The day after she graduated from The New School, Lauren Maples opened Bija Kids, a children’s yoga company. Nine years later, Maples, 32, who spent her youth training for a career as a ballet dancer, has raised Bija into a household name for Brooklyn brownstone families: a children’s education company, with nine full-time teachers and pre-kindergarten and after-school programs added onto its original yoga platform. Maples, a native of Chicago, lives in Brooklyn and has molded the Bija Kids space into a community space for its Clinton Hill neighborhood.
AWT: What a wonderful space you have, so sophisticated and artistic!
Lauren Maples: I feel like children are often put in a separate realm from adults instead of preparing them to become adults. We don’t do that here. We don’t play kids music here. We play music we want to listen to.
AWT: How did you get from a professional ballet dance career into building something like this?
Lauren Maples: When I was 19, I moved to New York. I had a very short professional ballet career and quickly decided that it wasn’t the life for me. I found it to just be really a continuation of what I had been doing in ballet school, and I wanted to be challenged more. I was at the point where I just wanted to expand my horizons, after having been so focused from the age of three until 19 on one thing. I left home at 12 to go to boarding school for ballet so it was very, very focused. And really the transition into doing what I’m doing now happened organically. I started college at The New School when I got here and was working as a nanny, which I really enjoyed and loved. I took care of twins and one component of that was taking them to all these little classes around Brooklyn—music class, gymnastics—and I really loved doing that with them and was approached by one of the schools that I took them to, to work there as a teacher. So I was hired, I taught ballet, I started practicing yoga, I got certified to teach yoga. They asked me to teach yoga classes for kids. I think they were somewhat unprepared themselves and so they were more willing to take a risk on me because I didn’t know what I was doing at all. But thank god.
AWT: The plan was originally to start out as a kindergarten?
Lauren Maples: No it wasn’t, it evolved over time. I didn’t really have a plan when I started. My plan was work for myself, be self-sufficient, and have a positive, sustainable business. I was 23. I had no business experience. I had some bonds that my great uncle had given me and my parents lent me a little bit of money, and I pretty much just dove in. The catalyst for operating a preschool and all of the other educational programs we have now, was going into other schools and providing them with yoga programs. I was the primary teacher and we developed a bunch of contracts with preschools and daycares and public schools, elementary schools, and I started to get curious about why certain environments felt great to me and why others didn’t. And why certain groups of children seemed really engaged and happy and focused and peaceful. And others were just all over the place, they had no coping skills. They seemed to have a really hard time following directions. I got curious about what was behind that, in terms of methodology and the way spaces were set up.
AWT: How did you prepare for that?
Lauren Maples: I learned it just on the job. I don’t think I was actualizing those questions but I was definitely asking myself those questions and I started to see ok environments that were really minimalist, that didn’t have a lot of crap everywhere. It creates a certain type of energy. Then I started to think about when I have kids, which I don’t have yet, what type of place would I want them to have? That coupled with what kind of life do I want to have and what type of place do I want to be in as an adult. I think a lot of what we think about here that’s probably somewhat unique in our field, is what’s the experience for the staff, the educators, the teachers, the support staff and even for me, what’s the experience of being in here. I don’t want to listen to Raffi [a children’s artist] all day. He’s fine but I don’t need to sing the ABCs all day long. I think that we can expose kids to good music. I want to look at art that I think is beautiful. I don’t want to look at 12 penguins lined up in a row made out of construction paper.
AWT: Do you think it’s a very innovative approach?
Lauren Maples: I think what we’re doing is innovative in the sense that, and I think we’re just at the beginning of it, we are developing our own educational philosophy. I would say that a lot of what I could point to that’s part of other philosophies, we didn’t reach that by starting there. Here’s a good example. Our kids eat off of real dishes. Well, it turns out that’s what kids do in France. I didn’t know that, I just felt like plastic dishes that kids bang on the tables weren’t creating the kind of experience that we want to have here. So we tried real dishes. A bunch broke the first couple of weeks and then they stopped breaking because kids learned what happens when you throw a glass. So it’s really a lot of inquiry-based conversations between me and the other people who work here.
AWT: How does community tie into what you’re doing?
Lauren Maples: I think a big part of it is the company culture that we have and the connections that I see developing amongst my staff. Pretty much everyone who works here is an artist in some form and several people are making music together. We have visual artists collaborating on art pieces. We bring in different artists’ work and have those artists work with the kids.
AWT: How do they work with the kids and how do you find them?
Lauren Maples: One of our teachers, Meena Hasan, is a visual artist and she is responsible for curating our art gallery. She went to Yale so she has a big community of people through that but she’s also from New York originally. We go to different open studios together, in Gowanus and Bushwick, and we’ll meet artists that way. We’re not looking for art that’s kid-focused or even would immediately appeal to a young child. We have the art up for three months. So through just coming into the building every day they see it and start making connections. In terms of how they work with the kids, it’s really individualized, it depends on the artists themselves and also what program we’re gonna have them come in for, but typically we’ll have them talk about their process, the type of materials they use, their subject matter. We’ve had some artists whose work is really very much about their childhood experiences. As far as community, we also are focused on partnering, in terms of where we purchase our items from, with small local businesses.
