Giraffes may not be native to Australia, but there’s one spotted, long-necked star that many locals think of when days like today - World Giraffe Day - come along.
Healthy Harold is an icon, recognised around the country as the mascot of Life Education, and a regular feature in the core memories of Australians aged 40 and under who’ve been lucky enough to experience a lesson since the initiative started in 1979.
Though the world has changed significantly in the decades that Harold has been helping local kids and communities, the goal has always been the same - to educate young people about the importance of physical and mental health and how to make informed decisions in a way that’s engaging and enjoyable.
“We’ve kept the core the same, but we've expanded the messaging” says CEO of Life Education NSW/ACT Jono Peatfield.
“We do a lot of cyber safety now, as well as respectful relationships, consent, we’ve even introduced vaping content.”
Expanding the scope of subject matter has been vital to staying relevant - but it hasn’t been the only change Life Ed has undergone in recent years.
While the majority of former students had their encounters with Harold and the team through mobile van visits, those of us who grew up in the greater west of Sydney are likely to have memories of visiting the physical premises of the Life Education Centre in Colyton - an incredible establishment that housed interactive theatres and classrooms.
“This centre was built in the early 80s. (Life Ed Founder) Ted Noffs had a relationship with Dick Smith, who originally housed Life Ed at Australian Geographic,” Peatfield says.
“(Smith) saw the potential, and went halves with the government to build this place. Now the national office has bought the building and land.”
Though the centre has had to stop taking visiting groups of wide-eyed local school kids, it still serves a crucial role in Life Education’s current model, with the theatres and classrooms being used as live interactive studios where sessions can be broadcast into schools around the state.
“We run two virtual studios out the back that we converted during Covid, and we can use those almost like ‘green rooms’ to create a bunch of online content, kind of like Netflix - Harold on Demand.”
While the pre-recorded content is valuable, the real benefit has been the ability to deliver lessons and content directly into classrooms.
“Our educators have four spots in the studios - including a table for Harold - and they communicate with students who they can see on the big screen.
“They’ll also have a producer and run sheet, so they’re delivering live and can still engage with the class and the teacher, which offers a similar content experience.”
That technology has delivered a number of other positives as well.
“The face-to-face is usually better, but this is certainly a better option than not doing it at all. It’s less intrusive too, which can benefit children with special needs and help reduce their anxiety.
“We were also able to deliver a program on Norfolk Island, where we’d never been, and one for ‘School of the Air’ (a service catering to students in remote outback Australia). They do all their education online and we were able to do a virtual session with kids who would have otherwise never had access to Harold.”
LIFE ED FOR ALL!
While the centre is a remarkable facility, the most important element of Life Education’s current set-up is the fleet of vans and utes that are used to take these vital health messages to all corners of the state - a fleet that is being constantly upgraded and improved.
The mobile vans now feature an incredible array of state-of-the-art equipment, including half-sized models of TAM - the Transparent Anatomical Model used to teach kids about their bodies and how they work.
But the star of the show is the new android-compatible TAM-E system, an amazing augmented reality model that gives students the chance to examine and explore the inner-workings of their bodies.
Whether it’s the effects of smoking or asthma on the lungs, how the digestive system works (fart noises included) or even the impact of drugs on the brain and nervous system, the revolutionary software provides an easy-to-understand and insightful experience unlike anything currently offered in Australia, helping create a memorable and engaging learning experience.
The other jewel in the crown of Life Ed’s current delivery is the new pop-up classrooms, contained within utes that help educators get to those hard to reach rural places and crowded urban spaces.
“It’s a bit like a jumping castle in the back of a ute,” says Life Ed Marketing Manager Stephanie Milton.
“It inflates out and becomes this big classroom, with a nice open dome where the kids can come in and have their lesson.”
Though you might not think it looking at the utes that carry them, the pop-up rooms are surprisingly large.
“They’re six-by-six metres. They’re all custom built and they can be used for events as well.
“It’s preferable for regional and country schools because often we can’t tow the mobile vans out on those remote outback roads - or in city schools where they don’t have the space.
“These rooms can go in halls, underneath COLAs (covered outdoor learning areas), even in playgrounds. They really stick out and the kids think it’s so exciting when it arrives.”
With the interactive online broadcasts, the incredible vans and the new pop-up rooms arriving in 2019, Life Ed has been able to expand its reach like never before.
“We’ve got 55 educators across primary and early learning. 44 vans, the pop-up classrooms. We get to about 1300 schools every year and close to 1,000 early learning centres,” Peatfield says.
“We reach all corners of the state - from Bourke up to White Cliffs, even Deniliquin. If a school calls us to book a lesson, we go.”
“We cover about 50% of schools in NSW, mainly public and catholic. Regional visits are a big part of our ethos, making sure we’re available to everyone.”
THE MAN (OR GIRAFFE) HIMSELF
For all of Life Education’s success - and there’s a lot to celebrate - it’s hard to know just how far the brand would have gone were it not for the instantly identifiable Healthy Harold and his various forms throughout the years.
“Harold is a massive factor,” says Peatfield.
“There’s been a lot of research around using a believable but mysterious figure to establish memories and engage, but there’s more to it.
“Being out of the classroom really helps too. Teachers will say they’ve never seen certain students so engaged, and students who rarely talk can suddenly find their voice.
“Getting kids out of the classroom and into Harold’s presence, there’s something powerful about it.”
That power lives in many Australians, as evidenced in 2017 when the Federal government was considering cutting Life Ed’s funding. The public outcry from multiple generations on social media was so swift and loud that the decision was almost immediately reversed.
But while the future seems secure, there are still challenges ahead.
Life Ed and Harold aren’t resting on their laurels, with plans to continue expanding the program more into early education and also at the other end, as kids move from primary to secondary education, while also expanding the subject matter.
“We’re developing a new module about Friends and Feelings,” says Milton.
“We deep dive into relationships and interpersonal skills, empathy, mindfulness, even breathing techniques.”
“We also do early learning centres now, starting at age 3, going through to the end of primary school and we’re in the process of developing a secondary school program around alcohol and drugs,” Peatfield adds.
The rapid development of technology has continued to provide challenges - and not just for the audience.
“The kids are across (the technological issues), if anything we’ve had to start introducing it earlier,” adds Peatfield.
“Things that used to be relevant to Year 4 and 5 students are now relevant to Years 2 and 3.
“We’ve even had to upskill some of our educators to be able to teach the cyber safety content, but that’s all part of the challenge.”
Clearly, it’s a challenge that the Life Ed team and Healthy Harold won’t be shying away from - and that's something we should all be thankful for.