Episode 187 – Activating a young child’s curiosity and creativity can have a huge impact on how they approach their learning when they are older. In this episode, we interview Sheng Lan, Co-Owner of a unique family-run center called Zida Academy that focuses on music, arts and sports. Sheng shares his belief that exposure to a variety of activities at a young age will develop a strong sense of internal motivation to learn beyond preschool.
For our school, we’re not bound by one particular philosophy. We like to take the key elements from each of a different type of philosophies to make sure that all children are able to always be exposed to the best care and education that you can receive.
Sheng, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thanks so much for inviting me!
So, today on the show we’ve got Sheng Lan. He is the managing director and co-owner at Zida Academy in Ottawa, Canada – our nation’s capital, because we’re in Canada, of course, too, in case you didn’t know that. Sheng, we’re delighted to have you on the show. And we’re excited to learn more about Zida Academy and how you do things a little bit differently there. Let’s start off learning a bit about your background and the background of Zida Academy, though, before we dove into all of those details.
Yes, so, my parents are actually the ones who created to the academy back in 1996. Originally we were at a different location in Ottawa. The school was first started as a musical school. My mom, Jennifer Lan, she is a professional musician. She dedicated her entire life in the performing arts and also the teaching of music since she was very young. She started as a musician in the National Orchestra in China.
And I was actually born in the artist location. They have a complex in Beijing, China where all the musicians live and work. And I spent the first 10 years of my life there being exposed to music and surrounded with talented musicians from all across the country.
When my mom came to Canada, back in 1989, she continued her music education at the University of Ottawa and she studied under Professor Douglas Voice. So, he was the head of the music department at the University of Ottawa’s Music Department. So, that really convinced my mom to continue on with more on learning and performing. Her original instrument was the accordion. And she also produces music for other musicians. And when she came to Canada she switched over to the piano.
And after eight years of study under Professor Voice my mom decided to start her first music school with the support of Professor Voice. So, when she first started the school had a very small space, about 1300 square feet. And there were about eight practice studios and the school was pretty successful. We had quite a few students studied that under her and under the other teachers that are part of our school. And over the past 20-plus years we’ve had about over 10,000 students that have studied with us.
In 2002 my parents decided to create a daycare. And the reason they wanted to create a daycare was because my little sister was born in the year 2000. And when she turned two years old my parents wanted her to be in an environment where she could socialize with other preschoolers. But they wanted to make sure that the place that she stayed at was able to have the highest quality of care and learning for her. And that’s why they started their first daycare, which is right beside their original music school.
And at the same time my mom realized that there are a lot of benefits of learning music out of a young age. So, she combined music with early-childhood education. And starting from there on the school really took off. And a lot of families really enjoy that their children [have been] exposed to the performing arts along with having the highest quality care for their children.
And in 2015 my family decided that we wanted to expand the school. Originally they were thinking of moving into a franchise model of opening multiple locations in different parts of the city. But one thing that they realized is that when you’re giving quality care to the children, sometimes it’s a little bit harder to maintain a consistency of quality when you have too many locations.
And so we’ve decided to, instead of opening different locations, we wanted to open just one location but in a very large area so there’ll be room to expand and increase the capacity. And so we’ve decided to switch over to Stittsville, which is on the far west end of Ottawa. And this location that my family purchased, it used to be a private school and has been here for about 40 years or so.
So, the school’s owner decided to sell their school to our family. And we spent the last few years to completely transform the whole facility and start improvements. The school property is about one-and-half acres and surrounded by the beautiful TransCanada trail. So, it provides a really nice, private and beautiful environment for children to learn and to grow.
They [Sheng’s family] realized that when it comes to providing quality childcare, there [are] two aspects of it: there’s a learning aspect and then there’s also the care aspect. And when it comes to having both together, the number one thing that they realized is that first you have to have a really good quality physical space because, as many realize, that environment, for the childcare it’s considered the third teacher. And having the right type of environment, it really brings everything together in terms of the programing and also the quality of the care that we can provide to the children.
And so they realized that the physical space itself is very, very important. And that’s why they spent quite a few years to make sure that the school itself has the top-notch facility and also in a location, an environment that the children [are] able to experience the highest quality of environment that it is possible have.
The other thing that we focus on to make sure that, when we are providing the care to the children, that the health and safety will always be number one. I think [when] licensing a childcare center, you’re bound by the rules and regulations and compliances of the Ministry of Education. And that to us is the number one aspect for our school because health and safety must remain number one because that’s the most important thing in the facility.
