Learning through play

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I was a little bit exasperated yesterday when the mother of one of the children I teach said to me

‘When are you going to teach him the strokes?’

I sort of interpreted this as

‘When is he going to be able to swim all four strokes in a flawless fashion?’

This boy can swim a whole length of the pool on his back and on his front, can float on his back and his front for at least twenty seconds without moving at all, can jump into the pool, do a sitting dive, dive down to pick things off the bottom of the pool, tread water, but perhaps his strokes are not perfect, yet.

This is also a child who after a good start, refused to go into the water at all for a whole year. Instead he just came to watch his brother’s lesson. I knew that something must have happened to make him frightened and eventually he told me that he had gone under the water and felt he couldn’t breathe. This was not in my class. It happened when he was with another teacher. Eventually after watching my class for a few months he asked if he could join in.

When they are frightened of the water the children often say things like, ‘I might sink to the bottom’ or ‘I might drown’ or ‘I won’t be able to breathe’. I am trying to help them develop the skills they need to overcome these fears and manage themselves in the water, without help, and in a way that they feel comfortable with. This is not a matter of just desperately thrashing your way from one end of the pool to the other.

Learning to swim takes a long time, for adults and for children. There are many stages to go through.  At first a non swimmer wants to remain upright and has some difficulty with stretching out in the water. Many people, adults as well as children, don’t want to put their faces in the water, but an ability to do this is an absolutely basic requirement for good swimming. Then without experience it is impossible to understand the exact amount of force or pressure it takes to move oneself through the water. Balancing in the water is different from balancing on land, this must be learned too.

In order to learn the strokes properly you need to learn the elements that go into each one. When a child is confident in the water, learning the strokes is easy.

The parents I love best are the ones who allow their children to develop the skills gradually through exploration and play. The irony is that it is the children who are allowed to play who learn the quickest. I see time and time again, when the parents apply pressure, the children have to resist, in order to keep themselves safe and the whole thing takes much, much longer.

The only thing that seems to spoil the experience of learning swim is the pressure to achieve. This can take away all the joy. I want to say to many of my adult pupils, slow down and learn to play in the water, then you will learn to swim.

Guardian swimming blog – How to overcome your fear of swimming

I am excited because The Guardian have published my article about fear of the water on their swimming blog. Thank you to my students who gave me permission to use their stories.


Photo by Mark Tipple


Learning to let go

proust‘People wish to learn to swim and at the same keep one foot on the ground.’

From A la Recherche du Temps Perdu  by Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922

In this quotation Proust is talking metaphorically but the more I teach swimming the more I understand that letting go and trusting the water is the most important aspect of learning to swim. However it is probably also the most difficult thing to learn. It is certainly the most difficult thing to teach because it has to come from inside. It takes experience and understanding of the body in the water to be able to allow oneself to float and glide freely.  You have to let the water support you, if you try to hold on to the water, even a little bit, it won’t work. And this I have realised is the biggest difference between a swimmer and a non-swimmer. A swimmer knows, instinctively and through practice, how to let the water support them, a non-swimmer doesn’t. Fear makes us try to hold on, and so fear of the water can stop someone being able to swim, even if, as is sometimes the case, they understand the technique perfectly.

“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious” – Carl Jung

Water-802215“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that it is often referred to as the ‘subconscious,’ usually with the pejorative connotation of an inferior consciousness. Water is the ‘valley spirit,’ the water dragon of Tao, whose nature resembles water- a yang in the yin, therefore, water means spirit that has become unconscious.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para 40)

Fear of falling

Photo by Mark Tipple

Photo by Mark Tipple

One of my pupils told me that the reason she found it difficult to learn to swim was that she had a fear of gaps. She said she did not like stepping from the platform to the train, or even crossing bridges and that being in water made her feel the same way.  She told me she could float and was not afraid to put her face in the water but it was the moment of taking her feet off the bottom of the pool that scared her.  She said that the moment of launching herself into the water is like the moment when you are falling asleep and you feel yourself fall off the edge of something, the moment when you suddenly jerk back to wakefulness. One man told me that his father had dangled him over a bridge when he was a child and he had been afraid of water ever since. He is learning to swim now, fifty years later, and doing well.

I think for many people fear of water is like a fear of falling, of being unsupported and many  people are able to swim as long as they are touching me. Even if I just touch them lightly with the finger of one hand they can swim, but as soon as I move my hand they panic.  One lady could swim if we swam together, with both of us swimming and me holding her hand, but even though I was not supporting her at all, she could not swim if I let go of her.  And many people can swim if I help them to start off, if I manage to get them over the falling moment when the ground disappears from under their feet.

All this has shown me how deeply psychological the fear of water and fear of swimming can be. It is therefore not surprising that once people start to overcome their fear of water, they sometimes find that other fears become less too; like the man who told me that once he had stopped being afraid of the water he also found that he had stopped being afraid of dogs.

It is interesting to watch people lose their fear. It doesn’t happen immediately of course but as long as the person keeps coming to the lessons the fear always goes, it just sort of floats away. I believe this is because the fear sits in a very deep and instinctual part of the memory or experience and is not really connected to the present situation. In a heated swimming pool, where they are never out of their depth and where I am there to help and support them, most people learn to swim.

Watching people overcome this fear has got me thinking about the nature of fear itself and how many of us are limited by fears that are not based in reality.