Q&A with Nadia Mills ’07, Founder & CEO of Luus Muus Family Center

Nadia Mills ’07 is the founder and CEO of Luus Muus (Loose Moose) Family Center in Egg, Switzerland. Born in Cork, Ireland, to a Swiss mother and an Irish father, Nadia was raised in a bilingual household near San Francisco. She completed her undergraduate degree at Washington & Jefferson College in child development and elementary education before moving to Switzerland in 2007. For eight years, she taught kindergarten at an international school, where she applied a play-based approach to learning. The mother of two shares with us her journey, her knowledge, and the story of opening Luus Muus Family Center.

What factors led you to move abroad after graduation?

I moved to California when I was five years old. Born in Cork, Ireland, my father’s job took my family to a few international posts before we settled in America. I grew up in Palo Alto, California, and spent summers with family in Cork and Zurich, Switzerland. After graduation, I struggled to get a teaching job in the Pittsburgh area. Teaching jobs were hard to land, and I didn’t have family to live with while being a substitute. Following a summer job at an international boarding school camp, I was granted a position at Inter-Community School in Zurich. While I wasn’t planning to live in Europe, my experience gained at W&J was so impressive they created a job for me. It was an offer and an experience I couldn’t resist! While I held a Green Card the entire time I lived in the United States, after moving abroad and realizing my life would remain here, I was required to give it back. I am now a Swiss and Irish citizen, and my fiancee and children are Canadian citizens.

Where did you originally get the idea for Luus Muus? / What was your motivation for opening your own family center?

My daughters were born in December 2011 and April 2014. I found most indoor playgrounds were fiercely overstimulating for my young girls and didn’t reflect the values I wished them to experience, so I found myself wishing for a better place to find a sense of community. My center is built around the idea of community. From infants to seniors, there is something for everyone. I wanted to create a place where family and community come first, but also where education plays an important role. So here I am – giving it a real go!

Luus Muus recently celebrated its one year anniversary. What are some of the most memorable moments thus far?  What about some of the challenges?

We did indeed just make it through our very first year! It’s been a real adventure – ups, downs, incredible, terrifying and everything in between! We’ve survived quite a bit during this year…some hilarious mishaps, some slow months, and finding our feet in the community.

One of our challenges has just been creating the fabric of our community. The success hinges on a fair bit of tolerance from everyone visiting. My hope is that families together with their children enjoy the cafe, while seniors find the happy buzz of youth invigorating. However, this requires tolerance from each visitor. How many times have we seen a rambunctious kid struggle with social expectations, or found ourselves the recipient of a scowl for being “too much?” It’s learning to be together, take the loud and the quiet, the happy with the sad, and the young with the old – it’s about everyone being together.

My biggest challenge, hands down, as been balancing the many roles of my life. My number one priority is my girls. Their happiness is paramount. As long as they are happy, my dreams can keep growing. I am incredibly lucky to have such an incredible family. My fiancée, Andrew, is an unbelievable support, and we have created a solid balance of household management as we both work full time. Occasionally we run out of milk or end up eating leftovers for a second night in a row as we run out of time, but together we succeed at making sure that the girls are not missing anything in their childhood. They play, learn, explore and love being a part of this adventure. But I would be lying if I said this Mom-preneur thing was “easy,” because it is not! Thank goodness for an incredible family!

Can you talk about play-based learning and how it compares to other teaching methods?

You can start to think of play-based learning with this quote from Fred Rogers: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

In technical terms, play-based learning is a term used to describe a method of teaching in which the natural behavior of children is valued and used as a “teaching method.” Carefully selected educational provocations are provided to engage children, allowing them to explore the world. From mathematics to language, children naturally explore academics as they need it. For instance, counting cars, writing labels, and reading books to learn more about the endless questions that fill their enormous minds.

I find the greatest guidance in the Reggio Emilia Philosophy, an educational philosophy based on the importance of the child, as they possess strong potentials for development and growth. It is my hope to visit the schools in Northern Italy in the future. Educational philosopher Maria Montessori is very popular in Switzerland, and I draw some strategies from her methods too. My approach is a blend as we cater to a wide developmental range. Two to 4-year-olds attend our preschool and engage in a wide range of learning experiences. We visit a local forest to explore nature and its wonders, dance to the music of a local musician, and practice yoga together.

As an early childhood educator, what do you feel are the essential ingredients for healthy childhood development?

Play. Teaching children that their play matters. Their ideas and questions are valuable, incredible, and important. Children should know that they are creative, logical, smart, and capable. They should turn a box into a car, learn all the answers to their questions about that caterpillar they spy, create murals with every color of paint, and use their growing knowledge to ask more questions. And then they should answer those questions.

Thinking about the United States education system, what do you see as some of the similarities and differences between the US and Switzerland? Is there anything you chose to incorporate or stray away from?

This is the toughest question. The United States has so many approaches to education. Some have great success – others are terrifying. But in each system, globally, there are children who succeed and children who fail in each approach. I suppose the greatest fear I have of any system is the removal of play. Play is the key. Even as adults we play – all the time. We play with electronics, cars, words, and problems. So why would we remove play from our children’s lives? It’s their ticket to success. It’s how they find balance in life.

You offer a variety of programs and resources at Luus Muus. Can you tell us a little more about what all the Center offers, as well as why you chose to include each area as part of the Luus Muus experience?

Our offers are diverse, which allows us to create a community. There are three important parts:

The cafe serves the best coffee, my bias is obvious, and a family-friendly menu. We try to source locally and support fellow local businesses. The Playroom is an educational heaven, filled with high-quality and educational toys, and is carefully set up to inspire play for all children between 6 months and 5 years.

The preschool runs four mornings a week and is bilingual. I speak Swiss-German with the children and my colleague speaks English. We accept up to 10 children and are really enjoying the mornings together!

Last are the studios. We have two beautiful studios available for fellow entrepreneurs. Teachers of all sorts of courses, from languages to fitness, rent the spaces to offer their services to the community. It’s a great way to have something for everyone!

What are your hopes for the future of Luus Muus?

For now, my hope is for the community to continue growing stronger and bigger. It’s been a great year – so here comes the second!

How did the education you received at W&J impact your career?

The education at W&J is diverse. It gives you a great base to grow on. Here I am, CEO of my own business, developing business plans, planning for a classroom, developing menus, and managing rental contracts. It’s all about the foundation on which you build. W&J provided a solid foundation.

Is there anything you learned at W&J that has stayed with you?

I could hardly narrow it down to one thing. It was an experience that stuck with me. My time at W&J was filled with friendships, lessons, professors, and amazing experiences. It created a starting point. Where else can you go to learn, find friends to share the journey with, and then strike out on your own paths in all walks of the world?

Do you have any advice for students at W&J that have hopes of becoming an educator?

There is no “one way”. There is no one educational method that is perfect, or right, or best. And play – every single day. Hear the children laugh, follow their questions, and value their thoughts. They are the future. They are everything we have, and the very reason we do everything.

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