The founder of UAE’s first mindful ecological education startup for schools shows how an entrepreneurial seed can grow Dubai students’ futures
Many parents with three children might arguably consider their brood and its demanding agenda of creative goals, crisis talks and 10-year projections an SME in itself.
While Justine Bain describes herself “first and foremost as a mother” it was her children and personal business nous, scientific brain and yogi calm that compelled her to launch the UAE’s first mindful ecological education startup. Sans seed fund or fancy office, she simply marched into her children’s school with an idea.
“From a time perspective it was not that easy but from a vision and a creative point of view I found it to be quite easy,” she says. “I went to my daughter’s school and I said to them, ‘I want to set up this mind-to-table approach, will you take it on as a pilot study?’” Thankfully, they did. So I did 21 months in the Dubai English Language Speaking School, as an after-school club to see if I could gauge some interest. It was a huge success, I couldn’t have asked for more not only from the school but from the wider community and the parents.”
This compact after-school gathering morphed into Sandy Seeds, and now works with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) to perfectly complement its “positive education” philosophy, and the trendy, fresh-food approach of the Jamie Oliver Foundation and its global campaign urging all G20 countries to introduce compulsory practical food education in schools.
Earth Mother to Dubai
This year, Sandy Seeds will not only launch its “mindful curriculum” across the school network to support the Dubai government’s education policy, but will offer workshops for faculty to become accredited with an internationally-recognised mindful qualification, a first for the UAE.
It is easy to see how Bain’s refreshing curriculum complements the Sustainable Schools initiative and Green Agenda set out by Thani Ahmad Al Zeyoudi, the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment. For Bain, who has lived in Dubai “for an extremely long time,” following the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and what he has on the horizon has been “amazing. I feel so excited to be a part of it, however small, that we can change society,” she says.
Perhaps Sandy Seeds is the perfect solution to recent headlines from the Global Educational Supplies and Solutions conference in Dubai last week, where Graham Brow-Martin, founder of a think-tank Learning Without Frontiers, recommended that tests and assessments be replaced with more experiential education. Indeed Hussain Al Hammadi, the UAE Minister for Education, impressed the importance of the most up-to-date training and qualifications for “teachers…the backbone of our country” at the same event – teachers must be given the lesson plans and tools to teach mindfulness and wellbeing, agrees Bain.
“The biggest reason for [setting up Sandy Seeds],” Bain says, “was noticing there was a neglect in our children’s well being in the school system and this was clearly reflected in the alarming statistics that due to diet and stress-related diseases, mental health and inactivity, this generation was not going to outlive their parents.”
Debates at the Global Education and Schools Forum at The Atlantis Hotel in March centered around the pouring of finite school budgets into teacher training, rather than expensive and potentially mind-zapping technology. Antony Jenkins, board member of technology company Blockchain, was vocal in his support of getting back to basics, stating that schools “should divert our resources to what matters most and that is trained teachers and more of them.”
Bain, whose background is in health and alternative medicine and as a certified yoga therapist and Reiki master, constantly impresses that the social, emotional and physical aspects of learning are crucial. “I want as much integration into the school curriculum as meeting academic standards. I felt that these academic grades that they’re pushing for alone is not going to prepare our children for this fast-paced world of technology,” she says.
“There are plenty of kitchen-to-garden initiatives out there but what sets Sandy Seeds apart is a mind-to-table approach. I wanted the children to be mindful, not just in learning about the food system and to become custodians of the earth, but also to be mindful of one another and themselves.”
Mindfulness, and meditating in the present moment to focus on your breath, mental health and sense of stillness, is in vogue for adults but the concept is especially helpful for children to practice, says Bain. “It helps with self-regulation, lowers the stress hormone cortisol, engages focus and helps to build a positive attitude – all things that I found the children to be lacking in. They didn’t know what to do with their emotions.
“We give them behavior tools and guidance whether they be in the playground or before a test so they can demonstrate emotions in a safe and mindful way. We link everything back to the breath, it’s easy to understand and they can call upon it at any time. Humans have this innate ability to deep-breath, it has a calming influence and it changes the brain chemistry.”
Scaling up with a super team
Scaling the Mindful Seeds teacher training and Sandy Seeds Edible Garden programmes for schools relied upon a “super team” of women that live in and around Arabian Ranches, and work out of Motor City, close to Bain. The group includes chief design officer Kamelia Bin Zaal, not only Founder and Lead Designer of Kamelia, a Landscape Design Studio, but the winner of the silver award for her ‘Beauty of Islam’ garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015.
Bin Zaal’s green fingers have moulded the natural, edible gardens that Bain’s school children garden and select food to cook with. Another integral partner to Bain includes chief operations officer Jennifer Small who is also a Montessori trained practitioner whose vision for importing mindfulness into school revolves around a curriculum framework explored during her MA thesis.
“Strangely enough, and its purely coincidental, we have all been friends since we were teenagers and they came on board in 2016 when we realised that the skill set between the three of us, is Sandy Seeds,” says Bain. “Jennifer's background is in education, so she took my vision, and put it into ‘teacher speak’, for want of a better word, so that I was hitting all of the learning objectives required by the curriculum.
“With Kamelia, as the edible gardening part of things took off, I found that schools were asking for a lot more than just planting seeds, they wanted a garden design, and each school was unique. It made absolute sense for Kamelia to come on board, and the fact that she is Emirati makes it even more of a grassroots initiative.”
"I couldn’t have done it by myself," Bain says. “I’m a mother of three young children so time was quite precious and the supply and demand became huge. We never had to advertise or cold call schools, they have called us, so I had to have a team in place that shared my vision because that was really important to me, that I wasn’t going to align myself with anyone.”
Sandy Seeds, and its unique learn, cook, grow policy certainly gives a new meaning to Bain’s business growth – an education good enough to eat.