The trend for purpose built nurseries and preschools seems to be gathering pace, and the for our latest Early Years review we visit what we think might just be the biggest we have yet seen – Stepping Stones in Al Barsha.
Situated in a quiet residential area of Al Barsha, and surrounded by large villas, Stepping Stones is conveniently located not only for local residents but for families with older siblings at the many nearby schools (Dubai Heights Academy, Gems Founders Al Barsha, GEMS National School, Brighton College, Foremarke, Safa Community School and Kings Al Barsha – to name just the very closest schools!). Also within striking distances of the residential communities of The Springs and Jumeirah Village Circle, Stepping Stones is certainly in a great location.
The building is painted a pale grey and is clearly visible and easy to find. There is a car park outside with noticeably wide bays – allowing parents ample space to manouver their children in and out of cars safely.
On entering the building, we are immediately struck by the airy high ceilings and muted colour palette. The Stepping Stones management clearly believes that a riot of colour can leave children agitated and over stimulated, and the entire interior of the nursery is painted the same shade of grey as outside.
Colour is used here and there, mostly greens and natural shades and some brighter colours on display and information boards. Overall, the atmosphere is calming and the décor strikingly simplistic.
We are greeted by Rana Mani, owner of the Stepping Stones chain (Stepping Stones also has three branches in Abu Dhabi – Al Bateen, Khalifa City and The Gate City (currently closed for maintenance), with another on Reem Island due for completion later in 2018).
Rana opened the first Stepping Stones branch back in 1997, having felt that she lacked a choice of good quality preschools in for her own young children. Although not from a teaching background, Rana has immersed herself in education and is clearly proud of all she has achieved in Stepping Stones – proudly telling our reviewer that more than 7000 children have passed through her nurseries since opening, with some still coming back to visit today!
Stepping Stones offers a ‘modern Montessori’ approach, with the curriculum mostly devised by Rana and her team. Although Rana valued the ‘old style’ Montessori education, having studied and read extensively, she felt that the system needing something of a ‘shake up’ to bring it into the modern day.
In particular, Rana felt that some of the typical Montessori toys and resources needed updating and that the learning equipment needed to be modern and innovative. We certainly felt she achieved this, and of all of the impressive aspects of this setting, our team felt that classroom and outdoor resources were particularly thoughtful and of outstanding quality.
Rana takes the procurement of resources very seriously. Concerned with chemicals that might be present in crayons, paints etc – she sources everything that children use (toys, art materials, even paper!) from overseas in order to ensure that they are manufactured to the most stringent safety protocols.
The classrooms and play spaces are similarly impressive here, the first being a beautiful double height ‘Zen Studio’. With floor to ceiling windows and one wall of mirrors and a ballet bar, this room is used for yoga, ballet and exercise classes.
Just down the corridor from here is a role play room – styled as the ‘Farmers Market’ – very in keeping with the zen lifestyle! Every item, toy, role play resource is clearly of the very highest standard – we were so impressed by the level of thought, care, and planning that has clearly gone into the space. Most items are wooden or fabric – there is very little plastic. In one corner of this room sits a neatly embedded aquarium – the children are apparently most attached to the fish and enjoy feeding them daily.
Another impressive shared space is ‘Whip and Whisk’ – the children’s kitchen. Containing everything a child might need to brush up their culinary skills, all carefully arranged at child height – this looks like a fabulous addition to the facility. Children will be encouraged to use as much kitchen equipment as possible, under careful supervision. Rana believes that trusting children to use real cooking tools is all part of offering them necessary risk and challenge and this will build not just knowledge but valuable life skills and confidence.
Next door to the kitchen is a gym, as with all areas here the equipment is top notch and offers real challenge to children of all ages. The last communal space we viewed was a sensory room – dark with glowing lights, toys and displays.
There are eight classrooms at Stepping Stones, all extremely large and with the same attention to resources. Children will be accommodated in groups from age 18 months (although children from 15 months may be able to join if they are relatively independent and walking, parents should apply to the registrar) to 4 years. At present, as a new a growing nursery, numbers are low and ratios similarly low. Eventually the large rooms will accommodate 23+ children depending on age and available space.
In a central atrium there is a shaded outdoor play area and gated splash (shallow) pool. The intention is not for the pool to be used for swimming lessons as such, but for water and splash play. There is a wide variety of play equipment and a bikes and trikes area. We did feel that this area was perhaps a little small given the eventual capacity of the nursery (270 children), but it is complemented by the indoor play areas so with some careful time-tabling this should be manageable.
We spoke with three Stepping Stones parents, with children ranging from age 14 months to 2 years 9 months. This is a fairly new facility and most children had attended for under a year at the time of our visit.
The parents were all sure that their choice of nursery had been the right one, and were happy to recommend it to others. They agreed that despite the outstanding facilities, this nursery still operated at a ‘mid-range’ price point and offered great value for money. The curriculum and teachers were praised and all the parents liked the blend of traditional Montessori and more modern early years teaching and learning. They all agreed that their child had been allowed to gently adjust to nursery life with a slow transition process, starting from one hour per day and working up to full days.
Our last stop was to chat to Carol, a teacher who had transferred from Stepping Stones in Abu Dhabi to help the start of this new branch. As with many teachers here, Carol had been recruited from the UK directly to Stepping Stones. Carol currently holds an Early Years diploma and is currently studying for a teaching degree online. Carol particularly liked the emphasis on gardening and cooking in Stepping Stones, saying that she enjoyed helping the children to cook and eat what they have grown in the planting area.
Stepping Stones is open from 8.30am to 12.00pm daily and closed during the summer. Three days per week is priced starting at 8,400aed and 5 days at 9,200aed. Rana tells us that she believes that these are the optimal hours for a young child to spend at nursery, however some parents may find these shorter days difficult to work around.
Overall, this is a beautiful facility with spectacular resources and an emphasis on well trained staff. Rooms are spacious and very clean.
Opening hours are, however, limited when compared with many other nurseries in Dubai – this may prove off putting to working parents or those working around the schedules of older children. At present, there is no bus service and this is not something that is planned.
An extra-curricular programme is scheduled to start soon, which will include yoga and hip hop.
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