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What does Anzac Day mean to our kids? Guest post from Lynda Ward

What do our kids think about Anzac Day? When we visited Coogee Public School with retired teacher Lynda Ward for the school’s Anzac Day commemoration we found out. We sat with the very respectful children in the ceremony and very quickly learnt that these “young men and women”, as Headmaster Paul Wood put it, knew a lot more about Anzac Day than we anticipated. We were both surprised and proud when the Year 2 children asking the sailors representing the Royal Australian Navy on the day questions like:

  • “What do you get medals for”?
  • “Why do wars start”?
  • “Why do you wear rosemary”?

But enough from us, below Lynda Ward tells us about her experience in teaching the children about Anzac Day over 20 years at Coogee Public School.


Anzac Day is of great significance to many, many people around the world. It is particularly important in the Australian calendar. Not only is it a time to remember those who landed on the beaches at Gallipoli at dawn on April 25, 1915 but it is a time to remember and reflect on all those affected by war and conflict over the years.

Often when we think of war we think of soldiers on battlefields as those affected by the hostilities. But there are so many more who we should remember. The families and friends at home who lived without knowing what was happening to their loved ones, the businesses that were not able to continue without the workers who were away, the children who grew up without knowing parents, the families who lost the breadwinners and were forced to struggle to cope with the challenges of everyday life. The list is endless. Even after the war was over, many people, not only the soldiers, were never the same people they had been a few years earlier. The impact of the war has lasted for generations. This was acknowledged by one little fellow who informed me that “My grandpa went to the war but he didn’t get dead!”

It is essential that the youth of today understand the history of this wonderful country and Anzac Day is a vital part of this history. As a primary school teacher and the proud granddaughter of a World War I digger, I have always felt passionately that children should have a meaningful understanding of the significance of the Anzac spirit.

Australian children of today are blessed that they have not lived through a world war, they generally have a life of privilege where all needs and wants are provided. Many see soldiers as movie characters where the goodies win, the baddies lose and everyone lives happily ever after.

We all have a responsibility to educate the youth and as a teacher this is especially true. During my long career as a primary school teacher, I have been involved in organising Anzac and Remembrance Day services for many years. These have been included as part of class programs in which the children have been involved in lessons dealing with aspects of Australians at war, at a level commensurate with their age. In class, the children have learnt about Simpson and his work with Murphy, his donkey, about the correct wearing of medals, about courage and mateship, about the significance of poppies and rosemary, about life in trenches, about living in heat and cold, about Anzac cookies and the Army ration biscuits. Jonathan King, in his book “Gallipoli Diaries” quotes stories of these biscuits being used as postcards, being posted home with messages written on them, arriving in a perfect, but inedible condition!

When Jonathan spoke to the children, he compared the cliffs at Gallipoli with the blocks of flats directly opposite the school. He made the deeds of the diggers understandable to the children by his use of simple language and easy to understand concepts. Over the years the children, along with parents and community members who attended our services, heard from a variety of speakers including, Colonel John Watch (retired) one of the original “Rats of Tobruk”, Mrs June Starr who served with Women’s Auxilary Australian Air Force in WWII, Patrick Lindsay and Peter FitzSimons, both authors and journalists, and Gary McKay MC, Vietnam Veteran and author as well. Currently serving servicemen and women have also spoke to the children. After one service, two Navy personnel then spent some time with one of the Kindergarten classes. The children were full of questions – “Do you wear pyjamas on your boat?” “Do you have seat belts in bed in case you fall out?” “Can you go swimming when you are in your boat?” “What if there are sharks in the water?” “How come you have such big shoes?” Children are naturally curious individuals with vivid imaginations.

One of our uniformed guest speakers was asked by a parent to speak to her son about the fact that he thought that on the approaching Anzac Day there was going to be another invasion at the local beach!

These men and women were able to speak of the Anzac Spirit in ways that inspired the children to believe, that they too, have to the ability to embody this spirit in their own lives, by sharing what they have, by talking through difficult issues and by standing by their friends. There was the story told by an Army officer about driving along a road in Iraq on a hot day when he saw a man selling watermelons. He stopped and bought all the watermelons and then took them back to his base and shared them with his friends. The children understood exactly.

On a trip to Canberra, one youngster was taken to the Australian War Memorial as part of a family holiday. Without hesitation or prompting, he approached one of the attendants and asked to be shown where he could find John Simpson Kirkpatrick’s name on the Roll of Honour Wall. They had quite a conversation about Simpson. His parents were amazed and left wondering what he was doing. He simply said “We learnt about him at school.”

Children have also learnt of the current work of defence force peace keepers in various parts of the world. They know that life in the Army is not all fighting but it is also about doctors and nurses and builders and engineers who help other people who are in need.