AWT: Like food?
Lauren Maples: Yes, food would be a big one, also our cleaning products. An environmental focus is a huge part of what we do. I think that another bit of being community-oriented is not taking more than we can give back, so not polluting and trying to use really high-quality sustainable materials made by real people. We know the effect of our purchases. We host a farm share pick up here with Lancaster Farm Fresh. They’re an amazing CSA. You get a free share if you’re the host. It’s a lot of work to do it but it’s really worth it, meeting the farmers who are delivering the food that they’ve picked that morning that then I’m feeding my students and myself and my staff.
AWT: How do you find the kids?
Lauren Maples: I would say primarily word of mouth, friends of friends. We’re out in the world a lot at playgrounds, on field trips. We were just at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. People see us in the world and that’s one of the most positive pieces of feedback I get from parents—I saw your staff and your kids here and I want to come.
AWT: I found your mom, Susan Maples, on your website. How is she involved? I saw on her profile that she loves gardening—is it related?
Lauren Maples: Yeah, I would say it is. She is now a gardener, landscaper by trade. When I was a young child she was an artist, so as one of her passions we always had a very large garden that I was responsible for helping maintain. The idea for creating the garden was very much influenced by her. It’s actually behind the Shala, which is a yoga studio in Fort Greene. We don’t have our own outdoor space. But I practice yoga there and they have this big, beautiful but abandoned, decrepit backyard. I asked them if we could have access to it, if I did the labor and provided the materials and paid for it. It’s been a really nice community sharing opportunity of working with them.
AWT: You work with them not only personally but also with the kids?
Lauren Maples: Yes. The kids go and participate in planting and harvesting and weeding and just being outside and being in the dirt and all of that. So yeah, it’s a component of our curriculum.
AWT: I know that you’re very entrepreneurial—have you gotten any feedback from the community for your approaches?
Lauren Maples: Definitely, we have received really positive feedback from families who are here. So to me that’s the best piece of feedback—people keep coming. We have a lot of long-term relationships with students. We watch someone grow for many years and participate in various things, camps and yoga and a birthday party here.
AWT: What is your personal life look like? Do you have time to do other things?
Lauren Maples: I do. I mean one of the big reasons that I want to work for myself is because I think it allows me to design my life and not be tied to a particular schedule or big corporate expectations. I’d say that I’ve been working for a long time and think I’m starting to approach that great balance between life and work. My perspective is I’m not doing this just to be doing it and be stressed out all of the time. I’m doing this so that I have the freedom and the space. I travel a lot, which is important to me and also feeds what we do here. I think I’m the most creative actually laying on the beach for a week.
AWT: How do you maintain the team since I imagine you were used to filling every role yourself for a long time?
Lauren Maples: It’s taken awhile. I hired a consultant about four years ago who has been instrumental in that. She specializes in company culture and she helped me shift some of my own patterns, which concerned being less judgmental and understanding people’s perspectives and not getting frustrated when what I thought should happen wasn’t happening. We also have an interview process which helps us find who is a good fit for the company. We do a group interview with a lot of out-of-the-box activities, so they have to work in pairs and create kids’ activities. Then our staff votes on who we hire. I no longer make decisions about who’s coming aboard—I have a vote, but that shift was the most powerful thing. Everyone’s really invested because everyone has been a part of the process of bringing on their teammates. I would say I spend an equal amount of time focusing on a positive work environment for the people who work here and getting their feedback about what that means, and focusing on the stuff that we’re delivering to our clients.
AWT: “Our philosophy comes to life each day as we make messes, sit and eat meals together, laugh, sing, move our bodies and create things with our hands”—I know you actually talked a little bit about the influence of philosophy …
Lauren Maples: So process-based education is our focus. We’re not looking at the results of what any particular activity or experience brings. To go back to the cut-out penguin idea. A lot of schools will give children pieces of things and the expectation is they put them together in a certain way. We don’t have that expectation. What we’re interested in is them building confidence through exploring things, what can actually happen by allowing them to take the lead. Our other big focus—which I think really, the seed from it is my ballet training and the way my parents raised me—is instilling very practical life skills from an early age. They are responsible for helping us set up and clean up meals, wash dishes, care for our bearded dragon. We have worm compost. Of course as teachers, we guide and direct and support all of those things. But the goal is for them to leave here prepared for what’s next and I don’t think that’s about academics. Between the ages of 2–6, I think that’s about being a graceful, confident, articulate, kind, aware, mindful, human being.