From millipedes to elephants, giraffes to komodo dragons, award-winning Colchester Zoo is ahead of its class. Deborah King goes on safari
Rub your hands together afterwards, it's magic," says Graham, who has just been handling a giant African snail at one of the minibeast encounter sessions held at Colchester Zoo.
Most of his five-year-old classmates from Fairhouse infants school in Basildon are keen to touch the next contender, a giant millipede, but some are less impressed with what follows. One boy grimaces and turns away when a container of cockroaches is passed round, but the others watch in amazement and begin to count the insect's legs.
Hayley Green, a foundation stage teacher with the group, explains that the children have been learning about small creatures and their habitats.
"Until now we have concentrated on ladybirds and butterflies and I have taken the children on local hunts, but looking at a wider range of animals in this way brings it all together," she says.
Francesca Gale, head of education at the zoo, strongly believes that children who have an encounter with an animal have a greater respect for wildlife. "Children who live in cities don't often get the chance for a close encounter with nature and a visit here is a way of bringing the learning out of the classroom and giving them an experience they will always remember," she says.
Set in 60 acres of countryside and with more than 200 species of animals, this award-winning zoo is one of the top five in the country. It has a large primate and cat collection and a huge reinvestment programme that includes creating a new komodo dragon enclosure. The 2m sea lion pool is the longest underwater viewing tunnel in the UK.
The varied educational sessions range from key stages 1 and 2 to those pupils studying for GCSEs, GNVQ and and Advance Vocational Certificate of Education in business, travel and tourism. One of the newest talks is entitled "Science in the Workplace" and is designed to support the AQA applied science curriculum.
Outside the giraffe enclosure, built to resemble an African savannah, a group of animated seven and eight-year-olds from Tyrells primary school in Chelmsford are about to get a close-up of the tallest animal on Earth.
Standing in a line they offer sprigs of hazel and willow to one of the giraffes, which delicately wraps his long, dark tongue around each stem before gracefully transferring it to his mouth. The children shriek excitedly until Becky Hackett, the zookeeper, gently reminds them that giraffes are nervous creatures and loud noises could frighten them.
During another session, the children get to quiz Becky, who looks after the zoo's elephants, including three that came from Chipperfield Circus seven years ago. Jack wants to know if Becky has ever been injured. "Only a few broken ribs - nothing major," she replies, as Jambo, the baby elephant born at the zoo 18 months ago, comically chases some crows from his patch.
The combination of meeting the animals, along with illustrated talks and question and answer sessions, work extremely well as each presentation is pitched to the right age group. The education talks cover subjects such as colour and camouflage and variety of life, which deals with the five main vertebrate groups and their distinguishing features. Conservation issues and respect for wildlife are also highlighted at many of the sessions.
Nine-year-old Louis, from Sir Robert Hitcham Framlingham in Suffolk, had already given an anti-poaching talk to his classmates after researching the subject on the internet and in the school library. "They are very much into conservation at school but it's useful seeing things close up, like the snake skins and the confiscated jaguar fur coat in the last session, as it puts things into context," says one of his teachers.
It's easy to see why school visits to this zoo are so popular. The educational talks reinforce the learning process and the children then have the opportunity to visit other sections of the zoo to see some of the more unfamiliar animals.
HERE'S LOOKING AT ZOO
To book a visit at Colchester Zoo call the booking office, tel: 01206 331292 ext 227 for a booking pack, or apply online at www.colchester-zoo.com
Once you have booked your visit you will receive a confirmation pack with two familiarisation tickets valid until the day of your visit, health and safety information, map of the zoo, a CD-Rom with worksheets, teachers notes and pet care sheet (if requested). Prices: pound;5.50 per child; pound;7.50 per adult (there is no additional charge for educational activities). For children in reception to Year 3, for every six paying children one adult enters free. Year 4 and over, for every eight paying children one adult goes free.