Discovery & Learning Programme FAQs

1. An overview of the Discovery & Learning Programme

Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity (ECHC) and The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) have developed a nature and curriculum-based programme which is delivered to children in The Royal Hospital for Children and Young People (RHCYP) by Edinburgh Zoo’s discovery and community officers. Children, young people and families have the chance to connect with animals and nature in an interactive and specially adapted way.

Following a consultation with children, ECHC and RZSS will increase this successful day-a-week Discovery & Learning programme to become a daily programme with a meerkat enclosure, within the Castle Mey courtyard, as its centrepiece. A hospital-based Zookeeper will deliver the Programme at the enclosure, in communal spaces and at bedsides, which will include messaging about nature, environmental sustainability and wildlife conservation.

2. What are the aims of the Discovery & Learning Programme?

We aim to deliver this comprehensive, exciting and unique programme of Discovery & Learning (to suit the child) at their bedside, in communal areas (e.g. The Hub and The Pod), at the Little France School in partnership with the Education Team, and outdoors next to the meerkat enclosure. Hospital teams will be welcome to work with ECHC and RZSS staff to create their own mini programmes within the larger project to support children and young people’s clinical goals, recovery and rehabilitation.

The Programme will support curriculum-based learning. The focus will be on nature, animal welfare, conservation, wildlife, biodiversity, habitats, and creating a sustainable future for animals across the world.

The outcomes we hope to achieve:

  • Children and young people develop an understanding of how environmental factors can positively impact their health
  • Children and young people feel less anxious in hospital by interacting with the Discovery & Learning Programme
  • Children and young people achieve clinical goals by experiencing a range of creative therapeutic interventions to support them
  • Children and young people enjoy increased levels of social contact and inclusion, as well as a sense of belonging and personal achievement from accessing the programme
  • Children and young people feel supported and comforted by closeness to animals.
  • Children and young people are more inclined to seek out more opportunities to spend time with nature, and therefore experience its psychological benefits, and have a positive disposition towards the environment (Martin et al., 2020)

3. Why have meerkats been chosen over other animals?

Meerkats are fun, sociable animals, very popular with children. They live in sand, making their enclosure odour-free. They do not squawk or screech, so no noise will be audible in the open air. They are very low risk in terms of infection.

Though they are not specifically Therapets, meerkats do have a therapeutic value in that they are fascinating to observe and learn from.

4. How is the Discovery & Learning Programme being funded?

This project is being funded by supporters of ECHC.

5. Why is this Discovery & Learning Programme just as important as, for example, equipment for the hospital?

ECHC believes that nothing should get in the way of being a child. We provide a range of interventions to support children and young people’s mental health and resilience whilst in hospital. Our partnership with the RZSS has been received overwhelmingly positively by children and we know that educational and distracting activities can support children to feel less afraid, less isolated and support them to engage with their treatment. We are so excited to be able to push this approach even further by making this a daily programme, with the meerkats at its heart. The great news is that this project will be used to attract funders who would not otherwise have given to ECHC at this time and will not divert any charity funds away from the many other things we fund e.g. services, equipment and enhancements, allowing us to do both things.

6. Where will the meerkats live?

The meerkats will live in a purpose-built, secure enclosure, designed by a specialist enclosure architect commissioned by RZSS. The habitat will include an external space of sand, rocks and logs. Perspex panels will be included to allow viewing for children in pushchairs or wheelchairs. The animals will sleep in an indoor, shed-like structure adjacent to their external courtyard.

The enclosure will replicate the animal’s natural habitat and meet all requirements for health, safety and animal welfare. It be sited away from bedroom or clinical area windows and clear of fire escape routes.

7. How will the meerkats welfare needs be met?

A suitable location has been identified that meets with the welfare requirements of the animals and would have minimum impact on the daily workings of the hospital.

All the welfare needs of the animals will be overseen by RZSS e.g. feeding, veterinary care. Expert animal keepers, vets and trained volunteers will be provided by RZSS. Protocols detailing feeding, cleaning/waste removal, and all aspects of infection control and health and safety have been developed.

ECHC will manage the relationship with RZSS and be first point of contact for any queries or issues which NHS Lothian or the public may have. RZSS will also report on and provide full insight on the health status of the meerkats. A 24-hour support line will be available if any issues need to be reported.

8. What health & safety considerations have been put in place?

NHS Lothian will lead on all aspects of patient safety. Expert NHS staff are providing support to the project to be sure that all clinical, infection prevention, health & safety requirements are met.

Nobody will be able to touch the animals; meerkats can be trained to interact with children through the Perspex enclosure walls or from afar through specially-designed but simple, interactive apparatus, such as feeding tubes (under Zookeeper supervision).

The risk of zoonotic disease transmission through meerkats is lower than that of a domestic dog if you touch them, which the children will not be doing.

The meerkats are fed with specialised, dry food which has been proved to be unpalatable to vermin and the enclosure is netted so nothing gets in or out.

9. Where do ECHC & RZSS stand on animal welfare?

Animal welfare is RZSS’s top priority. Their expert keepers and veterinary teams look after their animals every single day, ensuring they have the best possible care and attention. All enclosures are designed by expert teams, suited to the unique requirements of each species.

The animals in their care are amazing ambassadors for their relatives in the wild and help hundreds of thousands of people connect with nature every year. They encourage visitors to learn about the threats facing wildlife and the action they can take to help.

As our planet’s rich biodiversity declines at an alarming rate, RZSS is in a unique position to provide a safe haven for threatened species, protect animals in the wild, foster deep and lasting connections with nature and inspire the conservationists of the future.

ECHC is working in close partnership with RZSS to ensure young patients increase their understanding and appreciation of the world around them.