La Petite Ecole, a Bilingual “Art-de-Vivre” Preschool in the Village


By Alexis Lloyd

Frenchmen in New York, and Frenchwomen for that matter, usually avoid the company of other French people in New York. We want to become New Yorkers. This often leads to romance with Americans, which leads to the birth of New Yorker babies carrying two passports (or more). But every year, the happy cohort of bicultural families running around in the city parks becomes an anxious cohort of bicultural parents confronted with the neurotically charged process of choosing a preschool. Suddenly bilingualism is no longer a curiosity; it becomes a puzzle. Que faire?

Enter Virgil de Voldère and La Petite Ecole. Coming from a family steeped in the art world and a gallerist himself, he created La Petite Ecole 12 years ago in the Upper West Side, not only as a French bilingual preschool but also as a preschool of the arts, based on the belief that nothing learns so swiftly as the hungry mind of a three-year-old and that natural creativity for language and art can be activated very young. Last year La Petite Ecole opened on West 10th Street in a brownstone next to the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue—a small, wonderful place where all activities are artistic, no object is generic, and teachers are not only coached by psychologists but also by speech therapists and artists-in-residence (painters, musicians, dancers); a place where a four-year-old effortlessly learns the difference between Malevich and Mondrian and finds herself spotting Matisse posters in the subway.

La Petite Ecole is different from other New York preschools in many ways. It’s more than a place where kids acquire the skill of speaking French; they also learn the language of drawing, the language of music, and the language of table manners. And beyond the arts, they learn a certain art de vivre as early as the age of three. As a result, many families without a French-born parent have also been attracted to La Petite Ecole.

To achieve that goal, Virgil de Voldère developed a method influenced by the philosophy of Reggio Emilia (one of the best progressive education models in the world), by the values of the International Baccalaureate (with its emphasis on curiosity, critical thinking and compassion), and by his own belief in and commitment to developing autonomy through creativity and the practice of the arts—all this without sacrificing a few old-world traditions: good manners at the table (children learn l’art de la table at La Petite Ecole, which means no finger-food, enjoying cutting fruits together, serving others, and engaging in conversation) and good manners in general (politeness and kindness towards others — children as well as adults).

The West Village has proven to be a perfect fit for La Petite Ecole. One of the last remaining corners of bohemia in America, even if it struggles with gentrification, it provides a natural home for a school created as a fusion of the Rive Gauche spirit, the New York art world and the love of teaching young children in hyper-creative ways. A joyful, whimsical, bobo (bourgeois bohème) achievement, it might be one of the best things we can ever offer to our bicultural (and tricultural) little New Yorkers.

La Petite Ecole (Greenwich Village) is located at 7 West 10th Street.
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Alexis Lloyd is a French filmmaker living in the West Village. His daughter and his son have both been students at La Petite Ecole.

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