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After graduating in 2007, Lailah Amstutz spent several years traveling the world and training as an artist before settling in Popoyo, Nicaragua, with her young family. She now is immersed in a labor of love to bring bilingual, Waldorf-inspired early childhood education to her community in a way that blends the intentions of Waldorf with the rhythms and seasons of their place.
Lailah’s path to Nicaragua began when she attended the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture to build on her love of sculpture that had begun with her senior project at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School. While there, she bonded with a classmate who had come to study from Nicaragua.
“She invited me to come to back with her to paint,” Lailah says from her home on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. “That was really the beginning of my infatuation with [this place].”
During that visit, Lailah had her first experience as a teacher leading art classes at a local school on the island of Ometepe that, before then, hadn’t had art in their curriculum. She met her partner, and they spent several years living in different places around the world.
In 2015 they returned to Nicaragua and started their family. It was while she was pregnant with their first child that Lailah began “to dream up creating something similar to what I had. I went to a Waldorf school all my life, and my mom started a kindergarten in her house when we were still living in Switzerland.”
At the time, Lailah was working as a yoga instructor, so she started a baby and me yoga group with other interested new moms. That group grew to a playgroup that, in turn, has become Escuelita Zantli, the only Waldorf-inspired kindergarten in Nicaragua.
The school is about to begin its third year. Many of the students are from families like Lailah’s where one parent is Nicaraguan and one is an ex-patriot, but they are actively reaching out and working with the indigenous community. A recent fundraising concert at Mettabee Farm & Arts in July raised enough funds for two local students to attend the school this year.
“I feel really passionate about sharing [Waldorf] with the local community and not just the expat groups here,” Lailah says. “We’re at the beginning of that road and will have to see how receptive the locals will be.”
As she interacts with the community and works to grow the school, Lailah is seeking to be sensitive to the differences between cultures and seasons as she and her fellow staff adapt the Waldorf curriculum to Nicaraguan values and traditions.
“It's been a really interesting inquiry for me to ask myself, ‘What is really important?’ Especially as we get more locals in, how can we reflect their culture and pay respect to where we are,” she says.
While Lailah hopes to someday add grades to the kindergarten, right now she is focusing on parent child classes, strengthening the kindergarten, and helping her Nicaraguan colleague attend a Waldorf teacher training program.
“I hope by sharing the Waldorf approach as early as possible, we can grow the interest organically for a higher level Waldorf school,” she says. You can keep up with Lailah and Escuelita Zantli’s progress by following @zantli on Instagram. If you would like to support the school, reach out to Lailah by email about volunteer opportunities or donate here.