests and taken to Santa Teresa. We had one night with my grandparents and then they put us in the dormitory. That’s where I got my education and that’s where I’ve learnt my English. That’s another community, a Catholic community.

I had to live in the girls dormitory at Santa Teresa. MK was getting married when I lived there. The nuns looked after us and we weren’t allowed to see our family except on special visiting days. We weren’t allowed to speak our Arrernte language either—except we did among ourselves, especially on the weekends when we were sent out into the hills to look after the goats. We used to speak our language all the time then.

I’ve got five kids of my own. And I’ve got twenty-eight grandkids and thirty-four great-grandchildren. We have so many children coming up and more to come in my family. We’ll be five generations soon, because my great-granddaughter is having a baby.

How did Children’s Ground begin?

MK: We started off with nothing. Me and Leonie sat down and talked with CEO Jane Vadiveloo and said we’ve got to start a homeland school. And she probably just looked at us and thought, Oh, what are they talking about.

We started talking to parents, talking to people in the homeland. We said we’re going to start up Children’s Ground and teach our kids our own language and education. Now we are teaching language with our children from the beginning.

We’ve got our first Learning, Health and Wellbeing Hub in Mpweringke (Burt Creek) now and we will get more. And people are very proud. They have their own place where they can teach their own children with their language, and they’re learning up from the place where they live.

The education we are giving is the First Nations education from the grassroots. It’s a grassroots education language teaching, and we’ve got a whole program. We can get our own young people, young women and young kids to learn.

We are looking forward to more community development to follow up with our young people and seeing what they can do in their own homeland. They can be carpenters, mechanics or workers. The young people can teach young children when they come back from school. They can learn how to garden and cut wood for the old people. We want to get a place to plant trees. All of those trees will grow on the land and also with the people. Those trees will be remembered for being planted when we started Children’s Ground. We want our kids to grow up knowing they can be anything they want to be, because they will know who they are and where they come from.

Why is it so important that we support a First Nations–led education system? Why is this so crucial?

MK: Because we didn’t have a chance to do it. Today, First Nations people are turning the wheel around. We’re driving the car now. We’re driving education for our young children, with our own leadership.

Our education didn’t have an opportunity. Now we’ve got an opportunity to teach our kids in ways where we speak our own language, and we write our own language. That’s why we want to teach our children from that. And Children’s Ground is the only place that our children can learn like this.

It is important for our young mothers and fathers to learn their language and learn how to read and write their language. We are following the work that was started in the Top End at Children’s Ground. We don’t want our kids sitting down for their whole lives—we need our kids to be working. Working is good for people, because then they are doing it for themselves. They feel important and it slows down the problems we see in families. Working within our own culture, with our own knowledge system, gives us strength and builds our identity.

Can you talk us through a day in a Children’s Ground classroom? Do you teach them on Country?

MK: Our Country is our classroom. We don’t need four walls to build a classroom. For us, everything comes from the Land, so we have to be on the Land for our children to learn. Every day at Children’s Ground, different family groups go out. It might be families from our homelands in the Mpweringke Anapipe region, or it might be families from Uyenpere Atwatye (Hidden Valley) or Yarrenyty Arltere (Larapinta Valley) or Irrkerlantye (White Gate).

Every Tuesday, I go out for Learning on Country day with families from the Mpweringke Anapipe region, and we go to different places across the area. Most groups have two days per week on Country and then one or two days at their learning centre or hub, wherever that might be.

They can learn from the trees, and from the hills and the creeks and all the animals that they see or know that live there. The Land is our classroom.

When we go on Country, we pick everyone up in the morning and we take lunch, usually a cooked lunch that we’ve cooked in the kitchen here, and then we go out in the bus. Sometimes it might be close, sometimes further away. Sometimes we get bush tucker, like yalke (bush onion), alewatyerre (goanna), tyape (witchetty grub). It’s really dry at the moment, but after it rains we can also get yerrampe (honey ant), alangkwe (bush banana), arrutnenge (bush passionfruit), atwakeye (bush orange). The land is a supermarket! We can get meat, sweet things, so much if you know.

