Teaching Young Children about Australian Native Animals Through Story, Song and Poo

Everybody poos! Well animate creatures anyway, and this can be endlessly fascinating for young children and many adults alike. So how does this fact reflect my philosophy of celebrating diversity and promoting literacy and compassion through story and song?

Aside from the poetic licence used in the title of my CD celebrating Australia’s unique wildlife, The Koala Went Cooee,  the content of each song is scientifically correct, with ‘facts’ embedded in their lyrics. Please note that having lived next to a koala habitat for the past 4 years I can readily testify that the sounds they make, (not a Cooee) particularly when mating, are more suited to a punk CD rather than a children’s one!

Poo is referred to in a few of the songs and the CD’s accompanying booklet. It not only serves an educational purpose but challenges ideas of ‘cuteness’ in Australian marsupials. Ringtail possums eat their own poo, but only their soft, daytime poo, koala joeys eat their mother’s poo (pap) and the poo of flying foxes contains the seeds of rainforest plants. Perhaps the most exciting poo fact for me was discovering the shape of wombat poo. As I don’t live in wombat country I was unable to check it out for myself, so I enlisted the support of environmentalist Kelly Coleman for documentation.

As a child I grew up on a sheep farm at the foot of the Snowy Mountains in NSW, so was familiar first hand with various types of bird and animal poo. While I never thought much of this at the time, I realise now how lucky I was to spend so much time outside observing not only farm animals but native animals and birds. What is a normal way of life for many children, i.e. spending time in the bush, is fast disappearing and being replaced by a virtual experience of the natural environment. (TV and internet)

Understanding about extinction, conservation, predation, domestication, native and feral animals is essential knowledge for everyone living in Australia. The traditional owners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, passed knowledge on to children from the earliest age, to keep them safe and living in harmony with the land. However as more and more people live in urban environments, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people become disconnected from the natural environment. When this happens, then everyone misses out.

I acknowledge that singing songs about animals is not the same as ‘real life’ experiences of being in natural environments, however, if a song can create a sense of delight and inquiry in a child then it is fulfilling its teaching role; if it inspires educators to actively connect children with their natural environment then I am happy.

Pictured are participants from Armidale Community Preschool who attended a Koala Went Cooee workshop.

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The Koala Went Cooee

I teach through story and song. Not only are these effective mediums for passing on information and inspiring an interest in the pursuit of knowledge, they are in and of themselves fun, even joyous experiences. That is reason enough for my vocation as a storyteller and musician. And why I have decided to focus on performing The Koala Went Cooee concerts to preschools, playgroups and storytimes in 2016.

In collaboration with Roman (my companion in arts education, philosophising and food gathering) we will be presenting 30-45 minute music and storytelling concerts featuring songs from our CD of the same name. 

I began writing the songs a decade ago during my artist residency at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre in Port Macquarie, NSW. I was engaged to collect the stories of the people, flora and fauna in this national park. Songs like Goanna about the relationship between the brush turkeys and the lace monitor lizards were the result of studying the reptiles and birds indigenous to that area. However I included songs about other Australian fauna, not native to the region, such as wombats, emus and crocodiles and produced the CD with 24 songs and a downloadable booklet of activities.

The most important component of storytelling and music is listening. This can be undertaken in private or within a group. Every child has their listening preferences. I am a firm believer in the notion that familiarity breeds confidence,  in regard to listening. That’s why children often ask to be read the same story over and over again. They love repetition because their anticipation is successfully rewarded. “I know that!” They will often retell a story they are being read or join in reciting a rhyme if they have heard it enough times. Their expressive language skills are developed as a result of their developing listening confidence.

I love being able to work ‘live’ with children, but also have the resources available for them to deepen and build on their listening experience. I see arguing what is a better children’s literature experience;  reading out loud to them or storytelling, in the same light as comparing the merits of live music listening experiences to  recorded ones. In each case they are complementary and individuals may have personal preferences. I am happy to be able to offer a range of choices through both performances and cds.

Photo taken by Roman Schatz at a concert at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre, Port Macquarie, Australia