Bubup Wilam - 'Children's Place'

Bubup Wilam, meaning “Children’s Place” in the Woiwurrung language, is an education, health and wellbeing Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation located on Wurundjeri Country in Thomastown. 

Bubup Wilam provides Aboriginal children, families, and the community with access to an integrated range of health and wellbeing services and programs centring around the child through attending our long day and kindergarten programs. This is then extended to their school aged siblings and the family.

Deadly Story was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Shannon Bourke who works at Bubup Wilam as the educational leader, to ask a few questions about the centre and her time there!


Hey, thanks for joining me today! To start off ill just get you to introduce yourself and tell us your roll at Bubup Willam?

Hey, of course, my name is Shannon Bourke, I’m a Garawa woman, so my mob are from remote Northern Territory, I was born and raised on Gunditjmara Country in South West Victoria.. I am an early childhood teacher, I’ve been working in early year’s since 2009 so about twelve years ago and I’ve been teaching since 2015. 

This is my fourth year at Bubup, I used to be the four year old kindergarten teacher and now I’m the educational leader, so I support the educators with their programming and curriculum.


So tell us a bit about Bubup, how does it differ from other early learning centres?

Bubup is more than just an early year’s centre, we’ve got health and wellbeing services including occupational therapy, speech therapy, infant child mental health, child maternal health and we’ve got a doctor who has just started also a part of our health and wellbeing team is our nutrition team, so we’ve got two cooks on site that cook up amazing bush tucker for our kids. 

We also have workforce development, so most of our educators who work here also train at Bubup, we offer the cert 3 and diploma in early childhood education. So yeah, we are a busy place, there is a lot going on.

We also have a high child to educator ratio. So, mainstream, early year services set a minimum ratio of one to eleven for older kids, and we have one to eight. It's really important that we have lots of adults in the room to respond really quickly, especially, you know if our kids have higher needs or they may have come from a trauma background or even if it's just that they are really interested in learning about something, they've got an extra adult there to support that. In the babies room our ratio is one to three and then in the mainstream they have one to four, so it makes a big difference having those higher ratios, that's really important for us to have.


What is Bubup’s goals/vision?

Our vision is children who are proud and have a strong Aboriginal identity as their foundation for lifelong learning, health, and wellbeing. One of our important services is our transition to school program because we believe it’s not just about their time here at Bubup but their time beyond Bubup – so instead of saying we are getting children ready for school we are instead getting them ready for life beyond Bubup. We want to put all the supports in place for them and their families so they can leave feeling strong and deadly in their identity… we want our kinds to thrive and have everything that life has to offer.

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Bubup Wilam is a community controlled organisation – how do you feel that has benefited the families that access your services?

Yeah so Bubup has a board of Directors so everything we do comes through our community members. So we've got like families, current families, past family on the board and then just general community members. 

We talk about how that keeps us safe and families I guess know that they’ve got the option to be a member of the board if they want to, they know they have some say around like the operations of the space… it's about self-determination and feeling like they're empowered to have a say… I think generally it just feels like a safe place because the people that teach and care for your children are community members.

We have non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people working here at Bubup, but I think it's very important that kids and families see Aboriginal people in those roles and feel safe to talk to them about what might be going on at home for their family. If it was like a mainstream service, I think families might get lost in there a bit and not feel comfortable to talk about what's going on for them, whether it's positive or struggles or things like that. 

I feel like our families are really confident to speak up if there's something that they want for their child, and I think, yeah, that's what I really value about being a community controlled space because families feel self-determined and feel confident in raising any issues they might have.


So, how does Bubup help children and families learn about and connect to their culture?

Yeah, so because majority of our Aboriginal educators and children are living off country it's really not possible for us to be teaching cultural expression. So like if families want to come in and share those cultural expressions, things like dance, song or art or little things like that, then you know we are very open and welcoming to that, like we've had community members come in recently and do some art the children and share those skills. 

But we do step back because we tend to stay away from that cultural expression stuff because it just, sometimes it's not the safest space to work in and just knowing like that it’s so hard across lots of different mobs to sort of capture that but if families bring it in, then that sort of makes it more safe for us. 

So we sort of look at instead of cultural expression we look at cultural values, because a lot of our mobs shared those common values, so it might be like caring for country…respect for yourself and with one another…because like the majority of mobs share that value. 

