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Book review: Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 16, 2013


Bush ToysA little while ago I posted about my curiosity as to whether or not there was a concept of ‘toys’ in nomadic lifestyles so I was very pleased yesterday when I stumbled across a whole book devoted to the topic.  The Bayside Library Service at Sandringham deserves to be congratulated because it’s the only library in metropolitan Melbourne that I’ve ever been in, that has a dedicated section of books about indigenous issues.  Amongst the treasures there, which include fiction and non-fiction books by indigenous authors; reference books; and books about indigenous issues by non-indigenous authors such as Dr Henry Reynolds and Dr Lyndall Ryan; I found Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen, which was written for the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, to document their collection of artefacts.

It is a scholarly work, and unfortunately the photographs are really too small to use with classes at school, but it is a very useful book for teachers interested in extending their background knowledge about the lifestyles of Aboriginal children.  The new Australian Curriculum includes three cross-curriculum ‘priorities’, one of which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, and (as I said in my previous post) one of the science topics includes Year 2 students identifying toys from different cultures that use the forces of push or pull.  This book shows me that Aboriginal children did indeed have toys and games like that, and a wealth of others besides.

The Contents page gives an indication of the book’s scope:

  1. First Toys: rattles and rings
  2. About camp: playing house; story games; drawing sticks for tracks and other sand games; dolls
  3. Bush tucker: bags and baskets; fire sticks and digging sticks; fishing gear
  4. Hunting and fighting games: spears and spear games; parrying games and mock fights; disc rolling and spearing; shields; missiles and mud balls; spearthrowers; boomerangs; other weapons (bow and arrow; stone axes; throwing sticks; darts; shanghais)
  5. Playing with sound: bullroarers; percussion toys; strings and whistles
  6. Water play: mud balls and mud slides; canoes; rafts
  7. Community play: ball games (composite balls; football; throwing and pursuit games); hockey; bowling or ‘jeu de boules'; spinning games; playing sticks; skipping; marbles; ‘board games'; airborne and returning toys; fireworks
  8. Other toys: hoops, tick-cat and quoits; whimsical toys and other figures; driving toys (trucks, rollers and trailers).

As you can see from the list, there are toys and games which  may derive from contact with European children, but the collection is diverse, gathered from museums around Australia.  It necessarily reflects records of Aboriginal societies constructed by Europeans over time, so the collection is incomplete and is filtered through European eyes.  Any games that were associated with secret ceremonies would never have been revealed to European observers either.  Not only that, but interest in the lives of children is a fairly recent topic of research and much of what is available has survived only by chance.  This is especially so because many games were played without equipment (you only have to think of hide-and-seek or chasey) and most toys were ephemeral.  They were often thrown away when the game was over; and if they were made from plants they soon degraded when exposed to the elements.   In general, Aboriginal cultures did not focus on ‘keeping’ or ‘owning’ or ‘treasuring’ toys.  Things were shared communally and left behind without regret when the community moved on.

But what is common to all of these toys and games – and probably universally to toys and games from hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial societies all over the world – is the concept of ‘transformation’ – that is, taking an object from its environment and giving it a new purpose, for the purpose of play.

As in European societies, as ‘adults in preparation’, children played with miniature versions of adult artefacts, often gendered : little canoes, shields, hunting weapons and fishing gear for the boys, while the girls had tiny versions of equipment needed to ‘play house': they had cute dolls made of grass and string, painted with clay and of course they had mini coolamon to carry them in.  For mimicking food-gathering they had digging sticks, bags and baskets (which put me in mind of those miniature supermarket trolleys we see today), and the book has a photo of kids who’d built a mini shelter to construct their little imaginary world – complete with a play fire pit to cook food.

Girls played skipping games ‘before ever they saw the white man’s skipping-rope used’ (p.87) and Daisy Bates saw boys playing with marbles with a species of nut.  They had slingshots too, and balls made of pandanus leaves, while both genders had toys for running, jumping and throwing, for messing about and for making a noise.   Story games were used to teach unique aspects of their culture: there was a leaf game in which girls rearranged groupings of gum leaves to learn kinship relationships and the ‘right behaviour’ that goes with them.

I have just bought a copy of this book from Fishpond to use at school  (see the link below), but something the Australian Museum could very usefully do would be to set up a virtual exhibition that could be accessed by school children across Australia, using the photographic collection that they already have and curating it online with kid-friendly captions.

Author: Claudia Haagen
Title: Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play
Publisher: National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 1994
ISBN: 0855752459
Source: Bayside Library Service

Availability

Fishpond: Bush Toys: Aboriginal Children at Play

One Response to “Book review: Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen”

  1. […] also a showcase called Toy Stories, with toys to look at.  (Do check out my review of Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen, I hope there’s an exhibition catalogue for First Peoples […]

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