Kids coding in Costa Rica

We’ve mentioned Abriendo Mentes in a couple of previous posts. They are a local non-profit working here in Potrero. Their goal is to help enhance educational opportunities for the local children. The local public school available for children is only 3 hours per day. Abriendo Mentes provides additional programs such as art, team sports, English, and computer skills. Most of the children here do not have computers in their homes. Having computer skills and being able to speak English will open up many more income possibilities for these children when they reach working age. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to temporarily take on running the computer classroom/lab. Aidan is also helping me with the class and serving as my Minecraft expert.

AMComputerLab

 

I was a little unsure what type of curriculum to provide. I’m used to being around children that have grown up with computers as part of everyday life. After getting a sense for what the previous person had set up, I spent the first few days watching and learning what the kids already seemed to know and enjoy. It was interesting to watch these children use the computer.

Here are a few observations:

  • I noticed that many of the sites they like to use for games are only available in English and so they miss a lot of the subtleties of the story etc.
  • I was surprised to see that because of their lack of experience, there are certain patterns of interactions that they just don’t understand. The “radio button” selection for example. It is an interaction convention that provides a list of options from which you can only select one. This part they understand. What they don’t understand is the “commit” or “submit” requirement after that selection.
  • Another one I noticed is the use of the same button for 2 purposes (a dual state button). You also see this every time you use a video player on YouTube where the play and pause button is the same button. There are a couple of places that they have encountered this and have trouble. The first is the video player example. The second in the coding tool where they need to “run” something and then need to “reset” it to start over.
  • They have recently been introduced to Minecraft. They play differently than the U.S. kids that I know. The most interesting differences are what they build and how they play in the world. They build replicas of their local physical environment – small houses (Costa Rican Casitas) with lots of horses, cows, dogs, and chickens. They run and play with their horses and put them in a corral at night. They put little signs in their small 2 room homes with their name or sometimes their name along with a friend’s name. The materials that they use are all very simple and the same as what they see in their environment e.g. stone and wood. When they do play together in the same world, they do not create/build together but will build complimentary structures – neighboring houses or a corral for the house that the other is building. This is almost exactly opposite of the way I’ve seen kids in the U.S. play. Those kids collaborate to create elaborate structures from their imaginations and search diligently to find and use a variety of resources/materials.
  • There is a large disparity in the games that the girls play and the boys play. Girls will choose to play fashion (clothes, hair, make-up) games or Disney princess games. The Boys will choose to play Minecraft, soccer, or driving games. This isn’t 100%. I’ve seen a couple of boys play videos of songs from the movie “Frozen” and I’ve seen a couple of the girls choose to play Minecraft together, but not regularly.

Based on some of these observations I decided to try a couple of things with the kids, with some mixed results.

With Minecraft I tried to introduce them to a couple of concepts – creating larger environments from the real world and creating things from their imagination. The first thing was to put a group of 4 students into a world together. I then tried to help them to visualize and build the Potrero town square. This is not very large. The town center is the soccer field. Around this are the community center (where they take English and art classes), a church, a market, and a few houses. This proved to be incredibly difficult for them and ultimately they lost interest because it was so challenging.

Next I had Aidan create one of his favorite things to build – an enormous and elaborate roller coaster as a demonstration of imagined things and explain how you make it. This didn’t inspire too much creativity or interest. Then Aidan created a large thing that used a lot of “red stone” which are really circuits. I thought that maybe the cause and effect would be interesting. Nope.

AidanComputerLab

Next I tried something that seems to be working. My own children have used code.org with success. I was concerned about trying this or Gamestar Mechanic because of the large amount of English required. Then I discovered a beta section on code.org that was visual programming for early readers. This meant that the tools were mostly using only arrows rather than written English to describe the actions. It worked very well and the kids enjoy it. Many of them seem to really seem get the underlying concepts and enjoy the thinking involved in moving the Angry Bird along to catch the bad pig without running into walls or blowing himself up. I see sparks of that joy of the success of making something happen with a sequence of things you put together on the computer. I’m hoping that this base understanding will help them move along without too much trouble to the coding that involves some English paired with the arrows.

I’m enjoying the opportunity to meet and interact with these kids. They are all bright and friendly and I get a little different view on Costa Rican life than just interacting with adults. They teach me some Spanish and laugh when I make conjugation mistakes. I think Aidan is enjoying the experience of working with me and being the “expert” in something. Without a doubt it will be something we remember about our Costa Rican adventure.