All the children focus on learning who their Mob is so that they grow up at Bubup knowing which language group they belong to and if they come to Bubup not knowing that, then we help them find out. We work with families to create their family trees and things like that… Yeah, 

But yeah I think that cultural learning that's specific to mobs it should come from families, and where it's maybe not as strong then we can help them connect that.


You mentioned earlier, the different programs that Bubup provides. Why was it important for Bubup to provide those programs rather than being just a simple early childhood education centre?

I guess you know, we see that happening and it's not working, so it's just like finding the ways to strengthen early space for young Aboriginal kids. I think it works really well because we see their families every day…we're the best place to notice when things aren't going well. They come to us for a for a positive reason… we're not like a health service where families come when they’re not well, or like a community outreach space where families only come when they're in crisis. They see us every day. We see them in their good times and I think that's very important – to know families well and to also notice when, you know, things might drop off a bit for them. So when we start to notice those changes, then we can work around and offer those supports before it gets too far gone.

It’s really important for us to have our health and wellbeing on site for lots of different reasons, so there's often huge waiting lists in mainstream to access those supports, often you know it's not accessible for families or if it's six months down the track, if families are in crisis, it's not necessarily something that they're going to pick up on when there might be health issues or bigger things to worry about. 

So it's really important it's on site because it's much more accessible and our children don't have to miss out on their entire kinder day to access the visit so it improves their attendance as well. If families are working or busy and can't attend then they give permission for one of the educators to go into their speech or OT session as well. 

A lot of the time our Allied health also work in the room, so they're seeing children in their ‘natural environment’, it's a more authentic space for them to observe a child…so as a teacher I value that we work alongside really closely with allied health, and that if we're like learning about something in the room then they can use that in their clinical sessions as well…it really enhances what happens, because if a child was going to an outside service, they wouldn't have any idea what's going on in the classroom for them, so they wouldn't be able to use the child's knowledge, strengths or interests to support their speech learning, so I think it's much more effective and meaningful for a child to have that. 

With the workforce development, it means that we do have Aboriginal educators because we've got a space where Aboriginal people can come in and learn in a space that's built for them and not a mainstream RTO, which aren't necessarily going to understand the needs that they may have, and the supports they might require.

I know that mainstream early childhood courses, especially from RTO’s, are often quite racist or even just misinformed. It doesn't teach the truths and it's got this weird lens to it.


You mentioned earlier the transition to school program which supports families past their time at Bubup Wilam and into primary school – what was the reasoning for the continuous support and what kind of benefits have you seen amongst the families as a result?

So in our transition to school program our educators go and visit them at school once a term in grade Prep and then twice a year in grade one and two. There are some families that we are still supporting and they were here when they were under 5, you know they grow up at Bubup and their going on to high school now so we’re supporting them to feel confident in choosing schools for their kids.

The program also keeps them connected, a lot of children talk about Bubup the rest of their lives. It's just such a strong special place for them, and you know, we've had kids in the past, say ‘I'm just going to go to school for a few years and then I'm coming back to work at Bubup’.

I think it's so magical and amazing that we can still send out staff to go over and visit them at schools and that they know that they've still got their community there…I can imagine like in 10 years’ time, at the NAIDOC march all the Bubup kids will kind of get together and say g’day to each other, and you know, there's community events where they feel like they belong to something together, and they've travelled a similar route to each other and I just feel like it really strengthens community in that way. 

Most schools don't recognise our kids Aboriginality, so I guess it almost forces their hand because often they'll say, ‘Oh no, we've got lots of different cultures at our school’ or ‘they're not real Aboriginal kids’, you know through this program we actually hear a lot of that sort of racist stuff going on. And you know, Aboriginal children are not just another culture it's the culture of this country, so it's important. It’s important schools recognise that and valuable for all non-Aboriginal kids to recognise and learn about our mobs and our identities and cultural values as well. 

Transition to school is often like a really big thing for a family, they've never gone through it before and it just makes sure that they've got somebody who knows them and looks at them through that strength based lens and can talk candidly with them and they’ve got that support for as long as they need. 

It's also a really good way for us at Bubup to evaluate the work that we do, we can see if what we're doing works… it's a great evaluation of the work that goes on at Bubup.

