For more than three decades Healthy Harold has been taking messages of health and safety to children through the Life Education campaign. After a federal funding scare in May, he’s back and bright as ever. By Stephanie Van Schilt.

Life Education and Healthy Harold

Life Education in action.
Life Education in action.

As a thirtysomething childless writer, it feels strange parking in the grounds of a primary school. But as soon as I see the stationary white van, the smiling face of Healthy Harold, I’m transported: today is Life Education day.

Shy, the north-east region educator for Life Education Victoria, waves at me from the doorway of the van. “Welcome, my dear,” she says before wrapping me in a warm hug. I almost cry with comfort and joy. Before I can step inside the van an overeager mother rushes in, cutting me off.

“My son can’t go to the session with his class tomorrow because we’re going on holiday this afternoon. So he has to be able to join the older kids today because he can’t miss out,” she demands breathlessly.

Whether host, instructor or guardian of the magic portal, Shy’s demeanour is unwavering: she is patient, calm and caring. She informs the parent that if the child’s teacher approves, of course the boy can attend today.

Life Education Australia is our largest independent health and drug education provider for students aged five to 13, but extends its reach to include preschoolers as young as three and adolescents as old as 17. For more than 35 years the registered charity has affected the lives of millions of children and young people nationwide, appearing in vans at schools so Healthy Harold – a puppet giraffe – and his human educators can deliver lessons on health and safety.

Over a cup of tea in the staffroom Shy explains that while Life Education Australia looms large for students, individual schools determine the specific areas of focus for their visits. The program syllabus is broken into relevant age groups – preschool, primary, secondary – and broadly covers health and drug education. If the school has issues with smoking, personal hygiene or nutrition, they can elect to have their sessions dedicated to these modules. 

When Life Education Australia announced in May that their iconic schools program had been defunded, the federal government quickly learnt the power of social media. Overnight, Education Minister Simon Birmingham rectified the situation, reconfirming support and funding of “#HealthyHarold” on Twitter.

Under the guise of professionalism, I ask whether Harold will be in attendance during my visit. Of course, he’s just napping at his place, Shy reassures me with a wink. Suppressing the stab of grown-up envy at Harold’s fully fitted-out imaginary apartment under the van, I ask if kids today still love the program as much as I did.

“Children have changed in their knowledge and their responses to questions about drugs, but their level of enthusiasm for learning is the same,” Shy says. “And their love for Harold is still the same as ever.”

Shy has worked with Life Education Victoria for more than five years. In that time, the rise of cyberbullying, energy drink consumption and use of the drug ice have become necessary additions to the Life Education curriculum. The problems are not just smoking or alcohol anymore.

In the decades since I participated in the program, little else seems to have changed; I’ve stepped inside my very own time capsule and it’s awesome. The impressive new plasma screen affixed to the back wall of the trailer is a recent addition, but the technological advancements seem to stop there.

When the lights go down, shimmering faux-stars twinkle on the ceiling and TAM – transparent anatomical mannequin – internal organs still glow during digestive or respiratory demonstrations. The same soft-tread carpet is underfoot and classic posters are updated with websites, but remain attached to the carpeted wall with Velcro. The food pyramid is now, somewhat confusingly, a pie-shaped circle to fit with mandated Australian Guide to Healthy Eating guidelines, and the games the kids play reflect what’s popular, such as MasterChef. Overall, it’s as I remember it.

The unwavering enthusiasm for the Life Education program resonates through each age group. Grade five and six kids enter with a too-cool, all-knowing attitude – “He’s just a puppet,  you know?” – that melts away by the time Harold pops out. Across all age levels, whenever the giraffe appears with his good friend Shy beside him – to translate whispers such as “Harold wants to know what you’ve learnt today” – legs are automatically crossed, posture is suddenly fixed and hands are raised perpendicular.

Harold the Giraffe and TAM are older than I am. They were early residents in a renovated room above The Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross where Reverend Ted Noffs established Life Education in 1979. Noffs was a maverick, utilising organised religion to promote action over preaching, his ethos encouraging equality and fairness for all.

In addition to hitting the road across states and territories in Australia, Life Education has crossed oceans. The program and vans are now established in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Britain, the United States, Barbados, Cyprus, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Papua New Guinea and Macau. Considering the program’s initial religious affiliation and the seemingly powerful effect of the program on children of all ages, I was sceptical that the instructors may have been more didactic than I recalled.

Shy directs me to a chair in the back corner next to the class teacher. The spirit of the Life Education van is inclusivity; Shy’s approach is open and flexible to the conditions. When a boy in the back row of the class starts crying, left out after being bullied at little lunch, Shy introduces him to a group of gentle classmates and by the end of the session he’s smiling.

The program for each year level follows the stages of introduction, information, group activities and finally the Q&A with Healthy Harold. Catchy sayings such as “kidneys are like a washing machine for the blood” are repeated and a student suggesting a good way to dodge a bully is to excuse yourself to go to the toilet is encouraged.

Without speaking – or legs – Harold gives the best stand-up comedy routine I’ve seen in a long time. Oscillating between bashful and cheeky, the puppet knows how to read a room and keep it from descending into excited chaos.

“Harold wants to tell you a joke. What’s green and hangs from a tree?” Shy asks on Harold’s behalf. “Giraffe snot!” Harold nods vigorously and the kids burst into raucous laughter.

Healthy Harold’s short closing skit is a deft way of driving home the messages from the session. He shares examples from his healthy lifestyle, even revealing a banana peel from a snack he ate behind the scenes that gets the kids giggling again.

This tack works well as the students are most interested in how Harold lives – how he goes to the toilet, where he lives, what he does for fun. Harold proves time and again he’s just like them, except maybe a tad healthier and, well, a puppet giraffe.

Through sessions, as the confidence rises in the carpeted cocoon, it feels as though the van has taken off, away from the pressures of school to a safe harbour. After an opportunity to hug Harold and collect a sticker, a session concludes, the door swings open and it’s surreal to see the same car park we entered from.

“Seeing those happy young faces walk into the van full of expectation and excitement fills me with gratitude, humility and joy,” Shy tells me at lunchtime. But having experienced the magic of the Life Education program growing up and witnessing it decades later,
I already know this.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 8, 2017 as "Puppet love".

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Stephanie Van Schilt is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and podcaster.

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