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  • Writer's pictureEileen Noyer

Teaching Aboriginal Art and Culture – Lesson Plan and Reflections

Updated: Nov 4, 2018

I was recently asked if I would facilitate an art class for 25 Californian 4th Graders. At the time that I received the facebook message, I was painting a diptych of Uluru and thinking about the significance of the landmark to the traditional owners, the Anangu people.

Classroom Art
The students painting a representation of an important story in their life - on their cardboard boomerangs

I have always found Aboriginal culture interesting, and in particular how their oral traditions are interwoven with rituals, art, survival, the laws that govern all interactions, and connection with the land. I love the idea of talking about Aboriginal Art because there are a trillion branches from these 2 words. I am immediately thinking about and want to investigate further:

  • Unintended and misguided cultural appropriation

  • How tribes and languages influence story-telling

  • Whether contemporary Aboriginal artists feel hemmed in by the recently popularized dot-art style

  • How symbolism has changed pre- and post -colonization

  • How the use of rock art varies between tribes

  • How each Aboriginal artist and tribe feels about being lumped together in the category of ‘Aboriginal Art’

  • Which story to choose that best demonstrates the purpose of storytelling

  • How to communicate about symbolism and have the children apply this concept to their own lives

  • How to fit in as much as possible in just 1 hr and 50 minutes!

So I put together a rough lesson plan, which looked like this:

The Lesson Plan

  1. About Australia – look at a map of Australia with all Aboriginal countries and tribes listed

  2. Aboriginal Culture and Oral Storytellingtraditions – go through the handout

  3. Watch a video of Aboriginal Art being made and explained.

  4. Look at examples of Aboriginal Art. What are your observations?

  5. How are symbols used in storytelling? Provide handout with examples of symbols used in Aboriginal Art.

  6. What is being taught through these images? Why do you think those colors were selected? How do you think these colors were created?

  7. Watch a video that talks about Aboriginal Art, with glimpses of the beautiful landscape and local languages

  8. Ask students to tell an important story in their life. What symbols can represent these stories?

  9. Provide students with the cardboard boomerangs. Encourage them to use color, patterns and symbols to represent their story.

  10. Read a story an Aboriginal dreamtime story: ‘How The Water Got To The Plains.’


I was astounded by the teacher Vicki who encourages critical and abstract thinking in her class of twenty-five 10 year-olds. The kids were cooperative, engaged and enthusiastic; a true trifecta. The students attend a school in a low socio-economic neighborhood of Sacramento. I was blown away by their manners, listening skills and how helpful they were to each other.

Starting off, I asked the children, “Who has heard of Australia?” Almost all hands went up. “Ok, and who has heard of Aboriginal Australians?” All hands went down. That was the starting point for explaining about the 50 000 years of continuous living culture. The main focus of the lesson was about story-telling and how art has been used in conjunction with oral traditions in order to convey important messages. I provided examples of important messages within a story, and we went through a handout with a very brief history of Aboriginal art and culture. The children read aloud the content in the handouts, and generally for that part of the lesson the engagement level was more focused on enunciating the words rather than on the content. Whenever a difficult word came up, a nearby student would help read out the word. If I had more time, I would have prompted more discussion between each paragraph of information so that the children would have a chance to digest the information. I used page 2 and 4 of the handout put together by Kids Hope Aus (Nov 2014). My only angst about the handout is that it is called ‘Australian Aborigines’ when these days the words ‘Indigenous,’ ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘First Peoples’ are more appropriate. Spending more time on the concept of ‘Dreamtime’ would have been ideal.

I showed a video that generally introduces Aboriginal art and culture, and then showed examples of art starting at rock paintings. I asked questions about each painting and how they differed. I loved how eager the children were to respond! I had forgotten the age-old rule in schools that you must put your hand up to speak, and so that was a pleasant surprise! The children were able to guess that the colorful dot-art painting was the most recent one due to it’s use of blue. I showed two of my paintings that depict Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and very briefly explained a bit about these two monuments.

Almost every child understood the concept of symbolism, and about 90% felt very comfortable inventing symbols to represent their own story. It was only a handful of students that depended on additional instruction to represent the concepts. For those students, I asked them more detail about their stories, and provided verbal prompts about shapes and color to get them going. A few of the children were astounded that it was up to them to invent their own symbols, and were kind-of seeking permission to use paint the symbols they invented. That's especially what I love about art... seeing that moment where the child realizes that they can create whatever they can think of. The depth and creativity of the children's stories was so interesting. One girl’s story was about her birth, and how she almost died in an emergency c-section but then survived. She represented her near-death experience as a ‘cancel’ sign, and next to it she placed waves of blue to represent air going into her lungs. She used blue drops to represent rain and the tears her parents would have experienced at that time. I loved overhearing the conversations between the children too. “Do you think this color best represents ‘mother’?” “How can I symbolize Texas?” “This color shows how I was feeling at the time.” While they were painting, I played Aboriginal music that I found on youtube, mostly with didgeridoo sounds, tapping sticks and vocals.

We ran out of time to read through a Dreamtime Story. I had selected a story called 'How The Water Got To The Plains' as it shows how symbolism, ethics, kinship and the land are all interwoven. I provided a copy to the teacher in case she would like to read it to them on another day.

What a treat it has been today to facilitate and witness learning in this 25 children.

When asked for final thoughts, comments and questions, one boy said, “Miss, you know that map of Australia…it looks like a dog!” There’s definitely creativity in this classroom!

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