It's a Tuesday morning in mid-July, and Kidville in JBR is bursting at the seams with chattering, excitable children. The new centre formally opened for business a day earlier, and its proprietors - the husband-and-wife team Monica Malhotra and Doug MacLennan - have invited local parents to take a look around, which partly explains the clamour.
"To be honest, I brought my kids here for a free play," says one mother, as her two boys bounce around Kidville's padded gymnasium. "It's nice, isn't it?" It is nice. It's also a little tricky to put your finger on what exactly the "it" is. Perched on a pair of the tiny orange chairs that line Kidville's warren of corridors, Malhotra and MacLennan explain that their centre is not a nursery, not a play group and not an activity centre. Malhotra calls it a childhood development centre, but this rather austere term doesn't do the place justice. I've brought my 20-month-old daughter, Molly, along for a test run, and her description seems as good as any: "Gait-fun!"
Kidville was launched in New York City a little over six years ago, on the understanding that there was a space in the market for a high-end, high-concept preschool facility, and that parents would be prepared to pay a little more to enrol their kids into such a programme. In the US, the idea has enjoyed considerable success, with about a dozen franchises being opened to date. Malhotra and MacLennan - who until recently lived in New York, and whose 17-month-old daughter was enrolled in Kidville there - are hoping that there will be a similar demand in the UAE.
"When we came here, we looked around for a similar option but couldn't find any," says Malhotra. "So we thought, why not bring this with us?" When asked what had attracted her to Kidville in New York, Malhotra says: "It was fun, it was clean, it was safe." A major selling point, adds MacLennan, is the sheer range of activities at Kidville, some of which are designed for babies, others for kids up to the age of six. "You can come here," he says, "and have it all."
Kidville Dubai is in summer mode now, so not every course is available. Its autumn catalogue, though, has the heft of a college prospectus. There's Toddlers in Tutus, Big Muscle Builders, Savvy Scientists & Awesome Engineers, Big Messy Art Class, Construction Junction and Three Wiggle Giggle. There's also something called Little Maestro, a music-and-dance class that features a live rock-and-roll quartet.
Malhotra is quick to point out that Kidville is not a school. She doesn't subscribe to the view that toddlers need to be bombarded with Mozart and Pythagoras. "The moment children open their eyes, all they do is learn," she says. "All kids are born with this ability. We didn't do any Baby Einstein with our girl, and I think she's pretty darn smart." She adds: "Our classes are based on what children like to do. Learning shouldn't be a chore. It should be fun."
To demonstrate, Malhotra invites Molly and me to attend a Mini Maestro session. There are puppets, castanets and other props, and a nice bit where each child is given a singsong introduction to the others. Molly likes that. She also enjoys running up to the front of the room and jumping on stage - a tendency that is greeted with genuine good humour by the band. "The job requirement here is that you love children," Malhotra says. "Not tolerate them, not like them. Love them."
Malhotra and MacLennan frequently refer to what they call "the Kidville way". Their enterprise is a franchise, meaning that there are branding elements to be incorporated and standards to be upheld. From the colour schemes to the training regimens for staffers, everything at Kidville Dubai has to match the original templates. "Consistency," says MacLennan, "is the key." This ethos applies to pricing. An eight-week semester of 45-minute Mini Maestro courses costs Dh1,075 - or Dh134 per session. There are certain freebies that come with enrolment, but still. As the mother of the bouncing boys put it: "That's not cheap."
This mother's response, and the "but" at the centre of it (it's nice, yes, but it's expensive) will possibly pose a challenge for Kidville Dubai. The new branch is the first franchise to be opened outside of the US, which makes it an experiment of sorts. In New York, Kidville has famously attracted the likes of Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt - who, you imagine, aren't generally given to penny pinching. Dubai in 2010, however, is likely to be an entirely different proposition.
"I want to be honest about this," says Malhotra. "It is fairly expensive here - the equipment, the staff, the facilities, all this doesn't come cheap." As Malhotra says this, Molly seems to be in the process of falling in love with the Kidville gym teacher. They've been playing together for a good half an hour, and neither seems inclined to stop. Later, when we finally leave, Malhotra asks me if I'd consider coming back.
I'm pretty sure I know what Molly's answer would be.