The second thing is that we will always [be] seeking new improvements and different ways to make sure that the childcare center will continue to provide the highest quality care. And when we think about quality within about not only this official environment, but we also think about the people that are part of this environment. This will [include] the management, the educators, the third-party providers that we partner that provide certain programing to our school.
And it comes down to the actual programing itself, plus all the materials, whether it’s learning matures or play materials and also nutrition. So, everything is together as holistically that brings [together what our] quality is.
And for our school we would never do anything that would sacrifice quality for childcare. And that’s why we spent many years, and with our experience, to make sure that the quality will always be consistent moving forward.
The name “Zida Academy” is actually derived from the Chinese word “Zhìdá” – “Zhì” means “knowledge” and “Dá” means “achieve”. And this name was credited to my parents back in 1996 when we first created the school. Thus we feel that we found this particular location in Stittsville and this is the place that we would like to continue to expand and grow.
And currently we have one building with a capacity of 50 children. And our goal is to, once we have a full capacity of the current building, that we’re looking to build a second building on our property just to expand the capacity for childcare and also for the careers as well. Because my father has retired recently and that’s why he asked the son as the next generation to continue the progress that my family has created over the past two decades.
Cool! So, it’s a really unique story. And it sounds like your mom was in a really unique position to sort of combine her musical experience and background with childcare. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you do that Zida Academy, in terms of incorporating the music components? And maybe you can also touch on certain age groups. So, as the children get older maybe [you can speak] a little bit more clear in terms of using the piano, for example, but if you’re a toddler, maybe that doesn’t work quite as well. So, I’d be curious to hear about that.
Yes, exactly. So, with our method of teaching music to the young children, it’s that first and foremost when we teach music for young children, it’s not so much about teaching music – it’s more about teaching the interests into music. With anything that children learn from a very young age the number one thing is that they need to be interested in what they’re doing. And if they’re interested in studying a particular subject or things then that’s what we would like to focus more on.
And so everything that we do in providing the actual music to the children we want to make it as interesting and as fun as possible to them so that they are always looking forward towards learning that as time goes on. And with us our core strength is the piano because we feel that with the piano it’s very easy to learn the theory behind it and that there is an aspect of music for beginners.
And at the same time we also partner with top-notch organizations that are also providing music for young children. One of the partners that we have is Monkey Rock Music. They are a very popular music organization in Ottawa and think that they recently expanded to Toronto and Montreal, as well, where they teach music and movements with the children with a very interactive and collaborative method. So, children will always have fun during the sessions.
And so we make sure that the children are exposed to music lessons on a daily basis. So, every day [a] child at our center will able to have the opportunity to learn one-on-one piano lessons with Jennifer [Lan, Zida Academy founder, music director and instructor]. So, with the music that they’re learning with her, they can expand into other types of instruments, such as percussion instruments or different ways of making music.
For example, there’s a key pad that we use on the floor where the kids can dance and run on it. And each time they jump somewhere they can make certain musical notes. So, [with] everything that we do with regards to music we make an effort to find games so the children will always maintain that interest.
Some children show an affinity to music from a very young age. And some of the parents that go to our school, they want their children to continue learning music in a more, I guess, advanced method. And so after their childcare they have afterschool programs [where] they learn in private lessons with Jennifer or one of our RECE [Registered Early Childhood Educator] instructors. And some of the children at the daycare, once they graduate from the daycare program, they continue on their private lessons. And some of them continue to learn all the way until they are 18 [years old] and heading to university.
And because of the quality of the program that we are providing for them in this aspect some of the children have competed not just domestically but internationally as well. And we have several students every year that [have] been accepted into international competitions and [were] able to win first place and to have the opportunity to perform world-class venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York City.
And they also have experiences where they are able to do exchanges with other quality music institutions in other parts of the world, such as Vienna and Osaka, Japan. So, we always strive to make sure that the children maintain that interest. And beyond that the children themselves will take it to the level that they feel most comfortable with.
So, it’s a sort of impressive track record. Do you find that Zida Academy is a place where parents put their children and then they see it as a really cool bonus that you do have this really significant musical and artistic component? Or are you at the point where you have such a reputation that parents are really seeking you out in terms of putting their young children in a childcare program where they know there’s this musical element that they think is really important?
