In an education sector dominated by results, assessments for six-year-olds and the race for children to read and write before they’ve even started school, the arrival of the UAE’s first Waldorf Steiner-inspired pre-school nursery signals a real departure from this academically obsessed approach. Enter, Zaya Early Learning Centre.
“Having experienced Waldorf Steiner education with my own children, I realised that when they are taught through tangible experiences and through visual methods, they engage more and the content they are learning resonates with them far more than with traditional learning methods,” explains Jasmine Sweil, Zaya Early Learning Centre’s General Manager. “Steiner education identifies that all children are unique and that no two children learn the same way. Students are encouraged to move, play, sing and dance freely, and these things are often stifled in a traditional school system.”
It is exactly this freedom and creativity that attracted Zaya’s founder, Nadia Zaal, to this way of learning. “My first visit to a Waldorf Steiner school and I was sold,” she admits. “The smell of freshly baked bread, the wooden toys and rainbows of hand-dyed play silks – I loved that the kids were encouraged to use their imaginations. It captures all your senses and reminds you of the magic of childhood.”
So, how does a Waldorf Steiner education differ from that delivered by a regular British-, American- or Indian-curriculum school? “There are so many differences, it’s hard to pinpoint one or two things,” says Sweil. “In general, I would say that the rhythm of the day at Zaya Early Learning is so important. In most other educational settings, the day jumps from one activity to the next, with a need for visual schedules to inform the children as to their next activity.
“At Zaya, there is more of a focus on daily rhythms, so that the children predict what the day will entail, and, while lessons such as art, gardening and baking will vary in content, the structure of the day remains the same.”
This is clearly a system that won’t appeal to everyone, which is why Zaya interviews every prospective family carefully, to ensure they understand their learning philosophy and approach, before offering a place to a child. “Some parents have been looking for Steiner-inspired education and others have never heard of it before,”
Sweil explains. “So we screen all our families to ensure they understand our philosophy and try to prepare them for what they may experience here. We realise what we are offering is unique, and it does not appeal to everyone, but in general the response has been very positive and we seem to be gaining an organic momentum, which means people who have come to visit us are talking and the word is spreading.”
The centre opened in January this year and is the only education setting in Dubai offering the Waldorf Steiner system. It welcomes children from age one to six, who are then split into two groups – nursery for the one- to three-year-olds and Early Learning Centre for the three- to six-year-olds. But the teachers are aware the reality is that children must be able to progress from here into a mainstream school, to continue their education.
“We have some flexibility to make changes to our curriculum, according to the needs of the educational options for children once they leave, while still maintaining as much of the Waldorf ethos as possible,” Sweil says. “Although our goal to feed into schools with a similar ethos is somewhat challenged by the fact that there are very few progressive schools or schools with alternative models available in Dubai.
“Having said that, in general, we want our children to be ready for the mainstream transition and not limited to only schools that offer alternative methods, so we also provide individualised assessment criteria, meaning all our students are required to show progress. But they are measured against their own initial skills and not
We ask Sweil if she believes Zaya will pave the way for other alternative educational paths here in the UAE. She says, “absolutely”.
“It would be wonderful to see alternative education models boom in the UAE. We have such a diverse community living here and to be able to offer equally diverse education models would be greatly beneficial to the UAE’s growth, especially as we move towards sustainability and going green.” Sounds like she got an early copy of Time Out Kids’ environment issue!
Al Manara, www.zayaearlylearning.com.