Watch and learn with the animals

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Douglas Blane joins an out-of-school care club for a day at Edinburgh Zoo.

Eyes in the back of the head are a priceless asset to any adult looking after young mammals - whether it's the lone lookout perched on a rock inside the meerkat enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo, or the co-ordinator of an out-of-school care club on a day trip from Monifieth.

"Kids demand constant attention, especially on our weekly summer trips away," Hazel Peart says, keeping one eye on her momentarily motionless charges, entranced by the bundles of fur rolling and tumbling in the sand.

"Where we have the advantage over schools is numbers - we have nine adults here today and 43 children."

"Look, they're copying their mum," one little lad shouts, and sure enough two of the meerkat pups are now sitting upright, backs dead straight, heads swivelling to scan the horizon. Only the darting glances for approval from the sentinel above them reveals that this is still play, they are still learning.

"Out-of-school care is different to childminding," Mrs Peart says. "A lot of parents are bringing their children to us now. The emphasis is on play - our permanent staff all have SVQ play qualifications - and the kids see it very much as fun. But there is an important educational element too."

Monifieth Out of School Care Club takes children aged five to 12, and currently has two sites and 200 children on its books. Open before and after school during term-time and all day on in-service days and holidays, the club closes only at Christmas. The long summer break, when kids are off school but mums and dads still working, poses a real challenge.

"At the start of summer we ask the youngsters where they would like to go," Mrs Peart says. "Of course, they always say Disneyland Paris, which is a bit far, so we steer them away from that. It's a child-led play environment with input from us.

"They develop the rules. We sit them down and ask what kind of things they don't want - and they say hitting or hurting people or shouting at them - then we ask how we can stop that happening.

"On a day like today, the ones who have done it before look out for the new children. It's play to them but all the time they are learning the social side - how to get along with different people in different places."

The visits themselves offer endless opportunities. A tiny monkey suckling at his mother's breast prompts a lively discussion about having babies and getting married. "I expect I will one day," Pamela Tunbridge answers the curious kids. "But not yet - I'm only 17."

The daughter of one of the parents who first set up the Monifieth club, Pamela has come through the ranks, having regularly attended as a child.

"There weren't as many things to do in those days or places to visit, but I just remember loving it and wanting to go every day."

On an outing like this each adult takes charge of half a dozen children, with two supervisors having overall responsibility.

"You have to stay alert all day," Sharon Taylor says. "Every time we move from one place to another we do a head count. After a trip like this I am still doing headcounts when I go to sleep at night."

Built on the side of a hill, with a panoramic view over the city to the Pentland Hills, Edinburgh Zoo is a wonderful location but a daunting challenge to little legs. By 3pm clenched fists are rubbing tired eyes. So after one more headcount and one essential visit, it is time to leave.

"No matter where you go," Hazel Peart says from the back of a long, tense queue, "there are never enough toilets for the little ones."

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