Crushing it in Croatia: Carolyn and The Field School of Hvar

woman and a child
Carolyn of The Field School of Hvar and her son

PUBLISHED: 29.3.2024.

Welcome to Crushing it in Croatia, a series where we feature expats who have moved to Croatia.

In this series, we explore the realities of moving to Croatia, including how long it takes, what drew people here and what they do in their lives, shocks and challenges after moving, how Expat in Croatia’s resources made the transition easier, advice for the next wave, and whether or not it was all worth it in the end.

We spoke to Carolyn Zelikow, the founder and director of The Field School of Hvar, who lives near Jelsa on the island of Hvar. She shares her experience with moving to Croatia, founding the summer school for children and families, and what makes her school different from others.

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Take it away, Carolyn!

Crushing it in Croatia: Carolyn Zelikow

Marija: Hey Carolyn! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Carolyn: I’m the founder and director of The Field School of Hvar, a slow travel and experiential learning program for children and families. I was raised in the US and have been living in Croatia for about 3.5 years. Before coming here, I worked in placemaking, public policy, social entrepreneurship, and a little bit of climate finance in the United States. I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and an MBA from the University of Virginia.

Marija: Where do you live in Croatia? What drew you here?

Carolyn: I live on the island of Hvar, near the town of Jelsa. I came to Croatia through a series of accidents but quickly fell in love with the country. And then quickly fell in love with a particular Croatian!

Marija: Was there anything about daily life in your previous country that you were hoping to leave behind?

Carolyn: There are not many places in the US where I would be comfortable raising a family.

Marija: Have you ever lived abroad before besides Croatia? Where?

Carolyn: Quite a bit. I was born in Vienna because my dad was a diplomat at the time. I’ve been to Russia, China and Taiwan, France, England, Ireland, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, etc. With that said, there are still way more places that I haven’t been. I love mountains and hiking, so once my son is older, I hope that we can do some of the big cabin-to-cabin hikes.

Marija: When you decided to move to Croatia, how did you prepare? On what basis did you apply for residence?

Carolyn: Before I was married, I applied for a normal temporary residency. The people who managed my paperwork in Hvar were fantastic. It was very straightforward.

family
Carolyn with her family

Marija: How did you find Expat in Croatia? Did we help you with your transition to Croatia?

Carolyn: In many ways! When we were buying a house, buying a car, getting married, getting citizenship for my son – for all the major legal issues, I consulted Expat in Croatia. It’s been a phenomenal help, and all of us internationals are extremely fortunate to have such a resource here.

View our bureaucratic guides:

Marija: Once you settled in Croatia, what were the biggest shocks or challenges you experienced? How did you overcome them?

Carolyn: The hardest thing about adapting here long-term has been figuring out work. I have a good CV, but I underestimated how hard it is to earn a US salary from overseas. I’ve more or less abandoned that path now. I vastly prefer to engage with people in real life.

I was also leery of the healthcare system at first. It was scary to be pregnant and to deal with a bit of sexism and condescension from my gynecologist. But in the end, giving birth here was a great experience. I had 3 days of round-the-clock support and kindness before going back to the island. Then, of course, we had home checks from a wonderful nurse, who really helped us do right by our son in the first few weeks. All for free. In the US, I could have paid tens of thousands of dollars and not gotten that level of care.

[Read: Healthcare and health insurance in Croatia]

Marija: Tell us more about The Field School of Hvar. What is it? What is its goal and mission?

Carolyn: The Field School of Hvar is a slow travel program for families. Our goal is to make travel a relaxing and meaningful experience again.

Fast travel – a week with stops in Split, Dubrovnik, and Hvar, for example – is such a disaster for families: jet-lagged kids, luggage, crowds, heat, crummy meals, missed connections. It’s so stressful and expensive – and for what? Where is the quality family time or the authentic cultural exchange in those itineraries? For many, the slog is redeemed by a kind of performance on social media. That approach to visiting Croatia is destroying it, beginning with its most treasured places and cultural assets.

[Read: How to be a bad tourist in Croatia]

The continuing rise of hybrid work offers a way out of Croatia’s “tourism trap.” A greater and greater share of families can now travel for extended periods of time: a few weeks or even months. They have the ability to participate in an older paradigm of travel: summering. It used to be that families would spend weeks or a whole season in a resort with other families, enjoying nature and enriching their relationships. There were both high-end and working-class versions of this.

Families have unique needs when they travel. We meet all of them with our program: accommodations that are near friends but still private, furniture and other amenities matched to the specific needs of kids, activities to spark friendships and deeper engagement with place, and world-class childcare to connect children across cultures while parents work or recharge.

