After lockdown brought flaws of mainstream education to light, Nadia Zaal set out on a mission to make alternative education the new norm
It takes intuition to find the silver lining in every child, and when used to develop educational models, it takes into account the whole person including emotions, behaviours, patterns and connections made between the child and its environment. “I think the education system right now in mainstream schools doesn’t look at the way the brain cognitively learns and it’s not actually efficient. I think a lot of parents realised this when everything went online and when they saw how little their children were actually learning in a day,” says Nadia Zaal, the founder of Zaya Early Learning which she established in 2016 and which will cater to children from nursery to grade six by 2024.
Zaal, a pioneer for change and a visionary, questions the existing educational model, stressing how it does not equip children with resilience and lateral thinking to suit a rapidly changing world. “Mainstream schools do not consciously develop the will to follow through like we do. Unfortunately, these children are losing their ability to focus and complete their tasks,” she explains. “We need curious minds, emotional resilience, discipline and to be conscious of our bodies and the planet. When the new generation have these qualities, they will be productive members of society,” says Zaal who also serves as the CEO of Zaya Living and Al Barari, and where her philosophy has always revolved around human connections in relation to the physical property, living spaces and nature.
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An advocate for conscious parenting and alternative education, Zaal leads with her instinct as a parent, but with the knowledge of a businesswoman who has had her fair share of struggles. In 2006 she took a plunge into the booming real estate market of the UAE and launched Al Barari — the region’s first integrated luxury and eco-conscious development. Soon after, she decided to fly solo and developed the award-winning Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi, and then moved on to grow the portfolio further with Hameni Homes by Zaya, and the Five Palm Jumeirah. “When I became a mother, I realised that I was extremely passionate about education and I felt that the education sector needed something new. That was how I started my journey into non-mainstream education and how Zaya Early Learning came about,” she shares.
On closer inspection, there’s always one common element present in all her development and business portfolios within real estate: the creation of communities that centre on connectedness, to nature, people and self. “I find that the common denominator between all the projects I’ve undertaken is that I aspire to create communities that are nurturing,” says Zaal from her sprawling country home in London, overlooking acres of lush greenery and open spaces through floor-to-ceiling windows that bring in natural sunlight. These elements of nature, space and harmony with the surroundings is also seen at the school, where children have plenty of opportunity to engage with each other in nature. “Communal spaces are important to me. How our future generation is being educated is important to me, and I’ve realised that it is what I’m best at doing — nurturing,” says Zaal. This is more than evident when looking at a typical day at the school. The children don’t go straight into a repetitive routine of assembly followed by sitting in a classroom. Instead, they have free play time in nature, where they get in touch with their emotions, their friends and teachers. In a dedicated ‘circle time’ they are encouraged to find the rhythm of their bodies, move around and practice breathing. All this happens before they settle into the main learning time, which again is constructed in blocks that focus on core subjects that could run for a week or two — and all of this comes from scientifically backed reasoning, as Zaal shares. “Cognitively, this immersion is a better way to learn, rather than to learn multiple subjects in a day. Your brain cannot absorb information beyond a certain time, and that’s been scientifically proven.”
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Apart from learning efficiently, Zaal also puts emphasis on emotions as it plays a huge part in our capability to be productive and receptive. That is why there’s just twelve children in a class where the teacher works with the same group from four to seven years, ensuring the bond between teacher and child is built on a solid understanding of each personality and their emotional journey.
At the school, children are taught knitting, crochet, woodwork, gardening, farming and cooking — and these elements are what connects to Zaal’s vision for ZEL. “I want these children to be productive members of our society, andI think a big part of that is to be able to have great human skills. In order for you to be productive, you need to be convincing other people to do things for you to join you in a mission,” she says. So, what exactly is the mission that is common to every child? Zaal believes it is one that prepares them to not just survive, but thrive under any circumstance. “We need to equip children with survival skills, resilience and lateral thinking because children need to know how to ‘work the system’ and not live outside it,” she says. The current education system, as she describes it, is one that was designed for the time of the industrial revolution, which required people to work in standardised systems. “When people hear alternative education, they think there are no academic guidelines and no discipline. However, I want to show the world that children at this school can understand their emotions, know how to deal with stress, learn about the earth, know how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, have life skills, do the best mathematical formulas, write beautiful literary novels — basically they can do it all,” she explains.
A Day In The Life Of Nadia Zaal
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I start my day…between 5:30am or 6:00am and it is always with my gratitude journal, even if it’s just five minutes, which I spend in the first rays of the morning sunshine.
In 24 hours, I never skip…breakfast and 20 minutes of movement, even if it’s just a 20-minute walk.
My style staples include…a great Chanel suit and a stylish pair of sneakers at the moment. My favourites are from Celine. I also have a comfy tracksuit to slip into, and I love The Row.
My basic skincare routine involves…a pure sea buckthorn oil asa cleanser, followed by hyaluronic acid, mixed with a little bit of emulsion oil. I love my gua sha tools and I also face cup and follow face massages to keep everything natural.
To follow a healthy balanced diet, I always…try to avoid things that come in packets, so if it comes in a packet, I’m not eating it.
I find myself most creative and productive when…I’m in nature.
What I love most about my job is…my team. I love my team and I love interacting with them. They’re really my second family.
And what I enjoy the least is…managing my team. I love them, but it is hard to be the boss. It can be lonely sometimes.
Words by Odelia Mathews | Styled by Jade Chilton | Photographed by Ausra Osi