What’s happening to kids who are in mainstream schooling now?

MK: They’re not learning very much. They’re not learning the way we are teaching the children at Children’s Ground. We need this to be the mainstream way—First Nations languages should be taught in the schools.

Leonie: Mainstream schooling is very good for kids to understand about Western ways, but we teach the cultural ways to keep their language and culture strong. We’re getting our kids to understand the Western way so that they can understand the world they live in, and also get them to understand the language and the cultural way, so they can be really sure about themselves and who they are. That is why Children’s Ground is working with those kids as well as families, as well as young mothers and fathers. Get them to understand what they’re learning. Our children are not learning in mainstream school. So they just stay at home and do nothing but walk around.

So we thought about starting up a school to get them back so they can still learn what they need from education. That’s why we started Children’s Ground: to help our kids, our children—not only our children, but even young men and young women who drop out from high school.

Get them back as well, so they can fully understand what education is all about. It is very important for our young people and our children to learn both ways. We have Western-trained teachers working alongside Arrernte teachers so our children can have good education from both sides. They will have the best of the best.

Could you tell us the benefits you’ve seen from implementing Children’s Ground?

MK: So our kids can read their language and write in their own language. So they can sing in their own language. They have to have their identity first to know who they are and where they come from.

That is why Children’s Ground is really important. We’re starting teaching from the little ones in kindy. Because if they do go into kindergarten in the mainstream, who teaches them? You’re not teaching your children to be in the kindergarten. Somebody else teaches your children, your grandchildren, to learn at kindergarten. We’re teaching our children to be Aboriginal children, to learn the Aboriginal way.

Can you tell us how important it is for First Nations kids and Aboriginal people in general to learn on Country?

Leonie: We think it’s very important for our children to learn on the land, and to see the environment, to see the plants, the different trees. Trees around them, and they can learn and see.

As the kids get older, what happens then? What kind of things do they get taught about the land then?

MK: They learn about being teachers, they can be trainers, they can be storytellers in traditional ways. They can be grandmothers teaching grandsons. They can be one of the teachers of that land as they grow, and as the learning grows.

Can you tell us your favourite place to teach the kids?

MK: I like to take them back to their homeland, where the children are grown and where they lived, and where they were brought up, where their family was brought up. I’d like to take them to my homeland to teach my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren where my grandson was taught and born, and my husband’s land, where our children grew up.

If you’re a farmer, and you take back your children to the farm, and you teach your children about farming—what Grandpa did, what Grandma did, and what you did—it’s like that. And that’s how we are when we take our children back to the homeland.

Homeland living is a good way of living. They can live out there. They can teach out there with no problems, with no interrupting from other children. And they can be taught straight from the land itself. That’s why the hubs should be in the homeland. All our kids are talking more English than their language. That’s why we have to get our children back and talking language. I want to tell my young people to stop talking English. You’re taught language. You have language for food, for bread, for meat, for water—things like that.

Do you find the kids teach you things? Do you find you’re learning from the children too?

MK: Yeah, we’re learning from our children. We learn they run away from school.

Leonie: We have a really hard time with kids running away from school, trying to send them to school, and they’re not happy about the school. And that’s why we set up this Children’s Ground on homeland where they feel safe and secure and can learn properly. And to know who they are. Homeland is good to respect each other, to respect families, respect elders. That’s why we always say to teach our kids on the environment. Kids get to relate to themselves, to look after themselves, after their health. Language teaching is to teach them both ways: Western ways and also our ways. The sovereign ways we teach them on the sovereign land. With the sovereign language on the sovereign land, we teach our kids in a better way. To respect us and to respect the teachers, to respect who they are and not go around pushing them.

