“You can have it later,” the little girl kindly reassures me. It’s Friday morning at La Petite, the new, independent nursery that opened last September on the grounds of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Maida Vale, and the oldest of the four classes, the “leaders”, are busy plaiting their challah rolls which will be baked in time to take home for Shabbat.
The old, drab offices of the S & P Sephardi Community have been transformed into a bright, modern kindergarten that resounds with spirited, young voices, after the relocation of most of the SPSC’s administration to Hendon. La Petite’s 51 places have already been snapped up and there is a waiting list for next autumn. “We didn’t expect to have so many children so quickly,” said the owner Sarah Zauoi.
Considerable thought has gone into its design. Even the toy washing machine and cooker are framed in wood rather than the usual plastic. “We wanted to use as many natural resources as we could,” she said.
In one classroom, the wooden-based beds for naps fold neatly away into the walls. In the leaders’ class, for three to fives, there is an ingenious pulley system where the coats hung up by children can be raised to leave more space below. The room divider in another is shaped like the facade of a palace, which provides an instant set for enacting, for example, the Purim story.
“Each classroom has at least bespoke element,” says nursery manager Roxana Negru.
If you are wondering about the French name, that is because Mrs Zaoui is originally from Paris. She came to London seven years ago, joining husband Ben who had already started working here. A lawyer by profession, she got the idea for starting a nursery some two years ago after she had been looking for one for her son. Her daughter of a few months is one of the babies at La Petite.
“I was lucky, I was looking for an office manager — I wasn’t an expert. I met Roxana by chance, who had worked in Jewish nursery and we began working together,” she said.
The nursery runs from eight in the morning till six in the evening with a break for Jewish festivals and only a couple of weeks off in summer. Each day has a particular theme; there’s Mindful Monday where the children might do yoga, Tuesday is nature day. And on Friday, while the challah rolls bake, singer Zehavy comes in with her accordion to lead a musical Oneg Shabbat.
While the nursery follows the early years curriculum, “we do take elements of Montessori in building up life skills,” Ms Negru said.
In the synagogue kitchen, kosher breakfast, snacks, lunch and gouter — tea-time — are freshly prepared. The grounds not only have an outdoor play area, but a biblical garden too, where green bulbs of young fruit are already sprouting on the leafless fig tree. “We have an olive tree and for Rosh Hashanah we had apples from the apple tree,” Ms Negru said.
On Tu Bishvat last week, they dedicated a new gardening area, joined by pupils from the nearby Naima Jewish Preparatory, where some La Petite children will be going on to school.
“We also do a lot of outings around the neighbourhood — to a local fruit and veg shop or the recreation park,” Ms Negru said.
The pupil mix is international with a fair contingent of French children and most are Jewish. An online platform enables parents to keep track of what their children have done in the day.
The early demand for places gave Mrs Zaoui little breathing space in thefirst few months. Her husband took some extra leave to help. Recruiting the right staff was critical. “We had to find a team of 19,” Mrs Zaoui said. “We only want people with passion because we think that’s the key to success.”