There is much more to say about our mission and goals. We have a very values-driven approach to everything we do, and see The Field School as an engine for social impact across both education and other areas of island life.

[Read: Living on an island in Croatia]

Marija: What programs does the school offer? What are its approaches, and do they differ from the regular Croatian school system?

Carolyn: What really makes our program stand out, particularly in the Croatian landscape, is our emphasis on child agency. Every activity is structured to let kids set their own goals and then pursue them – safely and constructively. For example, instead of showing children how to bake cookies, we would provide a set of ingredients, some principles to reason from, and then ask them what they want to bake.

Our instructors, whom we call guides, stand ready to help, but only if asked. Children are free to try and fail and try again. They have to problem-solve, putting what they’ve learned into practice instead of just following prompts. They really wrestle with core concepts, resulting in a much deeper kind of intellectual development, as well as a socio-emotional ability to handle ambiguity and failure, which is critical to adulthood.

children playing
Children learning with their Guide

Marija: Who are your teachers? How do they differ from “classic” school teachers?

Carolyn: Our guides are all professional working educators with undergraduate or advanced degrees in education. They come from child-led settings, whether in forest schools, Waldorf curricula, or project-based learning environments. Our primary goal in the summer program is to light the spark of authentic curiosity in our learners – to bring them face-to-face with the wonder and joy of actual discovery at least once during their time with us – so that they can take that experience with them to other parts of their academic lives.

In keeping with that goal, our guides are less focused on what our campers are learning than on how. Are they connecting with their peers? Are they connecting with the material? If not, what’s preventing them from doing so? Is it a skill they’re lacking? A fear we can address? The guides are really attuned to dismantling barriers to the love of knowledge.

In addition to our guides, the Field School brings in content experts from our local community – marine biologists, ethnobotanists, farmers, physicists, and many others – who provide technical expertise and a living example of what it’s like to follow a career driven by passion. Not every child is going to go crazy for every topic that we cover during the summer program, and that’s totally fine. But for those who do, our content experts can go as deep into the subject matter as the child’s curiosity takes them.

We are working with an outstanding young artist from Zagreb who will lead our art program, which is focused on teaching the fundamentals of representational art through sketching. Again, the goal is to empower children to express their ideas and impressions verbally and offer them a new avenue for exercising mindfulness and attention.

Marija: Who can enroll in the school? Who is interested the most, and what are their expectations?

Carolyn: Our school is for children from preschool age to preteens. I think it’s an especially good fit for gifted kids and for kids who learn best by doing, who sometimes fall into the ADD/ADHD category.

In terms of where our families are coming from, it is about one-quarter North American, one-quarter local, and half from the UK, Europe, and other parts of Croatia. Our program is taught in English, with extra support for Croatian kids who are still struggling with the language.

A lot of our non-local families are homeschoolers or have their children in alternative and progressive schools. They are very familiar with our approach to learning and it’s a requirement for most of them. Among our local students, it is usually driven by the kids. We host free workshops here on the island that help them get to know what we do. They like it, and so they ask their parents, who are usually happy to see their kids interested in something educational.

[Read: How to prepare your children for Croatian schools after relocation]

Marija: What does a typical day in the school look like?

Carolyn: Every morning includes an hour of studio art, an hour when children read and discuss a book or poem, and an hour of hands-on experimentation. Every evening includes an activity out in the landscape – a hike, field trip, a big outdoor game, or performance – followed by a picnic dinner and folk songs. It’s an interdisciplinary approach to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), in which we create pathways for all kinds of learners to fall in love with the material reality of our existence. That is the academic side of things, and I think it is very rich.

We strive to balance “adrenaline” activities, like rock climbing and launching rockets, with contemplative things like drawing and reading, so that there is something for a wide spectrum of kids whose interests might not be met by a traditional school setting.

[Read: All the adrenaline parks in Croatia]

Marija: What changes and progress in children’s growth, interests, or approaches to the world do you expect to see after attending school?

Carolyn: I think that children who stay with us for the whole summer will see very tangible improvement in their English language skills and their drawing abilities. I’m also looking forward to checking in with teachers to see whether the continued exposure to STEM concepts gives those kids an edge in math and science classes.

More broadly, I hope to see kids who follow our program – particularly local children – feel more ownership over their lives as adults. Through cross-cultural friendships, I hope that they can get a glimpse of what the world has to offer them, and through our emphasis on individual agency, I hope that they will feel more equipped to identify and follow their passions into a career. The real world of work is actually much more similar to the kind of projects we do at Field than to a traditional classroom setting, and I want kids who are dissatisfied with school to see that, as they say, “it gets better.”

children fishing
Children teaching fishing with their guide

Marija: What do you think about the Croatian education system? What are its benefits and lacks?