When I taught the children the basic idea of playing two up, a game played by the soldiers, (without the gambling element attached!) we used real pennies and recorded our scores on the whiteboard. A little one asked “In the war, where did the soldiers write their scores?” I simply told her that they used a piece of paper. That simple explanation was sufficient for a five year old to grasp the concept.

The concept of living in trenches was used to explain that war was not all fun and games. One enthusiastic little boy decided that life in a trench was something to be explored at home and proceeded to recreate trenches in his backyard! Each afternoon he would emerge from his digging to stand on the trampoline and have his family join him in singing the National Anthem before eating dinner. What would the neighbours have been thinking?

Music has played a significant part in our school services. The presence of a bugler playing the Last Post and Rouse has added a great deal of meaning to the reverence of the occasion, creating an atmosphere that is usually limited by recorded music. The Army and Navy Bands have been particularly supportive.

Various students have led each service. One particularly proud moment for me, as a teacher of young children, was when a Year 1 student asked to take a part in the Anzac Service. This is the same student, who in Kindergarten cried almost every day in Term One because she was so anxious leaving her mum and coming to school. But by April, the very next year, she was the MC at the Anzac Service and spoke with confidence and without hesitation in front of more than 500 children and adults. She went on to become  School Captain.

Kindergarten have led the last few Remembrance Day services when they have spoken about what peace means to them. They have tried to imagine what it would like to live in a time and place where there was no peace and reflect upon how lucky they are to be living as they do.

Peace is about talking to people if you have a problem.
Peace is about having friends coming over to play.
Peace is about playing without being scared.
Peace is about helping my friends.

They have learnt a song titled “The Last Anzac” written by Michael Travers. It was composed to commemorate the life of Alec Campbell who died in 2002. Alec was the last Australian serviceman to have landed on Gallipoli in 1915. This beautiful song is full of words and concepts with which the children can easily identify. “If we need to solve a problem, can we talk it through?”

Each of our four student leaders have written their own speeches for our Anzac Services. Of course, they have been guided and assisted, but the research has been theirs as have the exploration and discoveries of family histories. Many have spoken about family connections with service to our country and the children have come to regard grandparents and great grandparents in a different light. Classmates have come to identify with these figures more closely than those mentioned merely in books. They have also spoken of characters including Weary Dunlop, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, Sir John Monash and places like Kokoda, New Guinea and Vietnam and with concepts such as courage and hope.

The Australian War Memorial  in Canberra provides a wealth of information just for the asking. Their website is very user friendly and their Memorial Boxes, prepared specially for schools, provide artifacts that stimulate fascinating discussion, allowing children to see and touch actual items. Large pictures also provide discussion stimulus for the children as they can see clearly various aspects of the land as well as uniforms and equipment. Seeing pictures of the duckboards, created to keep the soldier’s feet out of the mud, was an aspect of life on the Western Front that they could understand. Another picture that caused great discussion in class was one of troops in New Guinea pushing a vehicle through a flooded river and up a hill. “Why did the take their shirts off?” ” Gee it must have been hot!” “That looks like a hard job to do.” They were equally fascinated by the dogs used to assist troops in Vietnam.

Discussion around Anzac Day and Remembrance Day has never appointed blame or glorified war. Stories have been told and issues explained in simple way to make history understandable. Children have looked at and worn medals, with pride and respect, clear in the knowledge that they are very special and must be treated as such. After the wreath was laid during the school service, it was taken by the children and placed on the memorial at the local RSL Club.

There are a number of books written especially for children. Books such as “Why are they marching Daddy?” complied by Di Burke and illustrated by Elizabeth Alger, “Harry and the Anzac Poppy” by John Lockyer, “Remembering: The Story of a Soldier” by Virginia Mayo, “What was the war like Grandma? Remembering World War II” by Rachel Tonkin. Series such as “Australia in History” by A.K. Macdougall provide valuable resource material suitable for primary school children. Other worthwhile resource materials include “The Anzacs at Gallipoli” by Chris Pugsley, “M is for Mates. Animals in Wartime from Ajax to Zep.” published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, “The Anzac Spirit, From Gallipoli to the Present Day” by Dr Peter Pederson, “A is for Anzacs” by Captain Matt Anderson.

Being instrumental in presenting these school services and encouraging the active participation of so many children has been amazingly rewarding to me. The children have learnt respect, compassion, pride and a sense of mateship. Each year they learn a more about the Anzac spirit and how it can become a part of their own lives.

When you go home

Other useful links:
Australian War Memorial education resources – click to view
Department of Veteran Affairs education resources – click to view
Hazel Edwards – Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop
History Teachers Association of Australia – click to view
National Archives of Australia – click to view

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