Babies have a natural affinity with water – they’ve just spent nine months floating in the womb, so a warm swimming pool feels very familiar to them. The advice used to be to wait until your babies had their first vaccinations before taking them swimming, but these days the NHS says that you can go right from birth. We’re not a particularly sporty family, but we do love to swim, and we spend a lot of time in places where there are pools, rivers and beaches. As well as being a lot of fun, and good for your health, being able to swim is a crucial life skill – it could literally save your life one day. And so, from when they were tiny babies, we have done a lot of water based activities with our kids (especially during the holidays). These days they are highly confident swimmers: they are at home diving into a swimming pool to do lengths; they adore bombing off a jetty into the river; they will tackle any size slide at an aqua park; and they love to spend hours battling the waves in their wetsuits in the sea. It’s interesting to consider how they got to this point. How they learned, not only to be able to swim in the technical sense of the word, but to feel relaxed and confident enough to swim in any environment. How they came to be swimmers.
The first step in the process of learning to swim is to feel relaxed around water – to enjoy the act of being in the water in its own right, rather than seeing it as a means to an end. The best way to do this is to spend lots of time doing things in water, without turning “you must learn to swim” into the main event. In the early years, the most important thing is to focus on the fun – to splash and laugh and mess around and generally have fun in the water with your tiny baby. When the sun shines, you get out the padding pool and stick them in it, you run through the sprinkler, you head to the beach. What you must not do is force it too early on, especially if you have a nervous child. I remember being at the swimming pool once with my friend. We were splashing around with our babies in the warm water, as we did once a week. At the other end of the pool was a mum with her daughter. The little girl was in some distress – she really did not want to get in the pool – but the mum was insisting that, not only must she get in, but she must also try to swim. The situation escalated until the little girl was crying, the mum was screaming, and no one was getting anything positive out of the experience. Gently does it, every time.
Another key part of the process is to spend lots of time around water, in lots of different contexts. It’s a bit like getting children to read for pleasure – if they spend their lives in a home that has loads of books and newspapers in it, and they see the adults reading in their own time, purely for the love of it, then they pick up on the fact that reading is (or can be) enjoyable. Being at the seaside is as natural for our children as breathing, because they have done it so often. So is jumping into a swimming pool and swimming from one end to the other. However, even if your children can swim brilliantly in a pool, you can’t just rock up to the seaside one day and let them loose in the sea without close supervision. They might be able to swim, you might have warned them about the dangers, but waves and tides add a whole new dimension. You need them to understand what is and isn’t safe in any given situation and they mainly learn this through supervised experience. I remember being at the beach in Portugal once with our children, when they were tiny. We were playing close to the waves, but the wind was getting up, and the waves were getting bigger. A little old Portuguese lady came over to us, and gave us a good telling off, pointing to the sea and making it clear that we needed to move back. Just as you don’t dive into the shallow end of a pool, so you must always pay respect to the ocean.
Next you need to develop some technique, because learning to swim is not only about having fun in the water, and you can’t wear arm bands or use floats forever. This is where a bit of direct instruction comes in handy. Both our kids had a handful of lessons at what felt like just the right moment for them. Not so early that they weren’t physically ready for it, or so that swimming became a chore, but not so late that it held up their progress. If you plan to be a competitive swimmer, then you would obviously benefit from lots of coaching. However, if you’ve spent a lot of time in water before you learn to do it ‘properly’, a short series of lessons is usually enough.
Once you’ve got your technique in place, the only thing left to do really is to focus on building up your confidence as a swimmer in different environments. Perhaps the best way to do this is through lots and lots of practice, and by gradually ramping up the level of challenge. Again, it’s best not to push this. While our oldest took one look at the giant slide and immediately threw himself down it (not just once, but what must have been 50 times in a day), it took a number of visits to the aqua park before our youngest felt ready to tackle it. The first couple of times she wouldn’t even countenance going up the ladder. The next couple of times she climbed up the ladder with me, took a quick peak over the top, and climbed straight back down. But eventually the day came when she not only climbed up the ladder, but she also whizzed down the slide, screaming with laughter as she hit the water at the end.
There is a difference between teaching a child to swim, and a child becoming a swimmer. Technique matters, instruction is important, but neither are enough on their own. As a teacher, you can be as efficient as you like in the way that you instruct a class, but in the end you cannot make your children learn something simply by instructing them in the techniques behind how it is done. For learning to happen children have to participate in the act of learning as well. They have to be confident enough to take leaps and to push themselves, without a fear of failure holding them back. They must be brave enough to dive into the waves and know that they are going to come up again on the other side. They must be immersed in an experience, until it becomes a part of who they are. You can teach a child as much as you like, but you cannot force her to learn. And you can lead a child to water, but you cannot make her swim.