By: Diane Feen Contributing Writer
If you ask Susan Caruso what’s the most powerful ingredient for child development and she’ll tell you “Play.”
It’s what she advocates for children and firmly believes in. Caruso has been a teacher – and a life-long researcher on good parenting – and has come up with what some might call frivolous.
But to this mother of two, and founder of Sunflower Creative Arts in Delray Beach, child’s play is anything but mindless muddling in water slides or hanging from a large rubber tire.
“At Sunflower we are play advocates. We view play as a basic human need – as vital to children’s growth as food, water and sleep – as well as a catalyst for learning.”
Their mission at Sunflower Creative Arts is to empower children to be confident, creative and compassionate through Play, Nature and the Arts.
“I am a life-long learner in child psychology with a degree in music and education. I have two sons and always wanted to be a good mother, so I did a lot of research to become the mother I needed to be,” said the founder of this non-profit private school for children.
Caruso is onto something that is often overlooked. Her school seems more like heaven to a child (or an adult) yet you can see the wheels of creativity and exploration everywhere you turn. There are hills to climb, wheelbarrows to move, tires and ropes to dangle from and arts projects everywhere you turn.
And, the best part is that the children are involved and attuned to exactly what they are doing at all times. There is no such thing as boredom or tedium, it’s all just one big happy family of doing and being. “We set up invitations for kids to explore. This way they get to use their imagination and be themselves,” said Caruso.
While some students are busy making prints from a homemade ink print board, others are exploring the sand pit or careening down a slide. The children can play inside or outside or tend to a garden they created that has kale, parsley, tomatoes, basil and more.
The children make their own hummus and muffins and are outspoken in their desire for the fruit of their labor. It’s not unusual to hear, ‘can I have some basil from the garden with my lunch.’ One of the teachers (who offers weekly cooking projects) was a Seedling herself 26-years-ago.
Caruso started the school 26-years-ago but moved it from Boca to Delray four years ago. She purchased a historic home from the McMurrian family and has stayed true to its original heritage – that of children, family and love. The Royal Poinciana tree in the nature playscape (the lot next to the house) was planted when Tommy McMurrian was born – almost 70 years ago.
The best part is that Caruso and her team of parent-volunteers and teachers have stayed true to its natural roots. The garden has aloe plants, baby pineapple plants and other greens that provide what Caruso calls: “The plant – Harvest – Eat” trajectory.
So far, the school has exceeded all expectations and explanations. There is a waiting list to enroll with programs that are revolutionary and evolutionary. “We have families coming from Lighthouse Point, Wellington and West Palm Beach. It’s mostly from word of mouth.”
It’s easy to see how everyone is smitten with this play-learn-create environment. It fosters child independence and curiosity fueled by lots of choices and materials to fulfill an immediate need to create – no matter how small or grandiose.
That is the master plan of this child development wizard (Caruso).
“We value the experience of pure joy, wonder and self-awareness that play brings to people at all stages of life. We believe play makes for better friends, parents, partners, people, and ultimately a better world.”
The premise of Sunflower Creative Arts is that life isn’t only about learning facts. Skills such as creative problem solving, conflict resolution, communication, empathy and respect for others is equally as important.
An altruistic venture for sure. But even more so, is one of Caruso’s most enlightening promises. “We view children, not as clay to be molded or shaped by adult knowledge, but as seedlings in need of nurturing, space and time, in a rich environment. This way they can grow into the individual they were intended to be.”
Their other program – Sunflower Creative Arts Sunflower Roots & Shoots Program – is for 5 to 12-year-olds. It’s an off-shoot of Jane Goodall’s philosophy of care and concern for people, animals and the environment.
One could say that Caruso is an offshoot of an optimistic tomorrow – just like Goodall.
For more information, visit SunflowerCreativeArts.org