The Grey Elephant – A Tribute To A Very Special Playschool In Madrid

Grey Elephant: a tribute to a very special playschool in the centre of Madrid. 

By Anna Connolly. 

‘‘Nobody tells you about how lonely it can get’’, says one parent friend. ‘‘There is so much expectation from the moment babies appear, so much judgment … I feel like I am failing at everything – constantly.’’  Being a parent is exhausting on every level, the lack of time can lead to a sense of losing oneself, leading to the conundrum every parent puzzles over: ‘‘what did I do with all that time before?’’  There is an immense amount of preparation on hand for pregnancy and birth; a vast array of literature on breast-feeding and weaning; courses on how to Feng shui, or radically minimalize homes for the teeny tot’s arrival, but very little in the way of preparing for the all-encompassing task of being a parent. Of course there are some wonderful authors on child development and writers who carefully explain steps of how we can parent mindfully; however it is ironic that at the very moment these are needed, you have the concentration level of a goldfish and the patience level of a bull with a wasp sting in their butt. Theories are all well and good, they have their place. However, in the heat of battle what is needed is practical experience. For countless parents in Madrid this came in the shape of Grey Elephant.

Irina Verhoeve a Nursery Teacher at Grey Elephant best sums up Sara Varela’s playschool, ”it is not really a school, but rather a place where we come together and help each other grow.” After just over a decade Grey Elephant has closed; the properties, including fourteen other buildings in the local area, have been bought over . Other beloved local business take overs include, Museo de la Radio and Baobab, the selling of which have been described as ‘inhumane’. This domino-like effect of gentrification reflects a shocking lack of legal protection for smaller, independent businesses, in favour of property development, big chains or tourist accommodation.  Grey Elephant has been active for well over a decade, and now there is nothing to recognise the act of nurturing so many families, and having such profound impact on the community, both locally and internationally.

Since the end of December, the property has become vacant, and the choir of children playing is muted until further notice.  Causes for Grey’s closure include the relentless gentrification of our barrio La Latina, named after Beatriz Galindo, another phenomenal woman who, like Sara Varela, was a pioneer of her day. It is notoriously difficult to run an independent business here in Madrid; taxes include ‘normal’ taxes, plus a substantial monthly fee of up to 250 euros to claim an ‘autónomo’ status.  According to the National Statistics Institute (INE) at the end of 2019 nearly 14% of the population, that’s more than 3.2 million people, have been affected by unemployment. With unemployment high in Spain, it is nonsensical to demotivate and charge people who are trying to work outside the cookie cut version of employment. These figures highlight the understandable general lack of entrepreneurship, but equally shine light on the uniqueness of Grey Elephant; with which Varela managed to thrive in creating something so distinct from the common model of childcare.

Sara Varela understands the challenges of being a parent, specifically a mother and specifically a mother in a city; who likely does not have the abuelos nearby, or on hand to help when needed. Through Grey Elephant Varela put into action practical support for working parents, and was always distinctly unrushed to offer guidance on child development, or on parenting methods. Joanne Hitch from the Sticky Fingers and Little Bunnies playgroup says that Sara has ”been an inspiration for so many adults and children all over the capital’, that she is, ‘an amazing person and professional”. Hitch remembers, ”in its early beginnings, everyone knew how unique and innovative Grey Elephant was and different in so many ways to the standard ‘ofertas’ for little ones in Madrid. And over the years, Grey Elephant has gone from strength to strength !”

The abrupt finish to the Grey Elephant legacy has left many parents in limbo, feeling devastated that this place, this home for so many will be no more. Irina says, ”many people leave their home in the morning to go to work. I, on the other hand, get to go to my other home and get to spend the day with my family. I am so grateful for this whole life changing experience and there are no words in the world to describe the place Sara holds in my heart.” The way that Sara creates communities from a group of strangers is magical. She knows instinctively what children need to flourish – space and play, LOTS of play. She is always eager to discuss her pedagogy which places the children at the centre; the rights of the children come first, and child-led play is the best way to develop emotionally intelligent adults and ultimately future citizens.

It is with great sadness that Grey Elephant has closed. It will affect countless families who have found refuge from the frenetic, fast-paced city at Grey; it has a wonderful team of staff who support not only child development, but encourage curious, kind parenting. They are flexible, caring and passionate about learning through play. It’s motto, ‘we are grey’, really sums up a state of being, instead of pledging allegiance to one ideal over another. At Grey: we play.  Rosa Planchart Badenas, ballerina and dance teacher at Grey Elephant reflects, ”it has been great to feel the warmth of it by teaching there for hello! English. Sara’s innovative and restlessness energy to provide for families and friends engaged with Grey Elephant will be deeply missed.” The plethora of bi-lingual activities run at Grey included: yoga, dance, painting, photography, storytelling, music, summer camps and parties for Easter, Halloween and Christmas. This was all in addition to the superb daily childcare.

As a mother and teacher, I admire Sara, and will be bereft of her guiding light. However, I would like to politely challenge the concept that she is innovative, an adjective everyone I have spoken to has described her as. I suggest instead that she is doing something far more radical and beneficial to our current global needs; Sara runs her business using a matriarchal structure. It is not driven by short term goals and easily identified outcomes, but instead she is planting acorns so that mighty forests may grow. Like the elephants, her herd is female-led, community-wise, protective, intelligent and empathetic. Qualities our world leaders should aspire to.

I first met Sara at one of the many activities that Grey Elephant offered, this one Hartbeeps, an interactive, multi-sensory experience for children. Sara was wearing an orange handkerchief on her head and was leading a wobbly group of toddlers and their parents in a circle while bubbles blew, and disco lights flashed; she asked us all to walk like different animals. I was running late with my then one-year old child. We frantically kicked off our shoes, threw off our coats and unquestioningly jumped into the beautifully surreal herd. Sara stopped for a micro second, winked at me and continued. We later got talking with some other parents about mother’s guilt, of which according to NUK the baby care product company, nearly 90% of mothers experience. The majority of mothers feel guilty to work, guilty not to work – it seems that the way modern western society is set up so the mamà can never win. Having attentively listened Sara added with perfectly timed debonair, ‘bueno, sometimes you just want to stop, sit and drink a warm cup of coffee instead of sipping at cold coffee’. Bullseye.

Being a parent in a city has huge advantages. There are often international meet-ups to cast a net out to, there are less expectations of what success looks like and Culture comes as a given. Families come in all shapes; one size truly does not fit all. However, what most parents sacrifice is the familiar back up. Ties to roots are temporarily put on hold for a life with more excitement and ultimately opportunities, even though we city-dwellers are undoubtedly more caffeinated than our pueblo contemporaries. According to dream psychologists’ grey elephants are supposed to symbolize wandering off the traditional path, but the journey grey elephants take from their wandering leads to enlightenment: a fortuitous emblem perhaps?…  I know this is not the last we have seen from Sara Varela, quite the opposite, this is just the beginning. Having worked for countless charities in different countries, including refugee camps, Sara has a wealth of experience to draw from, and a firm vision for creating safe, playful spaces for all children. Besides, as Sara puts it, ‘I always wanted an outdoor space anyway’. When one door closes, another one opens. Plans are already being made for an eco-wonderland that will be magnificent. Watch this space.


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