Carolyn: The educators I’ve met locally are terrific. Smart, passionate people who could have done many things with their lives and have chosen to devote their gifts to nurturing children. I would say that the system as a whole – what I know of it – strikes me as similar to what good public schools are like in the US: high expectations, a lot of content. I applaud that. And I have met kids who really thrive in that environment.

I have also met kids and adults who did not thrive in school here – and that might be the majority of students and former students. Even as an adult, I don’t know if I have the self-discipline to plow through the lectures and homework that ten-year-olds here are expected to plow through. That’s not a sign of being dumb or lazy – I can confidently say that I am neither of those things.

Educational researchers have shown that people learn best by doing. That learning is social and physical. We cannot be programmed like machines. Our brains actively fight boredom and repetition. The Field School teaches in a way that aligns with how people generally are rather than what might superficially look like the most efficient way to impart the most knowledge in the shortest period of time.

With that said, we have the advantage of very small class sizes. Our biggest group is ten kids to one instructor. If our classes were bigger, our freeform approach to learning would become chaotic and unsafe. Kids also choose to be with us – and we have the discretion to ask kids to leave if they make other children unsafe. We are teaching 35 kids at any given time: the Croatian public school system teaches hundreds of thousands. We have the latitude that a Croatian public school teacher does not.

[Read: How to enroll (or transfer) your child in a Croatian school]

Marija: Are there any similar programs in Croatia? Do you think Croatia should encourage programs like this one, and why?

Carolyn: To my knowledge, there is no one doing a slow travel program like ours for families, but I expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing in coming years, partnering with resorts in the shoulder season and reviving underinvested destinations in the east, for example. I hope to see lots of copycats so that we can move beyond our regional addiction to hyper-seasonal tourism.

In terms of schools, there is a lovely forest school outside of Zagreb, Projekt Stablo Života,  a handful of Waldorf and Montessori programs for young kids, and some entrepreneurship and STEM extracurricular programs in Split, Osijek, and other cities, like Jedna Mladost.

[Read: How to enroll kids in kindergarten, including Waldorf and Montessori pedagogy]

Here on the island, there are lots of teachers doing innovative things in their classrooms. Again, no one is really packaging these things as a summer camp for local and international kids in the way we are, but I do expect to see competition in the not-too-distant future. I hope so! It can only be a good thing for our country to be known as a paradise for curious kids and loving parents.

I haven’t interacted with state agencies, but the local government and schools have been awesome. They’ve really been open to hearing about what I’m doing and supporting it insofar as it aligns with their institutions’ missions. I won’t discount what others have experienced, but for me, Croatia is far less bureaucratic and more “human” than the US.

Marija: Do you have any advice for parents? What should they focus more on in parenting and education?

Carolyn: Forbid personal devices up until the age of 18. Period. There was an article about this recently by the sociologist Jonathan Haidt. The access to pornography and all kinds of vileness is just unlimited, and the addictive quality of technology is absolutely comparable to hard drugs in terms of its effect on brain development. I am far from anti-tech, but consumer technology has nothing to offer kids.

Marija: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to move to Croatia in the future?

Carolyn: Hurry up! It’s fabulous! More seriously, I think it’s a great place to spend a few years. It is harder to move here permanently.

  • Evaluate whether you can buy a house here, given the difficulty of obtaining mortgages.
  • Plan to learn the language. You will never really be part of the culture here without it.
  • Have a solid professional or financial plan because local salaries are barely enough to live on.

The Field School can be a way for a family to experience the benefits of living in Croatia without the downsides. It can also be a risk-free trial period or an opportunity to scout real estate and cycle through paperwork.

[Read: Available visas and residence permits for Croatia]

Marija: Would you like to share anything else with us?

Carolyn: Our long-term goal is to evolve into an independent school here on Hvar focused on training leaders for the green transition. A kind of Jedi Academy, if you will, where young people gain the scientific and political literacy to enact real change while developing a moral foundation in the arts and in nature that will help them endure setbacks.

the island of Hvar
The island of Hvar, Croatia

If you’ve been to the interior of Hvar, then you know that it would be hard to imagine a better campus for young people who care about sustainability than one of our castle-like inland villages, such as Velo Grablje or Vrisnik. This concept is still several years off on the horizon, but we are already building towards it in the kind of faculty we recruit and in the curriculum we are now developing and testing.

Learn about Velo Grablje and Hvar:

Contact Carolyn and The Field School of Hvar via::

View our other crushing-it-in-Croatia articles

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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