They are here to teach you. They are your teachers. You are not teaching them. So you’ve got to listen. So that’s what we teach our young kids today. They went through a lot of problems—trauma, fighting, violence. Living on eggshells. And we’re trying to develop this program to get good education working. The priority of what they’re aiming for is good education. To learn properly on their land so they can rebuild each other.

MK: They can be good parents, good grown-up parents with language speakers from their land. That’s what we’d love to do. Know what is wrong, and what is right. What is right in our homeland, what is not right in our own homeland.

Tell us about the differences you see in kids when you take little kids out bush.

Leonie: I always talk about kids, taking them out bush. Get them to learn, to see. And then they can give us feedback about what they see and what they learn. This is much better than the classroom, some kids say. It’s out in the open. It’s the way to learn, and it’s a better way to learn than sitting in a classroom for three, four hours just using that pencil. What you learn out of that is a lot of nothing. They get nothing out of it. There’s a fifteen-year-old young kid in high school who’s been going to school ever since he was four. And he never learnt anything. I asked him about bush. Do you know what that is? I showed him bush banana. You know what that is? He didn’t know.

So I say, “What do you learn at school?” “I learn nothing. I just sit there. But I like football.” I say, “Football is not your education. Football is a weekend game. It’s played for trophies, but what is more important than football is your education. You’ve got to learn. And all those things that I’m showing you is from the land. So you got to start learning because you’re going to be a father soon. What are you going to teach your own kids if you don’t teach yourself? How are you going to start learning?”

When they go back to their Homeland, they say they are really happy. Happier going back home.

MK: We also teach them obedience.

Could you tell me why it’s so important that we all support Children’s Ground?

MK: I think it’s really important that we all support Children’s Ground because it’s something we’ve never had in our lives. Our children were never taught, and we never got taught. First Nations didn’t have a chance to learn the way they wanted to teach their children.

You should read my book Iwenhe Tyerrtye—this book is for traditional education to see what an Aboriginal person is and can be. Children don’t know this now, because they don’t have the opportunities I had to learn. This book is a really good way to learn.

Leonie: I’m really happy to have a school for my family. And all my grandchildren in their homeland. And to support our community development to support kids in Year 12, Year 11, Year 10 who are doing nothing at home. That’s why we’re doing community development to support those young people and get them back to training so they can look after their little children. We need so many people to support Children’s Ground for that program—to look after us and our work.


A chat with Jane Vadiveloo, CEO of Childrens Ground.

What’s your role at Children’s Ground?

I’m CEO of Children’s Ground, and co-founder with our chair, William Tilmouth. We are led by a governance committee of senior community leaders where we work in Central Australia and in the Top End of the Northern Territory, and by a Western board of directors consisting of both First Nations and non-First Nations skilled directors, including MK Turner OAM.

As the CEO, my role is to implement a twenty-five-year strategic plan to achieve national system change. This plan has arisen from decades of work by First Nations leaders, and by William and me and local communities, to address the deep injustices and disadvantage faced by First Nations people. We are reforming key areas of the current system to build evidence for a new approach, moving away from existing disconnected silos of crisis and paternalistic government responses towards community-driven and integrated responses that focus on prevention and future opportunity for all children and families.

What are the goals?

Children’s Ground was established as a new system, a First Nations system. We recognise that change will require a generation of opportunity for children and their families. We aim to build the evidence base for broad-scale change by implementing the Children’s Ground Approach (CGA) with integrity in three to five communities over twenty-five years.

Our vision is for a world where all children and families live with dignity and justice and are free from economic poverty. It is for First Nations families to realise their aspirations for the next generation of children and to have agency over their social, cultural, political and economic future; where children are raised free from trauma, discrimination and suffering; enjoy equity, dignity and safety; and grow into adulthood feeling happy and able to enjoy their identity, health and wellbeing. And for Australia to celebrate its First Nations history, culture and future.