AidanBeachStanding

How We Got Here

Several folks have asked us “Why Costa Rica?” and “What sort of planning did it take?” I thought that while it’s fresh, I’d post the answer. Let me know if I missed any details you’d like.

Why Costa Rica? Well, our first choice, as I described in our new adventure was actually Brazil. Sadly though, the US has tight restrictions on Brazil and so Brazil has tight restrictions on Americans coming in. We wouldn’t be able to stay more than 30 days realistically – at least there was no guarantee. So Deb began a hunt of other locations that fit our criteria. Here’s our Top 10 reasons (in good ol’ David Letterman form) why we chose Costa Rica as the country, Playa Portrero as the city, and the specific place we live, Casa Dutry, in order of least to most important.

11.   The swimming pool at the house was a bonus!

10.   We had to have air conditioning (primarily for Vie, who thinks it is too hot when
it is 70 degrees).

9.     We didn’t want a place with dangerous rip currents so we could feel comfortable letting the kids go surf by themselves. The surf in Playa Potrero was perfect.

8,     Our new home had to allow dogs of course.

7.     The rent had to be pretty modest.

6.     The house needed to have three bedrooms. Two bedroom places are common and so are 4-5 bedroom places, but three bedrooms are hard to find.

5.     Costa Rica is the happiest country on the planet according to the Happy Planet Index (there is no military, and there is great education and health care).

4.     The place had to be warm and by a beach (hey, if you are going to move to another country, make it amazing) – and within walking distance to the beach.

3.     We needed to bring our dogs without them having to go through a quarantine process (which is common in Europe and many other countries).

2.     We needed to be able to stay at least six months and up to a year.

And the number one reason:

  1. We wanted a country where the kids could learn another language within another culture. Spanish worked particularly well as Deb studied it and I knew Portuguese and Italian.

What sort of planning did it take? The whole thing took a lot of planning over several months. It was really broken up into two parts: planning where we were going and planning to leave. Deb did a brilliant job on the former and I took care of most of the prep work to leave.

Deb started by looking for the right country. Some of the top contenders were Portugal, Ecuador, Uraguay, Belize, Panama, Chile, and Spain. There were others but based on our criteria she chose Costa Rica. We made a vacation trip the year or so before to nearby Tamarindo and loved it. Deb scouted some more details afterward.

We got more serious about moving about 10 months before we ended up leaving. At that point Deb started the 6 month search for a house to rent and that’s when we learned about and added many of the other criteria (such as no rip currents). It was a lot of emailing property owners and rental companies. She started with vrbo.com, airbnb.com, and various real estate and property management companies. Then went deeper searching for communities and local blogs where home owners post homes for rent with not a lot of responses. She finally found a small local agency, LEP, and then she narrowed down property choices. We got very lucky in finding what we did.

The next big planning hurdle that she took on was getting passage for the dogs. No quarantine I think translates to lots of paperwork. This included knowing all of the vaccinations and certificates they needed to enter the country, as well as finding the right airline to transport them. She researched how the airlines cared for pets and a lot more. As I mentioned in Roots, I ended having to drive to Tumwater, WA for final paperwork for the dogs (during the government shutdown).

Meanwhile, I was started by planning and prepping for the big estate sale to get rid of our stuff. I detailed a lot about in that post. That was a huge endeavor. Fortunately, I quit work a good 5 weeks before we left so I had a lot time to prep at home.

Another big task was renting our house. We initially expected to have to find a Property Management company (which we did), but good fortune struck and a good friend was looking for a place for her family to rent. They took a look and loved our place. That made the whole rental planning far easier. We still had a lot of work to do to set the house up for rental (adding CO monitors, deep cleaning, wall fixes and touchups). Of course we had to overdo it and paint two rooms and add a new floor before we left. That’s all less about move planning though.

There were a few other details that took planning and a bit more than we planned. One thing in this category was cell phones. We had to buy new, unlocked cell phones and then we had to work out that it was best to wait until we were in Costa Rica to get the SIM cards for them. That worked out pretty well.

Getting to the airport was more pain than I expected. We had to go to SEATAC airport in Seattle and rent a minivan with stow-and-go car seats so we could transport the dog crates (and luggage). We planned for a cab to take Deb and the kids, but when it didn’t show, we ended up all cramming in the same vehicle. The opposite was true in Costa Rica. One of the nice things about using a property management company is that they have a concierge. This meant that Deb was able to have them arrange transportation from Liberia airport 45 minutes away and it was there on time and ready to go, fitting all of us comfortably. The comfortably part took a little planning. Deb sent the 2 dog crate measurements (cm) to make sure that they would fit in the vehicle along with our large amount of luggage and 4 people.

