Cities may sprawl, and new suburbs can offer many attractions for growing families, but in many metropolises like Cairo, there is always a hub close to the heart of the city that harbors creativity, camaraderie, and entrepreneurial spirit. Owner of Urban Toddlers pre-school, Nazli Shahine, chats with us about fostering creativity and ingenuity in children.
CWM: What was the motivation behind founding Urban Toddlers?
NS: I started Urban Toddlers Preschool in September 2009, after I moved back to Egypt with my eldest two children who had attended preschools abroad. I was pregnant with my third child then, and when I asked around about the different programs preschools in my area offered, everyone joked about my questions and said that they didn’t look for programs! They advised me to try to find a “clean place”. That seemed to be their only benchmark! Some also suggested that I drive to Maadi every day, as there were a couple of good preschools there at the time. Having studied child psychology in university, I took it upon myself to raise the standards of early childhood schooling in Cairo. My aim was to change Cairo’s early education landscape by bringing a new perspective to the preschool experience. I wanted to provide a fresh, new approach to this vital stage in a child’s life.
Did you go it alone, or do you have partners?
I started Urban Toddlers alone. Having said that, the team I started with is still all the same, and we are more than partners! We are connected on many levels, as we share the same dedication, vision and enthusiasm. We have bonded so much over the years, and we are now more of a family.
What makes Urban Toddlers different from other nurseries?
At Urban Toddlers preschool, we are influenced by a number of early childhood curricula that guide our practice. We integrate many aspects of different progressive curricula that we think fit well with our cultural identity and social needs. We believe in multisensory learning, where children learn by exploring.
At Urban Toddlers we value the individuality of every child and we encourage children to “construct” their own knowledge by pursuing their personal interests and goals, guided by trained adults. During this process, children engage in teacher-and child-initiated learning activities in 6 child development content areas. Within each content area are “key experiences” that foster developmentally important skills and abilities.
Did you find the community receptive to the way Urban Toddlers covers early learning and socialization?
We aim to develop critical thinkers able to analyze situations and act accordingly. The old fashioned way of making children “learn by heart” or memorize things is something we avoid. We teach children how to be creative, how to use technology, how to solve problems collaboratively with others, and so on. We live in a time where computers have replaced most of the skills needed in the past like rote learning. A doctor or lawyer today can use the Internet to retrieve information. What is important is how to analyze and appropriately use this information! We don’t teach children to learn by heart, we let them think about things.
And this new approach was difficult for many of our parents to comprehend at first. Many still wanted their children to learn by heart and memorize concepts, instead of fully thinking through things. A big challenge, for example, was to explain to parents why their child’s artwork is not perfect, or why we spend a whole week on the number “1” as a numeracy concept, rather than just repeating the numbers like a song in rote counting. But, yes, on the whole the community was very receptive. And we welcome parents at the preschool every Thursday from 1:30 so they can sit with their children during the last half hour of the day in the children’s receptive areas or classrooms. So friendships are formed, play dates get organized, and I noticed that these friendships carry on for a long time after children leave my preschool.
What were the main challenges you had to meet?
I am lucky to be working with children, the positive energy I get every day is what gives me strength to go on and face all the challenges I face on a daily basis.