So, at our previous school location the parents know us as a performing arts-inspired daycare because we do a lot of programs that are part of the performing arts. But with our new location we’d like to expand beyond the performing arts because of the capacity and the team that we have now while we are able to do that.
We created this new method called STEAMS [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, Sports]. So, that is derived from STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] plus the arts and parts of sports. So, we want to make sure that the children can be exposed to all aspects of the subjects throughout their entire day, whether it’s academics or the arts or sports.
We have another strong partner that we team with – it’s called Sportball. They are based in Toronto and they have locations in many countries. And what we do is, we’re providing physical education sessions to the children. But the way they [Sportball] do it is that they get a very development age-appropriate method. And also everything that they do as is also kind of packaged as a game and allows the children to use their imagination to do the sports and at the same time learning the skills.
So, they focus on eight different types of sports. And we have them to come to our center and be part of our core curriculum because we feel that the children really benefit from the method that they teach us.
And also we have dedicated performing arts instructors that come to our school to provide dance classes and drama classes and musical theater classes. And we have also a lot of different programs that focus on the academic side as well.
Many daycares, they have a certain philosophy, whether it’s under Reggio Emilia or Montessori or Waldorf. But the way that we approach our daycare is we feel that whichever philosophy that a daycare uses, the number one objective to make sure, what is the highest quality and the best type of methods for children to learn and grow?
And so for our school we’re not bound by one particular philosophy. We like to take the key elements from each of a different type of philosophies to make sure that all children are able to always be exposed to the best care and education that they can receive. So, for us, our core strength is our music program. But because of our new space we are expanding into all aspects of learning and care methods.
Cool. And it sounds like you’ve created something really unique and special at Zida Academy, last question because we’re quickly running out of time: You’ve had some experience taking a role in this with Jennifer. What have you taken away in terms one of your biggest learnings so far in terms of working with children, in particular, potentially, with this musical or artistic angle?
I think the biggest thing that I might take away is that the childcare industry is a very dynamic industry. No two days [are] ever the same. And I feel that in this kind of industry there’s always room and capacity to innovate and then to grow.
And I think that that is the most important thing for a professional working in a childcare space is that there is no limit in terms of what type of programing, what type of environments you can provide to the children to make sure you can optimize their growth and learning because children’s imagination has no limits.
And that’s why, in the childcare space, we feel that if you want to provide the highest quality care then there should not be any type of boundaries in terms of how much you want to innovate and how much you want to provide to the children to make sure that they will always have room to grow. And I think that is the biggest takeaway that I’ve experienced over the past few years, that being a family business on a full-time basis.
And the other thing is, our school actually became Canada’s first and only Steinway Select School. Steinway and Sons is a piano manufacturer and they provide credentials to high-quality music schools around the world. And our school actually became the first school in Canada that has achieved this designation.
And we want to really optimize this particular credential to make sure that the children at our school [are] able to experience the highest quality of music education, but also the opportunities to learn beyond just music.
And I think that our goal for them for the future is that we want to make sure that children in Ottawa [are] able to experience what we can provide, but also have families that are from other parts of the country and also other parts of the world [be] able to travel to the city of Ottawa. And even if they are here, let’s say, on vacation for two weeks, their children [are] able to attend the school for those two weeks and are able to experience the program that we can provide for them. Because the world has become globalized; everything’s become international. And we want to make sure that the children at our school have that experience with children from other parts of the country as well.
Cool. And that’s related to your learning, of innovation. That sounds like quite an innovative idea. You don’t have to just focus on the families and children in our direct proximity and open your doors to others, even potentially internationally. I love it. And Sheng, if we’re listening to the Podcast and our listeners want to learn more about Zida Academy, where can they go to get more information?
So, they can go to our website: it’s www.Zida.Academy. And we’re all the social media platforms and we’re just @ZidaAcademy.
Cool. And if you’re in Canada, that’s the “Zed” I D A. If you’re in the US, that’s “Zee” I D A. Because I’ve been burned on that many times, as a Canadian. Sheng, thank you so much for joining us in the Podcast. Really cool what you’re doing up there in Ottawa. Sounds like a really special place for children to learn. And sounds like you’re applying some of your own learnings on innovation in childcare and early-childhood education. Thanks so much for sharing with everyone on the Preschool Podcast today.
Thanks so much for this opportunity!