Finally, there were things we planned but didn’t get right. For example, I was excited to learn that Amazon shipped to Costa Rica for $4.99. But, it doesn’t ship consumer electronics (eg., cables, cell phone covers, printer cartridges) and things from most non-Amazon sellers it seems. So far these are the things we’ve needed.

Likewise, I read that while some services such as Pandora and Netflix don’t work outside the US. But, Xbox Live did. Well, yes and no. Netflix did work in Costa Rica. Xbox Live did for gaming. Pandora didn’t. So, I subscribed to a VPN service (I used Unblockus.com) which helps media content get through. It does and we have Pandora now, however the fine print is that Xbox Live movie rental and downloads don’t work and can’t. I’m still working on a way where we can see new movies. Ironically, I thought we could at least go to the theater here, but there are none in the several towns around us. At least Unblockus helps in that web content, media, etc. is not defaulted to Spanish which helps the young adults until they learn Spanish (then we switch back J).

In all, the planning was an adventure in itself and definitely part of ours. Once we found the rental and started seriously planning, it took a lot of our spare time. It was worth it though – both the move and the fact that we did spend time planning. It means we can now focus on small missed details easily and not face a mass of unexpected details. Planning certainly takes the edge off of any change.

Arrival

We all arrived safely in Costa Rica, Thursday October 24 for our new adventure. We’ve gotten rid of our stuff, taking only the most important with us and successfully uprooted from our life in Seattle. The first few days have already been a big change – and not just geographically.

Our trip was pretty easy actually. After our challenging departure in one minivan because our cab was a no show(!), things got easier. We got to the airport 3 hours in advance and did all of the dog paperwork and prep. Lucy was very curious and Isis was a bit tentative, but they both went into their crates well. Security was easier than I expected with all the technology, but they did open up the bag with all the hard drives, modems, routers, etc. to take a look and then I got to put the puzzle back together. The 2 flights were uneventful and we all got a bit of sleep.

Arrival in Liberia was what we were most worried about and Lucy and Isis did fine. They were super excited to see us and get out, of course. Isis had a little accident but I had planned for that and brought disposable towels, etc. Customs went very smoothly; it seems the thing of most interest to the customs folks was our sewing machine!

We headed “home” in another large van for an hour ride from the airport to Surfside, our new community sandwiched between Playa Portrero and Playa Flamingo. Along the way we passed by the cool little town of Brasilito (“little Brasil”) and that made me smile (because I am still a carioca at heart). We stopped by a small Mercado and go some supplies then made it to our new home.

SONY DSC  SONY DSC

SONY DSCSONY DSC

It is a beautiful 3 bedroom house known as Casa Dutry. It has a wonderful little swimming pool, gated yard – great for dogs who aren’t familiar with the area or the critters, and just enough room.

Deb had brilliantly arranged for someone to bring us dinner that first night. Chef Miguel’s stew and fixings were amazing. We were all wiped out so it was a perfect end to our first night. And then we slept for many hours!

The next day two days involved a bit of rest, a bit of exploring and a lot of setting up. We didn’t have Internet initially  the modem in the house was missing. Our landlord got us one immediately but then we had to get the cable guy out because we weren’t getting service. Despite folks here saying things are slow here, the cable guy came out “within 24 hours” and earlier than I expected. Actually, it was just as fast as a similar call in Seattle. I just set up a new wireless router and now we are mostly digital again.  We still need SIM cards for our Costa Rica phones.

The kids are settling in. Things are different of course. The pool helps J. We’re starting off with a “vacation” attitude and letting them relax, rest and have fun. They are still a bit grumpy that everything wasn’t working immediately and things like our new dishwasher(s) is named “Aidan” and “Vie”, but they are starting to embrace the life change more each day. It really has only been two days; Deb and I haven’t gotten there either quite yet.

Coming back from getting groceries and looking for SIM cards, we had an unexpected world change moment. We turned on the radio and found a program that was evidently the surf program, “man.” It talked about the surf and the season and featured some really great personalities who lived the surfing life and played great tunes from the 80s. “Man”, what a cool welcome. Hunting for it on the web, I think it is the Evan Luck show.

We then had another great experience at dinner. We stopped at a local pub here called Maxwell’s. It instantly became our new favorite hangout, like the Hudson was in Seattle. You can bring your dogs, which was very cool (there’s probably a whole post coming on dogs here soon). The food and Margaritas were awesome. The real treat though was meeting the owner, Kelly who is truly larger than life. Vie was still a bit grumpy but Kelly managed to lighten Vie up and get a smile. She asked Vie to come help decorate for Halloween and now Vie has a new bud here.

