The beat of a drum, with its similarity to a heartbeat, calls to something in all of us. And as Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre is finding out through its First Nations approach to learning and literacy, children are especially influenced by its powers.
Makoonsag – which means many little bears – teaches children from an Aboriginal perspective, which includes intergenerational learning, specialized facilities, and a focus on traditional language and practices.
Bringing a drum into the Centre is one technique they’ve found especially effective.
“To bring the drum into our Centre was an amazing phenomenon,” says Eleanor Thompson, director of development and one of the founders of Urban Circle Training Centre, which houses Makoonsag. The drum has a very calming effect on the children, she adds. “It’s obviously something that is innate in all children because all cultures respond to that beat.”
Makoonsag was developed to provide child care for the children of students attending Urban Circle, an innovative employment preparation organization located on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End.
Makoonsag’s innovative approach was born out of the vision of Elder Stella Blackbird; she saw the Centre as an opportunity to return to the traditional Aboriginal way of raising children, where multiple generations formed strong family units.
“When our people lived in harmony, everything was done with family,” she says. “We did all our own child-rearing. Then all the treaties were imposed on us. We went to residential school and all our teachings were gone. My age group was the one that lost parenting.”
This community method is proving successful. “[The] Intergenerational model is bringing back the sense of wholeness where the children are the keepers of mystery and wonder and can teach us so much,” Thompson says.
From its physical structure to its programming, the Centre has been designed to bring families and community together. A round central room, reminiscent of a sweat lodge, is used for ceremonies with Elders, events for families, and community outreach. (It also doubles as a cozy space for nap time.) Low walls in play areas make the space open, airy and conducive to interaction.
“We didn’t want closed-in walls,” Blackbird says. “It’s a family setting where you can see each other and have the Elders visible. It’s our traditional way. In a tipi there was always a family unit – you ate together, you slept in the same place. It was that closeness that we lost.”
In addition to its First Nations methodology to learning, Makoonsag has partnered with Red River College to use an emergent curriculum approach, which means programming is very child-centred.
“[It’s] working with the child to see that our instructional materials respond to what they want to learn,” Thompson says. Thompson says the emergent curriculum “ties in beautifully to the integrated Aboriginal approach,” and is proving very successful in terms of learning and literacy.
And while these approaches are helping children, Makoonsag is bringing joy and healing to the community. When Stella Blackbird walks into the building, she feels a positive change.
“I become very happy, it’s an awakening sort of feeling,” she says. “I was never allowed to be a child. That free spirit the little ones have – for me to know that they’re not going to be ashamed of who they are – it’s a wonderful experience.”
Blackbird will talk about how Makoonsag’s Aboriginal centred approach is helping develop early learning and literacy skills on Wednesday, March 27 at 2 p.m. at the Free Press Café. The presentation is part of an event focusing on innovative approaches to early learning, presented by the Winnipeg Foundation and Community News Commons.
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