Most schools in Victoria may be closed as part of COVID-19 lockdowns, but that doesn’t mean the fun needs to stop for students, teachers and parents.
Melbourne-based mobile wildlife centre, Reptile Encounters, has turned to the online space to offer free resources and support to educators and parents during the pandemic.
The centre is running ‘virtual’ excursions, as part of a push to continue operations during a time that staff would be on school visits.
“We lost more than 80 per cent of our business almost overnight. We did change our product offering to ‘virtual’ excursions, or wild live streams as we call them,” said Uta Meyer, the centre's education manager.
“So instead of going into schools, we use Zoom, WebinarJam, or MS Teams to stream our shows straight into the student’s homes. Schools, unfortunately, have been slow on the uptake though.
“When lockdown first started, we knew that parents would be panicking and kids would be so confused having to stay at home, so we decided to live stream on Facebook twice a day. We did this to keep people connected to nature.”
The ultimate aim, Ms Meyer explains, is to educate the community about how to protect wildlife and to promote their wellbeing during these uncertain times.
“Studies have shown that even just viewing nature on a screen, can have a similar effect on mood and happiness to being in nature, so that's what we decided to do.
“We continued providing the community with free wild live streams twice daily for around three months.”
Children and families of non-essential workers are required to stay at home under new strict stage 4 coronavirus restrictions in Melbourne and Stage 3 for the rest of Victoria.
The new restrictions in Melbourne include a curfew between 8pm and 5am and a ban on travelling beyond a five-kilometre radius from your home, even to purchase essential supplies or exercise.
Staying at home with children requires a lot of activity planning to keep them occupied, Ms Meyer says.
“We started a Facebook group for Early Learning teachers and parents that have toddlers at home. In this group, we provided toddler-specific wild live streams and resources, activities, songs and dances, all related to wildlife, that the kids could watch at home and join in.
“These resources include videos, worksheets, assessments, activities and more. We immediately made these available to teachers for free during the initial stages of remote learning. We wanted to decrease their stress and help them out in a time of need.”
But how can a mobile zoo turn into a virtual zoo during a time of crisis?
“It wasn't easy, as none of us had much experience in online settings. We are only a small business, but we all pulled together and worked extra hours, and learned to upskill ourselves. It has been a steep learning curve," Ms Meyer says.
To help with the changes, she says the centre’s Life Science Manager, Fay Gregory, has lent her hand to shoot, produce and edit the videos.
Furthermore, some of the wildlife show presenters had to adapt to presenting without an audience..
“We even roped in one of our dads to do some filming. So, we all learned new skills and adjusted as best we could, but most importantly we did it as a team, supporting each other along the way," Ms Meyer says.
The centre also provides a suitable Pathways Zookeeper program for both adults and children receiving government assistance as part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
This program has continued during the lockdown, as the NDIS declared it an essential service for wellbeing.
“Participants come into our headquarters in Burwood, Melbourne, once or twice a week and spend the day preparing animal food, caring for the animals, cleaning enclosures, learning about animals and conservation, creating animal enrichment, and much more,” Ms Meyer says.
The program is also offered online, which means that participants will get their own stick insect sent out to them.
The participant then gets assigned weekly activities to perform in their own homes.
The program can be accessed by individuals that already receive NDIS funding using their CORE plan, and non-NDIS participants can also join this course for a fee.
“They also get to be a part of a Facebook group where they can share things about their journey with their stick insects with each other.”
The centre was able to stay open thanks to the government's JobKeeper payments for some of its employees, in addition to the tireless work of volunteers who look after the animals.
“At Reptile Encounters our mission is to be a voice for those that don’t have one. Our up-close wildlife experiences create lasting memories and inspire students to take an interest in the natural world.
"Our goal is to create a generation of 'better humans'."