Early Childhood Seen and heard: Teaching Auslan in preschools

Teacher Zee Hewit with children at Maroondah Kindergarten. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

Auslan signers are the unsung heroes of the COVID crisis, and one kindergarten is sharing the word.

The last year and a half of rolling lockdowns and daily press conferences has put a small cohort of Auslan speakers front and centre in our lives. More than ever before, we’ve become used to seeing this visual language unfurl in all its beauty and expressiveness, and perhaps some of us have even learned a trick or two while watching on.

Auslan (short for ‘Australian sign language’) is now such a recognised aspect of official communications that when the newly installed Premier of New South Wales neglected to hire any Auslan speakers for his initial conference, he was rightly lambasted for the oversight.

Which is why it’s great to see that some Victorian kindergartens have opted to teach the language as part of the state government’s $20.6 million early childhood language program.

Teacher Zee Hewit learned Auslan at TAFE, so she was super-keen to introduce it as the chosen language for Maroondah Kindergarten back in 2019. Not only were her colleagues on board, but so too was the broader school community. “We surveyed our families and 100 per cent supported our language preference for Auslan.”

Zee feels that the intuitive nature of the language is a perfect fit for young kids to pick up. While English relies on word order and sentence structure, Auslan is a visual-gestural language that uses movement to convey grammar and meaning at the same time.

Auslan is now embedded into everything the kindergarten kids do, from greeting families in the morning to the Acknowledgement of Country.

“So many of the signs look like what you would expect. If someone signs ‘turtle’ to you, it looks like a turtle. That makes it a really child-friendly language to learn.”

Although Zee was proficient, it was still a challenge to find the best way of fitting Auslan into the kinder’s culture. “We’re very nature-based, and we’re committed to exploring our local community. So, how to add a language program in a play-based curriculum to make it meaningful for our context?”

As it turns out, Auslan is now embedded into everything they do, from greeting families in the morning to the Acknowledgement of Country. “We use it in group games, we have stories in Auslan, counting, puzzles,” Zee says. “It’s so exciting. It just becomes second nature.”

And the kids are whizzes, having mastered at least 300 signs in the first year and countless more since. “From the start, we’ve had huge interest and enthusiasm from the children and families and our community. I love the look of surprise on the parents’ faces when the children are showing them what they know, or when they’re watching the children play a game without using their voices at all.”

That’s particularly beneficial for children who are less vocal, she says. “Some children are really drawn to it, particularly children with English as a second language and those with less verbal communication skills. It gives them a platform to shine.”

“The residents and their staff love when we show them how to sign, and so the children are acting as experts, teaching Auslan, and it’s just magic.”

It also leads to dialogue between staff and students about different abilities. “It provides a great conversation around being deaf, and what that means. And one of the beauties about Auslan is that it’s probably one of the languages that children might end up using out in the community.”

They already have a relationship with two feeder schools in Ainslie Parklands Primary and Eastwood Primary. Though the pandemic has derailed a lot of in-person visits, when they have spent time in these schools, the older kids have been amazed by their proficiency. “The children were actually up there with the Grade 2s.”

They have also dropped into Donwood Community Aged Care a few times as part of their intergenerational program, where the kids share their knowledge with elderly residents, some of whom are hearing impaired. “The residents and their staff love when we show them how to sign, and so the children are acting as experts, teaching Auslan, and it’s just magic.”

Learning Auslan is building remarkable confidence in the children, says Zee. “The children love sharing what they know. They go home and show their parents and grandparents – and tell them when they’re doing it wrong! Families are telling me they wish all schools did Auslan.”

Considering the crucial public health service so many signers have provided during these past few years, maybe it’s about time for all hearing Australians to watch and learn.

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