Connect at Home: Books that Open your Heart to Country

Excerpt from Jasmine Seymour’s Open your Heart to Country. (Jasmine Seymour)

By Hamish Dunlop

A Blue Mountains program called Connect at Home started during COVID to support early childhood language development. Through the program families access high quality storybooks and are guided on how to optimise learning at home. Children are now speaking both English and Dharug languages in the community after learning through bilingual storybooks and engaging with a Dharug Elder.

Connect at Home, an initiative of Connect Child and Families, began providing book packs on loan to families during lockdowns. The packs include four beautiful storybooks and a shared reading guide. One of these four books is bilingual. The program was sparked by the observation that lockdowns were potentially inhibiting language development in babies and pre-schoolers. The book packs support families at home to use reading and games to increase literacy and comprehension in English and in Dharug.

The four books in the pack: Open Your Heart to Country, authored and illustrated by Jasmine Seymour. P is for Permaculture, authored by Sharon Baldwin & illustrated by Tia Madden. The Imagineer, authored by Christopher Cheng & illustrated by Lucia Masciullo. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say, authored by Davina Bell & illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper. (Connect Children and Families)

Responding to the impact of COVID

Lockdown was a challenging time for everyone.

Masks were a standard precaution, but in early childhood centres obscured the nonverbal social cues that carers gave babies and children through their facial expressions. Children were at home more, as a risk management strategy, which meant fewer social interactions important for learning. Lockdowns meant less experiences that would normally be part of a young child’s routine. Educators and speech therapists noticed changes in children’s language development. They also saw separation anxiety when families transitioned children back into care.  

Looking for solutions to address the issue of language development, staff at Connect found a successful intervention from Tamworth Library. A speech pathologist had coded children’s books, identifying ways families could encourage language development at home. The question was, how could Connect support families to read and play the games that normally happened in supportive playgroups? The answer was Connect at Home.

The Connect team with the four books in the pack. Senior Manager of Practice and Programs, Angela Gillespie, second from the left. Cr Romola Hollywood far right. (Connect Children and Families)

They selected four storybooks that would work across early childhood age groups. The accompanying guide suggests ways to explore each book with a baby or toddler. Connect has an abundance of expertise including early childhood teachers, speech pathologists and family support workers. They collaborated to create these resources. Connect also partnered with Mountains Outreach Community Service to access Early Childhood Centres and playgroups to make the packs accessible to as many families as possible.

When it came to selecting books, their criteria included quality, but also themes such as resilience, sustainability, and connection to nature. When the team were talking to families about things they could do during lockdowns, bushwalking was a common theme. The stories and photos that came back from families were inspiring, so nature had to be a prominent theme.

Incorporating traditional language and culture

Uncle Lex Dadd performing the Welcome to Country at the launch of Connect at Home, Bungarrabee Centre Hazelbrook, October 2022.

Uncle Lex Dadd, a Dharug Elder, is a very welcome regular presence at Connect’s early childhood centres. The team refers to him as the Dharug Teacher. The time he spends with the children is organic. It might be talking to them about what’s naturally happening in the yard. Senior Manager of Practice and Programs, Angela Gillespie, sees this time spent with an Indigenous Elder as something all children across Australia should have.

Uncle Lex was involved in selecting the books for the pack. They were keen to use Open Your Heart to Country, a bilingual book by Indigenous author and illustrator Jasmine Seymour. The Connect team knew about Jasmine because they already used two of her other books: Baby Business and Cooee Mittigar, (illustrated by Leanne Mulgo Watson). Consulting with Uncle Lex gave Connect confidence that their book recommendations were culturally safe.

Excerpt from Jasmine Seymour’s Open your Heart to Country. (Jane Seymour)

Integrating Dharug and, eventually, Gundungurra languages where possible, is a key component of Connect’s programs. This is part of what Uncle Lex brings. He’s on site, providing language and meanings behind things. Angela believes it is an important part of revitalising traditional languages.

She says that what the children remember is just staggering – far beyond what the adults can recall. They know the names of animals and plants. They say “Warrami” as the Dharug greeting and “Yanu” for goodbye. There is a swell of gratitude here.

Angela says they feel very fortunate: “It’s magic to see the children so engaged and so fluid in their language use. A few years ago, one of the toddlers from the Mt Victoria early childhood centre went to an opening at the Western Sydney Zoo. There was a Dharug Elder doing the Welcome to Country. The child went up to them afterwards and said, “Warrami”. It was an emotional moment for the Elder and evidence of the power of language.

Angela tells a story of when Uncle Lex was out in the vege patch one day with the children. They were all fascinated by the ladybugs on the cucumber vines. “He just went over there and told them a story about why the ladybugs had appeared at that time. You can’t plan for that. It’s priceless. Those children will always remember that he told them that story. It’s those things we want them to notice – what’s going on in the environment around them. By doing this, they become real citizens of the place they live in, and this speaks to us all as a community.”

Excerpt from P is for Permaculture by Sharon Baldwin, illustrated by Tia Madden. (Hamish Dunlop)

Ensuring everyone has access to quality books

Connect used a small grant from Multicultural NSW to fund Connect at Home. They created 250 tote bags with each of the four books and the shared reading guide. A library system enables the books to go out for periods of four weeks, accompanied by an app for families to check the packs in and out. Some packs have been given to vulnerable families. The system is working well, and the books are coming back in to be redistributed. The project is a credit to everyone involved, particularly Karen Daniels, who has led the project and underpinned its success.

Books can be expensive. Buying Peppa Pig for $5 at the supermarket is a viable option, but it doesn’t provide the rich, localised content within the book packs.

Excerpt from The Imagineer by Christopher Cheng and Lucia Masciullo. (Hamish Dunlop)

Connect has street libraries at all its Blue Mountains sites and encourages families to make use of them. The educators are in no doubt that families want to engage in literacy with their children. As soon as books go into the libraries they disappear. Community members are active in borrowing, returning and stocking the libraries. A lovely thing happened during lockdown where an anonymous community member kept stocking the library outside Hazelwood Early Childhood Centre with pencils to encourage writing.

Connect had a tent at Survival Day held on January the 26th at Bureau Park in Katoomba. They gave away 110 books, all by Indigenous authors. These included a diverse range including some copies of Open Your Heart to Country and books by Adam Briggs and Adam Goodes. There were some classics like Day Break by Amy McQuire and other titles for older children. There was a lot of excitement among families being able to take the books home. There were even a few elders who took books, amazed how much the storytelling space had changed.

Excerpt from What to Say when you don’t know what to say by Davina Bell and Hilary Jean Tapper. (Hamish Dunlop)

More about Connect Children and Families

Connect Children and Families is community needs driven. It grew from the Possum Early Intervention Playgroup Service which was established in 1981. It’s a story of a small organisation made up of dedicated people struggling with a lack of resources to meet its members’ needs.

Angela Gillespie, Connect’s Senior Manager of Practice and Programs, joined 10 years ago. When she started, she saw the possibility in expanding community networks.

Connect Children and Families provides a variety of services across the Blue Mountains. These include playgroups, support in the home for families, NDIS, services to connect people to community and pathways to transition children into school. They also provide accessible, affordable early education and care centres across the Mountains and in Lithgow, Penrith, Blacktown, Cumberland and Hawkesbury areas.

The four books in the pack are:

Open Your Heart to Country, authored and illustrated by Jasmine Seymour.

P is for Permaculture, authored by Sharon Baldwin, illustrated by Tia Madden.

The Imagineer, authored by Christopher Cheng, illustrated by Lucia Masciullo.

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say, authored by Davina Bell, illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper.

This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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