health

What ever happened to Healthy Harold? An investigation. 

If you ask an Aussie Gen X’er or Millennial how they first learned about the dangers of drugs, chances are their answer will be something along the lines of: “from a giraffe in the back of a dark van”.

An ironically trippy statement, yes. But rest assured, that giraffe is real. His name is Harold, Healthy Harold, and he is a puppet.

Harold is the poster boy (toy?) for the Life Education program, an initiative launched in 1979 to educate children about the importance of making safe, healthy choices. In the 40 years since, roughly seven million Australian children have participated in the program, which is dispatched across the country via its famous mobile learning centres and delves into topics ranging from illicit drugs to puberty and nutrition.

An early version of Harold with Life Education founder Ted Noffs. Image: Supplied.

For many, those visits from Healthy Harold were some of the most definitive, memorable parts of primary school.

The Life Education caravan anchored in the school carpark. The steps up into the classroom inside. The twinkling star lights on the ceiling. TAM, the anatomical model. And Harold himself, who'd emerge from behind a curtain and, strangely enough, was never more than an arm's length away from Life Education officer. Later on, he'd spring up in robot form for a mildly terrifying musical number about saying "no, no, no, no" to drugs. Nightmare fuel. But hey, at least we weren't in class.

Given this year is Harold's 40th birthday, we thought we'd check in and see what he's up to these days. Does he still live in a van? Does he still like "sometimes food" (treats, he means treats)? And most importantly, is he still a puppet, or does he exist on an iPad now? You know, because Gen Z.

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Harold today. Image: Supplied.

Kellie Sloane, CEO of Life Education's NSW branch, assured us that while Harold does occasionally appear in cartoon form, for school visits he is definitely still his usual puppet self.

"I'm happy to say that Harold in the van is still puppet Harold," she laughed. "And in fact, our educators, as part of their specialist training, have to learn puppetry to bring Harold to life. So our lessons are part education and part theatre, which has always been the magic of it."

What has changed are the kinds of topics Harold and the Life Education officers teach.

"The most popular program we have in schools in this era is cyber safety. Something that former generations didn't even know was going to be an issue in years to come," Sloane said. "We cover it in a way that looks at respectful relationships and mental health. So how to have good, strong relationships online with people as you would in real life, how to stop cyber bullying, how to protect yourself, how to ensure that your online experiences is one that builds you up not tears you down."

Life Education works closely with the Department of Health, the Department of Education, and uses feedback from parents, teachers and the students themselves to ensure the lessons stay relevant.

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The lessons have adapted over the years. Image: Supplied.

"We might see the little kids about nutrition and even things like brushing their teeth and personal hygiene. Then each year we start building up stronger skill sets based on age-appropriate areas around drugs and alcohol. So each kid that sees us, year on year, starts building up an internal tool kit to deal with life's issues and to learn how to resist peer pressure," Sloane said.

"Life has changed, but children are still our most precious resource and they're at the centre of everything we do. So whatever is important to parents and communities and kids today in terms of their health and well-being, we're there to support them."

This year, Harold will be busier than ever. He's been called upon to visit 710,000 children around Australia, thanks to requests from schools.

"We need people to ask for us in order to have an impact. We always say, does your school have us? And if not, please ring up and ask why. Because we're a treasured resource and we're just as relevant - if not more - today as we were 40 years ago."

For more information about Healthy Harold and Life Education visit the website. And be sure to ask your child's school to arrange a visit.

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