Here in Costa Rica, people talk of the pura vida – the pure life. People are very happy, helpful and welcoming. They actually say “hi” (or “hola” on the street). It is a very different feel than Seattle – or any place I’ve ever lived. Like us, people seem to work to live, not live to work. It’s probably a bit early for us to really speak about pura vida with any sense of real understanding. But soon, I think we’ll find it.

Staging

We are in the final stages of preparing for our new adventure. It’s been a big effort to get here, with all of the planning, uprooting, and stuff-selling, but we are here now on the eve before our departure staging all of the things we are taking – and reflecting a bit.

We finally finished the house-wide deep cleaning. The house looks brand new. We hired a cleaning group to do the deep clean, but evidently, our standards are much higher and so we’ve had to do a lot of extra work. We tend to like our windows cleaned without streaks and our surfaces actually clean.

staging

Now I have a great puzzle challenge in front of me: packing. Or, at least I thought it would be a challenge. We are taking 8 stowed bags and 8 carry-ons and it’s starting to look like we actually won’t need all the space – which is a good thing. I guess reducing our complexity has its advantages.

What we are taking is well-planned (hopefully), pretty minimal, but technology-heavy. Most of the carry-ons have the technology. In addition to our computers, we are bringing a large monitor, hard drives, modem, routers, Kindles, Xboxes, communication equipment, music players, a micro-projector, DSLR camera, and a GoPro camera. We’ve gone completely digital and this is everything we’ll need to live, work (a bit), and unschool down in Costa Rica. We’re particularly excited about the GoPro camera and its application for unschooling, including Aidan’s video blogging. And of course, we have miles of cables even though much of this stuff is wireless. Ironic.

The stowed baggage is carrying some expected things and probably some unexpected things. We’ve got clothes and shoes of course, but we have tropical gear which is all lightweight, dries quickly, and weighs almost nothing. We’re taking all of our bike lights and helmets with the hope of finding some used bikes there. We are also taking all our family soccer gear including our Seattle Sounders ball (a gray ball will work great on the beach). I’m also bringing my beach volleyball (I can’t tell you how I’ve been waiting to play again). We’ll get surf boards in Costa Rica.

We’ve got dog gear, including night lights and paw protectors. The hot sand and total darkness will be very different for Lucy (our rescued 5 year old Weimaraner) and Isis (our 12 year old rescued Greyhound). We’re also bringing headlights, flashlights, and other hiking gear, including a pretty sophisticated snake bite kit. It feels a bit like the Amazing Race (our favorite family show).

In the unexpected category, we start with a sewing machine. Vie loves working on cosplay costumes and Deb plans to try to create a few outfits. There’s one unschooling opportunity there. We’re bringing a big monitor for some work but more so the young adults have lots of room to work on projects. Let’s hope the large beast arrives safely. A third bag carries a ton of sunscreen we had collected along with some tools and kitchen items. Aidan wants to continue to cook and try more molecular gastronomy so we need to bring some things we’ll likely not find where we are. The combination of cooking and chemistry is another unschooling opportunity. We’re bringing some favorite and some new games such as Settlers of Catan and 7 Wonders (and ok, Munchkin). At least the first two develop some good skills. For example, Vie has become a wickedly good negotiator. To round it out, we have two very large dog crates for the girls.

And just to be a bit hyper-prepared, I have a spreadsheet with all of the contents of each bag identified just in case we have any lost baggage issues :-).

For a year away, it doesn’t seem like a whole lot. Hopefully, we have what we need to spin up unschooling. It helps a lot being digital. And, if we do end up needing something, well, Amazon has $4.99 shipping to Costa Rica. That’s less than gas (and a rental car) to get to a store in a nearby town to get it not to mention the carbon footprint impact.

Our biggest worry at this point isn’t the luggage, or losing it. Or that our MINI will get repaired just fine while we are away (Deb got rear-ended a few days ago!). or getting to the airport (which is a whole challenge in itself), or hoping our transportation from the airport is actually waiting for us – though those are all fine things to worry about if we were inclined. The big worry is hoping the dogs make it safely, especially Isis who, after all, is the equivalent of an 84 year-old woman. It’s a big, stressful trip for them.

Unschooling isn’t just about school; it’s about life. We hope we can help show Vie and Aidan by example that even though there may be things we haven’t done before and things we could worry about, that we can work through all of this, including any unexpected things that come up. That’s what adventures are for. The plunge starts tomorrow.