Wholesale national policy change would be the result. These communities, and especially these children, would have an entirely different pathway and opportunity and the right to be Aboriginal people. The goals are pretty straightforward, and the same goals all parents want for their children: health and happiness, with opportunity for meaningful lives and with a strong identity and pride in the oldest continuous cultures among humankind.

How are these goals being implemented?

The CGA was developed over decades. It stands as one of the only comprehensive ‘whole of community’ approaches on offer in Australia, designed to achieve transformative change led by communities experiencing the most profound entrenched intergenerational injustice and disadvantage in Australia.

Led by communities with incredible talent, knowledge systems and who have worked tirelessly for generations –there are nine clear principles. On the ground, we implement all the things that a child needs for future wellbeing: early childhood, education, health and wellbeing, families who are working and have income, safety, fun and opportunity. All of this values the culture, identity and language of children and recognises the oldest living systems of education, health and wellbeing in the world. It also recognises a strong governance structure that comes from the land.

If children have a wonderful opportunity through life that values them, if their families are leading and involved, if children across a whole community can enjoy this through to adulthood, then communities will shift from inequity to opportunity and wellbeing.

Why is it so important that we support an Indigenous-led education system?

Most children in Australia enter education in English and through their first culture. This is not the case for First Nations children. We have denied them this right since colonisation and forced children into environments that are not fit–and, at times, not culturally safe–for them. First Nations people have an established education system that should be at the heart of education. They also want children to be engaged in Western and global knowledge and skills. This can be achieved through a system that privileges First Nations cultures.

For First Nations people, everything comes from the land: who you are; what your responsibilities are to the land, to the law and to the stories that hold it; your language and kinship relationships; and all the learning about science, health and nutrition, art and creative expression, history, society, ethics. The land forms the basis for future responsibilities, leadership, creative thinking and accountability.

So First Nations education is not holding a half hour session of language or storytelling in a mainstream school. It is the oversight of learning by the right senior people for that country and for those children. In early childhood it is integrated, play-based early learning, which starts for children when they are born and adds complexity and responsibility as a child matures and takes their place as a holder of stories, language and community responsibility.

What makes you hopeful?

Elders, children, young people and adults who are our leaders and visionaries and strategists. When people have the space to be themselves, they take it and–overcoming many, many hurdles–year by year, as their work throughout their lives come to fruition, hope in communities begins to rise. 

What work still needs to be done?

Children’s Ground does not fit into a neat departmental ‘box’ either for government or philanthropic funding. We are not just about education, or health, or employment–although these are parts of what we do. So even though our needs are modest in each area, we also need the right amount of funding in order to show the whole system can work, across more than two decades, and in several locations. This is bold and radical and needs long-term partners who can imagine the different outcomes through this approach and stay some–or maybe all–of the distance.

How can individuals have impact?

Each person who connects with Children’s Ground is incredibly important. Change seems to happen slowly, slowly, and then suddenly all at once. What we have seen this year has been massive change across the world because of Covid-19.

And then, in late May, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to another global wave and calls for change. The injustices are so deeply felt throughout Australia and lived every day by every First Nations person. Each person can make an impact in this change.

And the change must be made by non-Aboriginal people, as we benefit the most by the systems that are in place. We have the ability to create change in our systems of power and influence.

Each person can listen, can educate themselves, can speak with their friends and family, can donate to support change, to support dignity and respect. Children’s Ground is a growing family of people for whom that is the future. At Children’s Ground, it is all about relationships and respect.


What are some key action points we all can do?

  • Purchase one of our First Language children’s books to learn about First Nations languages and culture. These educational resources are written by Children’s Ground educators in seven different languages. 
  • Watch the film In My Blood It Runs. You can still arrange a screening through the filmmakers and the website. The film illustrates why a First Nations education system is critical for children like Dujuan (the main character). Dujuan’s family are cultural leaders of Ampe-kenhe Ahelhe (Children’s Ground Central Australia). 

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