September 27, 2022 Kids, Schools
When Sarah Liu founded Mandarin Seeds here in the neighborhood in 2008, she was really just trying to create a program for her own daughter — one she couldn’t find anywhere else in the city. She had had a career in finance, and was staying home with her children when they were young and wanted them to have some exposure to Mandarin.
“I wanted my own kids to see Chinese in a positive way,” Sarah said. “We grew up being forced to learn Chinese, and we all hated it. It ruined Saturdays. At first I thought only Chinese people would come, but I soon saw that so many people wanted to hear and learn Mandarin, especially this way.”
She designed the curriculum largely around music, play and repetition (“think of us like the Suzuki method but for language”) — hiring teachers who were also vocalists and adapting American nursery rhymes with Mandarin lyrics. She took a second-floor space at 279 Church, then moved to the arcade at 23 Warren. Then came the pandemic.
They moved the classes online and it was a huge hit (“My teachers were like Disney stars, they were born to be online.”) but the business math didn’t work — they were paying New York salaries and competing with programs actually in China. And, they missed the kids. So Ya Ya Preschool was born.
For this latest venture, Sarah has taken on an operations partner, Yufei Hsu, one of her former parents who is also a violinist with a graduate degree in arts management (“we’re a mom & mom shop”) and a director of education and community, Monna Yao, who came from another immersion program and has a masters in early childhood education.
“I never thought I would open again — I was ready to retire,” said Sarah, whose own kids are now 16 and 13. “But our most popular program was always Ya Ya Immersion, for 2- to 4-year-olds, and people really wanted us to bring that back.”
They have done a beautiful job renovating what was The Wat gym space — in the lower level on Reade and Broadway. (I had to include a picture of the bathroom, which is really fun.) They started with three classrooms and 36 kids, but have the space for 69 kids eventually. There are half-day and full-day options; school is 100 percent in Mandarin.
The program is progressive, with touches of Reggio Emilia, and with the environment as the “third teacher.” Kids see Chinese books and Chinese characters everywhere they look — the aesthetic is not an accident. And they have added an “experience room,” which is used by all the classes and changes seasonally with the study topic.
None of it was easy: not only was constructing a space during these times, when everything is more expensive and delayed, a challenge, but so was the compliance required from the city. Even the lighting fixtures have to be approved. But so far, it seems it was worth it.
“I was so happy to see the kids in person,” said Yufei. “We have watched them since they were babies through a screen, and now they are walking through the door. Opening the school in person, it’s amazing to see the alumni network we have built.”
The school will offer some afterschool programs, but only for alumni of the program. But they will not offer any classes on Saturdays — that’s one thing the three women have learned from their own youth.
“There has to be a balance,” said Sarah. “We are playful but we are structured and have expectations. Here at Ya Ya it’s a patience game –it’s freedom within limits.”
Ya Ya Preschool
291 Broadway at Reade
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