Yesterday I had my youngest ever pupil. Freya is eight weeks old. She seemed to enjoy the feeling of floating in the water with her dad and big brother and did not cry or get upset at all. Her dad was brilliant with her and knew exactly how to hold her to let her experience her own buoyancy in the water at the same time as feeling safe and secure. She stayed in the water for about fifteen minutes then once she was dry and dressed had a good feed and fell asleep.
This little boy and his mum have been swimming with me for a few months now. He is not really a baby anymore, he is almost three. He loves being in the water and seems to feel very comfortable. I really admire the way his mum is with him. She is always in the water with him. She never pushes him to do more than he wants to but is gently encouraging when he decides it is time to venture a little bit further. I so often see adults trying to get children to do more in the water than they are comfortable with. It is always counterproductive. Children have great survival instincts that are stronger even than their desire to please. No amount of persuasion will get them to do things they don’t want to and if you force them you can put them off swimming for life. There is some kind of myth that if you just throw the kids in they will learn to swim. I have never, ever seen this work, although I suppose it must have done occasionally. Much more common in my experience are stories like the eighty nine year old woman who came to me. She had learned to swim as a child but then an unkind or impatient teacher pushed her in to the pool. She had hardly swum since. Eighty years of non or fearful swimming caused by one thoughtless adult. It was amazing to see that she had not forgotten how to swim and I think and hope that she enjoyed our lesson.
I have a recurring problem when I am teaching children to swim. I know that to learn to swim they have to first learn to feel completely comfortable and confident in the water. They have to not mind if their faces are totally submerged and they have to understand and enjoy the sensation of floating in the water. This can take quite some time, especially if for whatever reason, they are a bit frightened to begin with. This is fine, but the parents, who are paying for the lessons, often want the children to learn ‘proper’ swimming strokes as soon as possible. I believe that the strokes themselves don’t matter to begin with, and in fact the more you try to teach the children the proper strokes the more you interrupt the natural learning process. This means that I have to make it look like I am teaching them to kick their legs or whatever, when in fact I am letting them discover for themselves the sensation of moving through the water.
I have two children in one of my classes, a brother and sister, aged about 3 and 4, who are doing really well. They can swim under the water, jump in, float etc etc. Luckily I have not had to teach them any formal strokes yet and their mother seems to accept my methods. The other day the little boy was floating on his back, totally relaxed, just lying there for ages, pretending to be an astronaut. After some time he allowed his body to tip over very gently until he rolled over in the water like a little puppy falling out of it’s basket. He was completely out of his depth but he trusted me to pick him up if he needed help. In fact he gently steered himself towards the side of the pool that was about a metre away. He was totally at ease with himself and his body and in the water. I know that as long as no one disturbs the process he will be a swimmer all his life.
Today my swimming pupils were a father and his six year old son. The Dad was more or less a beginner, the son could only swim a couple of metres unaided, but he was full of underwater tricks and turns, like a little tadpole.
The little boy was a stern critic of his Dad’s swimming. His highest praise for his Dad’s glide was ‘quite good’ but his attempt at a longer swim using just a leg kick was ‘very bad’. He said ‘My Dad is letting his toes drag on the ground and his legs are all bent.’ I could see his point. My younger pupil was however a keen demonstrator of amongst other things, the mushroom float, which we then persuaded the Dad to try. Teacher’s verdict ‘Head not tucked in enough’.
It was the father who suggested the joint lesson and afterwards his wife told me that she had not thought it would work. In fact it was lovely. I think it was a fantastic idea and they will both learn more than either would if they had separate lessons. The father told me that he works long hours and has to travel quite a bit with his work. It seemed to me like a delightful way for them to spend time together, and what a great feeling for the little boy to be able to help and teach his Dad.
Sometimes parents say to me that they are worried that all the children are doing in my lessons is playing. I am not sure that these parents always appreciate that, especially in the water, it is through playing that the children learn. When I teach non-swimming adults the main difference between them and the children is that they don’t play in the water. It is true that sometimes the children can enjoy the lessons so much that things get very lively. Then I have to remind them of two basic rules
- don’t jump in without asking me
- don’t hold onto each other in the water.
These have to do with safety and are not too difficult to remember, although we do have to over them quite often. I believe that to learn any new skill properly, at any age, you have to enjoy the process. Here is a letter from Albert Einstein to his eleven year old son. It was written in 1915.
“I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. . . .”
He wrote this letter just after having completed his General Theory of Relativity.
My thanks to Maria Popova for drawing my attention to this quote in her blog