COVID-19 hasn’t changed much for outback schoolchildren, but there’s one thing they miss a lot

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The pandemic has forced families across the country to adjust to homeschooling, but the lives of children in remote outback properties have remained largely the same.

Grazier’s families had to adapt to different challenges, such as losing the limited social opportunities they had, including visits from the Outback Mobile Resource Unit.

Also known as the ‘Game Library’, the unit offers one of the only group sessions of childcare and temporary play for families who live in remote sheep and cattle stations and often cannot connect. with other families in the region.

The service had to go online to continue to offer colorful content for children and vital social support for parents.

Vicki Olds (middle) and Emma Fenton (right) provide childcare and social support to families in the New South Wales hinterland resorts.(

Provided: Emma Fenton

)

An artery for outback communities

The unit has been providing babysitting services and group play sessions for herding families in Far West NSW and South West Queensland for almost 40 years.

Educators Emma Fenton and Vicki Olds traveled hundreds of miles a day providing interactive and educational activities for children in the area, as well as an open ear for parents often struggling with the brunt of drought.

Toy library car in the NSW outback near a Christmas tree.
The duo travel hundreds of kilometers a day to provide childcare and social support services to isolated families.(

Provided: Emma Fenton

)

“We are working on value face to face, so a lot of times we would go to a remote property or community and set up in the town hall or the train station and people would come around to see these group play sessions.” , said Ms Fenton.

Covering an area of ​​approximately 220,000 square kilometers, they serve approximately 150 people at stations stretching from Pooncaire in southern New South Wales to Tibooburra and extending beyond the Queensland border.

“It’s as much for the parents as it is for the kids, because it becomes a pretty social gathering when we all get together.”

Children playing in toy library gather in Far West NSW
Grazier’s parents and children met once a month at a property or community hall run by the Mobile Outback Resources Unit.(

Provided: Emma Fenton

)

The unit would also organize activities for children at local events like Milparinka Gymkhana, a great social occasion that much of the community mourns the loss for the second year in a row.

Childcare ‘a luxury’ in the outback

While most families have a playgroup or preschool on hand, isolated pastoralists are often overlooked and lack access to vital social interaction with other families.

“I think being able to provide this early childhood service to distant children is extremely valuable,” Ms. Fenton said.

“The fact that the kids in the outback can be so forgotten… the kids in town have so much on hand that they can go to a playgroup whenever they want, they have kindergartens at their door “

“But these kids are so far from it all… for them it’s a luxury.”

program game library

The organization has switched to uploading interactive activities through photos and videos to Facebook to keep children and parents engaged during the lockdown.

Emma Fenton holds up a paper craft to teach children.
Ms Fenton said adapting to online learning has been difficult as the service relies heavily on face-to-face contact.(

Provided: Emma Fenton

)

“It’s been a learning curve and provided a lot of entertainment both for us and sometimes for the parents if we ever did some nonsense or just some fun stuff for them too,” she said with a laugh.

Grazier Tennielle Siemer of Coally Station, 265 kilometers north of Broken Hill, said life was not the same without visits from the Outback Resource Mobile Unit.

“We miss them so… incredibly… we miss them as friends, we just miss them as an excuse to get together, the children miss them,” Ms. Siemer said.

Ms. Siemer was involved in the organization before the birth of her four sons.

Four Siemer boys on Coally Station
When they’re not doing air school, Tenielle Siemer’s four sons (left to right) Finn, 8, Jack, 13, Archie, 6, and Ned, 11, help round up the sheep from the station.(

Provided: Tennielle Siemer

)

“Even as little babies, they would go to group play and fall asleep in the pram if I just needed a five-minute break to catch up with other adults and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine,” she declared.

“It’s very difficult to keep the older kids away because they love them so much and have an incredible friendship with Emma and Vicki.”

Ms Siemer said the toy library provided her family with important opportunities to be socially involved with other children and parents.

“Without the toy library, children would have very little interaction with other children.”

“I always joke with Emma and Vicki that they probably should also have a counseling degree. Several times they listened to all of our worries, especially when we were all going through the drought.”

COVID-Lives the Same, But Different

The Siemer children are enrolled in the Broken Hill School of the Air and took online classes from home long before COVID-19 made it a regular occurrence.

“Even if their education is not as disrupted because they do an air school and everything is predefined and delivered on this platform, it is not a question of when they will see each other,” a Ms. Siemer said.

While lockdown restrictions for unincorporated areas across Far West NSW have been relaxed, the COVID-19 risk in Broken Hill and parts of Central Darling Shire have made it impossible for residents outside these areas to resume. a normal life.

“They are on a station that is our business, so they get dragged around and do a lot of work.”

“They just don’t know when to take a break.”


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