What all kids can learn from Indigenous storytelling

Kinderling News & Features

Kids might adore their iPads and other gadgets, but they can learn a lot from Indigenous storytelling, one of the oldest forms of family communication. 

John Patten is the Manager of the Bunjilaka Culture Centre at Melbourne Museum. John grew up in a community that had lots of interaction with the environment, around elders who knew a lot about traditional stories. 

He explains oral indigenous culture and just how important these stories are for the Indigenous community but also all children. 

Listen to John’s interview on Kinderling Conversation:

Indigenous stories teach many different lessons 

There are many reasons to share indigenous stories with children and adults, says John. “Stories for indigenous children have lots of different uses and appeals and needs.” 

For indigenous children, these stories help them see their place in the world. “It shapes how you look at respecting your elders, what your role is within your community,” says John. “The thing is that while traditionally ours is a history based on oral traditions, it also one now that is written, published, blogged about, vlogged about and produced in a whole range of different ways.” 

With such a broad range of different projects in new media, children are enabled to share who they are. 

These stories are history 

Aboriginal creation stories are history, explains John. “They do have an element of necessary narrative placed within it there to help it along. There might be an aspect of fantasy, but when you drill down deeper, you’re talking at real events that happened.” 

John lists examples like natural events such as a star going supernova as being told in their history, or a drought being represented by a frog drinking all the water, as in the story of Tiddilick, who features in the Melbourne Museum as a water-shooting bronze statue. 

“Every one of these stories has basis in truth and so what I try to do and what every community does is help relay our history through our oral traditions,” he says. “I think there’s a lot to be gained by looking at how Aboriginal people share our history and stories. It’s always an ongoing changing thing.”

Meaning changes from generation to generation 

Since these stories have been retold for over 30,000 years, John recognises that certain elements of a story might change but the core meaning will be the same. 

“With each new generation and with each new story teller, they’re going to inject what they need the story to be,” says John. “For example, when I tell the story of Tiddalik the frog, it’s always about how you need to be responsible and listen to your elders and it’s always about teaching people not to be greedy but now it’s become a story that’s about water management as well.” 

All kids can relate to the stories 

“With Aboriginal stories, like many others, there are lots of universal themes,” says John. That includes respect for elders and assuming a role within a community, which he sees as something every child can comprehend, from any background. 

“It’s important we tell stories that we treat children with the respect they deserve, that we don’t dumb things down, we tell them and we share them in a way that’s enlightening, rather than confusing.”

Don't miss John telling the story of Tiddalik the frog, watch now: 

Museums Victoria is giving every baby born, fostered and adopted in Victoria from February 20 a free six-month Museum membership at their eight-week visit. Visit their website for more info.