So yeah, the support doesn’t stop when the leave Bubup, all of those health and wellbeing supports are still available to them. A lot of our allied health specialists go out to the schools and work with the kids once a week in like a speech session or whatever they might need


I know that Bubup also provides a kind of ‘bush kinder program and a lot of outdoor learning. Can you tell me a bit more about that and how that works at the centre?

We have our Connection to Country program. So, once a week, the children spend 5 hours in bushland at Plenty Valley Gorge.

It’s such a beautiful time for us all. I go out every Wednesday with them, there’s lots of like bush walks, river walks and a big, beautiful Bunjils nest that we go out to that’s like a kilometre or two walk, so it’s big walks these kids are doing. We go out there rain, hail or shine, the weather doesn't stop us, the only reason we don't go out is if it's a really high risk of fire or if it's really dangerous winds… during the warmer months we get to have a big splash in the river which is really amazing. 

They learn to take care of Wurundjeri country – that's like a really big part of our program is really, focusing in on that this is Wurundjeri country and most of the kids aren't Wurundjeri but what does it mean for kids and adults living off country to respect Wurundjeri land, so we talk about that and the kids will say like ‘they're not respecting Wurundjeri land’ because you know they see people dropping rubbish on the ground or throwing sticks or rocks into a river. I always think about these kids as adults and how we want them to be respectful community members and I think it's really important for them to know that they live on someone else’s country. 

Also a major part of that day is when we have our Bush Tucker out there… Ricky, our chef who is a Gunditjmara man, comes out and cooks on the fire. They had muscles and spaghetti, barramundi and crabs and other traditional foods. So a lot of our teaching is through the food as well as talking about whose mob eats certain foods and we bring that learning back to the centre and learn about it when we're in the classroom as well. 

Outdoor learning is a massive part of what we do at Bubup – we have indoor and indoor outdoor learning so children can choose where they want to be. That's part of our trauma informed practice. So children can be in the classroom but like if they're a baby and they want to spend time with their older sibling, they can go into their classroom and spend time with them. And if there are older, they can go down to the baby’s room and help out in there. They like to say ‘I'm going to go work in the baby’s room today’, and they go and help feed the babies and all that sort of stuff. 

It creates a natural environment, like our mobs didn’t segregate children by age, and so I think it's really important that the kids learn in spaces where there's lots of different ages and abilities across different age groups.

Children acknowledge country every day, we do a flag raising every morning, the children walk around and gather up all the kids stand around outside and raise the flag and acknowledge country. 

During non-Covid times, we do try and take our four year kinder kids out in community a lot. We want our kids to know that they have a right to be out in the world. So sometimes it's going to the local library or the playground behind Bubup, sometimes we will take the train into the city and go to different spaces, just being out and about in the world because they have a right to it.


So to finish off, Bubup Wilam seems to have a strength-based approach in supporting children and their families – why is this an important perspective to take and how does it help strengthen a child’s identity?

Well, it's really important that the education space leads at Bubup, so we do have those allied health around who traditionally come from a background of looking at the deficit – looking at what's wrong with the child and trying to work out how to how to fix it? So it's really important that the allied health people that come to work at Bubup understand that it the education space leads the way because we're the ones that work with the children every day, we know those children and families really well.

I think a big difference between early childhood education and schools is that we look at each child strengths to teach and we’re not looking for the deficits to sort of fill the hole. But we're looking at their strengths and going OK, they're really good at dance, for example, and so we teach through that or they're really interested in stories and so anything you want to teach them, we know that stories is a great way of teaching that skill.

So I think it's an important perspective to take because I think the whole world around them often looks at Aboriginal children and families as vulnerable and deficit based. So it's really important that there's a place in the world that children come to and they see the children’s strengths and the joy they have and the strength of the family. 

I think it makes it a lot safer for families and children when we're looking at them through that lens. Any hardships or struggles that they come across, we can use their strengths to support those hardships. 

If we look at families through, their strengths I think we are in a much better place to support them because we're looking at them as strong individuals or families. I think it comes down to like if you're looking at someone through a strength based lens then you’ve got higher expectations about what they can do and then if you’re looking at it through deficit based lens then your expectations are lower and so the outcomes are lower.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material. To listen to our Acknowledgement of Country, click here.