No blackboards, no teachers, no homework. This is the classic definition of summer for many kids in the United States.
But at Casa Sulà in Costa Rica, it’s the definition of school.
Casa Sulà is a private school inspired by the Centro Experimental Pestalozzi school in Ecuador. Founded about a year and a half ago, Casa Sulà merges Montessori tools, the research of Jean Piaget, and modern developmental child psychology with the extensive educational knowledge of its three core guides (they do not consider themselves teachers).
Photos show a cheerful yellow-and-pink-painted building topped with terra cotta tiles. Indoors are plenty of materials for kids to engage with, from art supplies to cookware to tools to books, science lab equipment and number games. Outside is a tropical riverside forest to explore. It’s pretty much a kid’s dream come to life.
When my girls were little, we spent hours outdoors. The simplest things dazzled them: Digging in the gritty sand, sorting through rocks, watching a bee buzz around the lemon tree, painting the brick pathway, then hosing it down again and again.
At home, they chose which toys to play with or ignore, often opting to duck in and out of the latest Amazon box, coloring its insides and taping up streamers as curtains. I rarely directed them toward what to play with, and was just thankful they were busying themselves without me having to entertain them. I hung around a lot to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves, but engaged when they invited me, and I encouraged them to clean up after themselves before we went on to something new.
I let my kids be kids, for sure, but I often felt a tad uneasy about it. We weren’t exactly counting to 100 or pouring over our letters like some of the other parents I knew. I wondered how much they’d have to catch up on once they started kindergarten. I don’t believe kids have to be reading at age 5, but the combination of cultural expectations and a traditional, top-down teaching approach had me worrying about book learning and meeting grade-prescribed expectations instead of wondering about experiential and emotional learning.
Casa Sulà is something different altogether. The goal is for kids to learn how to learn, at their own pace and according to their specific interests. The classroom is set up with different environments — home, art, science, books — and stocked with easily accessible creative materials. Outside are a few simple climbing structures plus a big open space for water play and running around. Adults are there to accompany the children while they do whatever it is they wish to do for however long they wish to do it. The 45 or so students range in age from 3 to 15, and their parents hail from 29 different countries.
I spoke to Marcelo Valansi, whose two children go to Casa Sulà. He told me his 6-year-old son saw one of the adults making a ukulele and wanted to make one of his own. The boy found a piece of raw wood and worked on the project with another peer every day for more than two months. They didn’t receive any instruction. They weren’t told to stop working to have a snack or move on to something else because it was dragging on too long. The result of this free-learning, says Valansi, was a beautiful instrument.
Can you imagine your child being in a place where they can decide for themselves what interests them and pursue that interest uninterrupted until satisfied? The thinking at Casa Sulà is that when a child is ready and motivated to learn something, they will. There are no timelines, tests, or grades. The goal is for children to learn how to learn and to enjoy the process.
The school integrates parents into the program, meeting with them once a month to talk about each child and holding twice-monthly meetings to discuss parenting in the community. Casa Sulà welcomes “families interested in unconventional schooling who trust their children to learn instinctively through autonomous play.” There are so many beautiful buzzwords in that invitation: unconventional, trust, instinctively, autonomous, play. As a mom, this is all I’ve ever wanted for my girls, and yet their education has been, at best, an inconsistent dabbling in the experience Casa Sulà offers. Why is that?
I’m not an expert, but from my experience, we’ve stopped trusting that our kids can learn outside of a highly structured, task-focused environment. Maybe we’re worried they won’t learn the “right” things if we don’t keep them within a rigid framework? Typically, this seems to mean steering them toward financial success rather than finding out what makes them happy humans. We get caught up in worksheets, homework and test-taking, losing sight of the many ways we can help our kids learn what interests them, what they’re good at, and how to live joyfully.
It’s too easy to get swept up in the competitive, test-scores-focused aspects of education and forget to pay attention to what best fits our children’s natural inclinations and individual ways of learning. Casa Sulà emphasizes love, joy, respect, kindness, diversity, inquiry, and independence. As Margarita Valencia, one of the founders of the school puts it, “The child is good by nature. Contrary to what we may have always heard, that the child must be taught, you have to educate them to be intelligent, to learn things, we believe that the child comes with all of these elements.”
The ability and level of desire to learn is different for each child, but they are innate in every one of them. We need more environments like Casa Sulà where kids’ curiosity is nourished, not according to national curricula, test scores, or the potential to make money, but in ways that encourage them to learn (and grow and thrive) for the love of learning.