17 May 2023

Innovative Aboriginal play space leads kids along a pathway to learning

| Kellie O'Brien
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Yirran Muru playspace

Children play on the new Aboriginal interpretative play space Yirran Muru in Shellharbour. Photo: Shellharbour City Council.

An Aboriginal interpretative play space opened in Shellharbour only a month ago is already fielding enquiries for school excursions, reinforcing co-creator Dr Jodi Edwards’ vision to have Dharawal language taught and spoken fluently in schools.

Named Yirran Muru, meaning “many pathways”, the innovative play space at the Shellharbour Civic Centre takes locals on a cultural journey that follows in the footsteps of Aboriginal people.

Jodi was the consultant on the project and is a Walbunja woman of Yuin Nation, and has a kinship connection with Dharawal Country.

“For a long time, I’ve been wanting to include culture and cultural stories into the community,” she said.

“Council came to the Aboriginal Advisory Committee and asked if we had a viewpoint on what a playground should look like.”

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Jodi’s suggestion was for the council to engage with more than 300 local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students, along with local elders, to collaborate on the play space’s design.

“Council came back with the wants that the kids thought were good to have in that play space, which was to jump, walk, run and play,” she said of their desire for an outdoor nature-based theme.

The NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year 2023 nominee said when landscape architect Fiona Robbe was given the students’ suggestions, she sought her help for further ideas.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we mark out all the culturally significant areas of Shellharbour City inside of the playground and make it so kids can play in Shellharbour city inside of this playground’,” she said.

Previously Jodi had worked with National Parks during the design of cultural maps of the local area, which she gave to Fiona to recreate inside the play space.

“As they get older, they’ll be able to physically go to these areas of cultural significance,” she said.

Yirran Muru playspace

A Dharawal language wheel at the play space will help fulfil a 15-year goal for its co-creator Dr Jodi Edwards to have Dharawal language taught and spoken fluently in schools. Photo: Shellharbour City Council.

The playground includes a hand-carved timber whale, a canoe across the Jubborsay (Lake Illawarra), a gunya (dwelling), a treehouse lookout, sandpit, climbing wall made out of sandstone which the escarpment is built from, and a bush tucker walk.

“So they can do a bush walk right there in the middle of the city,” she said.

Shellharbour City Council Mayor Chris Homer said many schools had already requested to book excursions to the play space to learn about Shellharbour’s rich Dharawal Aboriginal culture and history, despite having only just opened.

“Word is definitely out there,” Cr Homer said.

For Jodi, it was reinforcing her 15-year vision for the Dharawal language to be taught and spoken fluently in schools.

“This is just another step towards growing educators’ confidence to be able to teach the language and for other Aboriginal teachers to have access to language,” she said.

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Cr Homer said the local food and bush tucker was another important element.

“The play space is about the movement and journey of local Aboriginal people, so we wanted to include how they sourced food,” he said.

“The end goal is that we will do workshops, pick the food (once it grows), then do cooking classes in the civic centre’s commercial kitchen.

“It’s about learning by play and is part of the reconciliation journey.”

Jodi commended the council on taking action when it came to reconciliation.

“Many organisations across the country are doing reconciliation plans and putting words on paper,” she said.

“Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. I can’t say. But what I can say is that this is reconciliation in action.

“It’s a credit to Shellharbour Council in helping close the gap between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people.

“For me, it’s the new era. Don’t just have words on paper, put it in action.”

Yirran Muru playspace

Gun-man-gang, also known as Windang Island, is represented by a hand-carved timber whale at the Yirran Muru Aboriginal interpretive play space. Photo: Shellharbour City Council.

She said she hadn’t heard of another play space in Australia that incorporated cultural stories, language, and the cultural significance of an area based on what kids wanted.

“To see kids playing there in what they wanted … it just warms my heart and makes me proud to be a local custodian but also a Shellharbour City resident,” she said.

“It’s a legacy I’m leaving behind in some respects.”

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