Learning to Swim: Taking a Child’s Lead

Can a child learn to swim without engaging in regular swimming lessons at a young age?

Before I attempt to answer this question I want to make something VERY clear. I believe learning to swim is an important development for all children. It is completely up to parents how they wish to approach swimming ‘lessons’. I completely understand that for some family circumstances, taking children to formal swim training is an important weekly activity and I am in no way against it. This post has been written to allay the fears of parents that their children will never learn to swim if they do not institute formal swimming lessons at an early age.

Learning to Swim: Taking a Child's Lead ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

Growing up in Australia, surrounded by beautiful beaches and a predominance of people with backyard swimming pools there has always been a mammoth push for parents to enrol their children in swim schools from as early as 6 months of age.

I understand this need more than most having known several families who have had the horrific experience of having their toddler drown in a backyard pool or dam.

In light of this, teaching my children to swim was something I thought I should make a priority from early on.

I first took my daughter to swimming lessons when she was 6 months old. She enjoyed splashing around in the water and was always extremely confident, never hesitating to jump in the pool and participate in the activities.

She did one term of swimming in her first year (about 10 half hour lessons) and then, with the birth of her sister the following year, did not participate in lessons again until a year later when both girls could attend lessons together. Another term passed and at 18 months, my girls were no nearer to swimming independently but continued to love the water and delighted in the experience.

It was then that one of my children went through a series of medical issues which requiring grommets to be inserted into her ears. She was no longer able to participate in swimming lessons and coupled with financial strain, we withdrew both girls from the learn to swim program, vowing to re-enrol them as soon as things went back to normal.

That was nearly three years ago. Life took over and, well, here we are.

Since that time, we have taken our children to the local pool a handful of times, they have swum in the pool at our annual beach holiday and apart from that have splashed around in the blow-up paddling pool in our back yard occasionally.

Knowing they can not swim, each time the children have been exposed to open bodies of water, my husband and I were vigilant to supervise them and ensure they were always safe. This usually meant that we were in the water with the children whilst they played in the shallows and then when they ventured a little deeper, we could keep their bodies up whilst they pretended they could swim.

There were a few times, the children experimented by kicking off us and promptly sinking under the water. We were always there to pull them safely to the surface but it was always a good reminder of just how vulnerable they were in the open water.

Over the years my husband and I often commented to each other how we really should book the children back into swimming lessons. We worried about when and how they would ever learn to swim if they were not getting regular experience in the water much less lessons.

More recently, we had noticed that our now four year old’s peers (enrolled in lessons) were getting to the age where they were able to keep themselves above water and ‘swim’ to the edge of a pool. And with school approaching in now less-than-a-year’s time, there seemed even more pressure for our children to learn to swim. But still for many reasons, we had not been inclined to follow through and book them in.

Then this week happened.

We were enjoying an irregular beach holiday as my husband was attending a work conference at a beach side location. With him gone each day, the girls and I enjoyed long days on the beach followed by extended swims in the resort pool.

To manage the two of them safely in the water, they wore life vests and floated around the pool in inflatable rings. They both kicked and paddled and ‘swam’ around the pool effortlessly, enjoying the freedom of not having to be held.

Now, I have read somewhere in the past about not using such floatation devices with non-swimmers as it gives them a false sense of confidence. But to us, safety and enjoyment for all came first, so we went with it, albeit with an element of doubt and concern at the back of my mind. I worried that they would never want to take them off because swimming was so easy with them on.

Over the course of the week, Miss 4 experimented with using the ring, the life vest or both simultaneously. I was always satisfied that she knew her limits and I was never far away from her anyway if she did get into trouble.

Then on the second last day, she asked whether she could take off her life vest and swim out to me without anything on. I was surprised but again, I trusted her and knew I would be right there if she needed me to rescue her.

So I moved to a distance away from her that she was comfortable with (about 3 metres or 10 feet) and then with confidence told her I was ready (although I was inwardly very nervous for her). She leapt off the steps and went crashing under the water in an almighty splash.

I moved forward to grab her up from under the water but then I realised she was paddling madly towards me. She had come up from under the water and was just keeping her head out. She was giving everything she had to get to my awaiting arms.

When her little hands blindly grabbed hold of them, and I clutched hold of her panting body, I can’t even begin to tell you of the elation that permeated right the way through the water. Her grin went from ear to ear and back again and she kept repeating, “I did it! I did it!” whilst I echoed her words with “You did it!”

She immediately kicked away from me and ‘swam’ back to the steps. She  continued to practice swimming back and forwards repeatedly, each time gaining a little extra confidence and gradually solidifying her competence.

Learning to Swim: Taking a Child's Lead

Learning to Swim: Taking a Child's Lead ~ Peaceful parents, Confident Kids

Over the next 24 hours, my daughter became a swimmer. I would by no means say she is a strong swimmer, nor would I leave her to swim by herself, but she can swim. She spent the whole of our last day in the pool with her father who had by now finished work and was enjoying some downtime with the girls.

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She alternated between using floatation devices and practising her swimming. She took charge of learning this skill herself. She knew what felt comfortable for her and had listened to what her body was telling her it was capable of.

It was a great lesson in trust. Children really are the most competent learners on the planet. All they need is opportunity and they will succeed. This is a moment I am sure none of us will forget. Certainly, I know my daughter will always remember that sense of achievement that was all hers to own.

Edited to add: She has since started lessons to learn the finer points of swimming technique and slotted right in with her peers, many of whom have consistently been in lessons since 6 months of age.

You might also enjoy reading:

The Joy of Natural Development ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

Could Young Children be Better Served Not Teaching Them? ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

Baby Led Adventures – 5 Reasons Babies Need to Lead ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury -Elevating Childcare)

I also thoroughly recommend the following books (Affiliate links)

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities — From the Very Start ~ Magda Gerber

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11 thoughts on “Learning to Swim: Taking a Child’s Lead

  1. Jackie

    Interesting. Most definitely awesome for your family.

    I really think that every child and scenario will play out differently.

    We also just holidayed at a resort, spending every day in the pool. We shared a similar experience to you with our son, who started lessons at one but we took him out do to health reasons. He gained so much confidence and joy from our days in the pool and we’ve now re-enrolled him. He is loving his lessons and I think we re-introduced them at the right time when he told us he was ready.

    My mum enrolled me in lessons when I was a child. I hated lessons, physically making myself ill on the way to lessons. Understandably, my mum took me out of lessons and my family got a pool in our back yard, in hope that regular play in the pool would be what I needed. It didn’t work. I am now 36 years of age. I am so scared of water. I won’t ever go in water deeper than my neck. I’m not sure what the answer would have been. I understand why my parents took me out of lessons. I would probably do the same as a parent. Continuing would have possible done more damage.

    My daughter (5.5) who has had consistent swimming lessons for five years was swimming rings around me. She confidently swum into the deep end. I would only go out with her while holding a noodle. She dived and played and had a ball. Cammy doesn’t hate or fear lessons like I did as a child but she doesn’t get any joy from them. We have an agreement that it’s an important task for her to do during the week, but on this holiday I was thankful that we pursued lessons with her because at one point I questioned them if she was enjoying them. The question for me is when have swimming lessons served their purpose for Cammy.

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      I agree that it has to be what is best for your family and more importantly, the individual child. Every child is different and will react differently in each situation. For us it has worked out very well but if a child has an apprehension to water, they would probably need more consistent and frequent exposure to water in a positive way. Thank you, Jackie!

  2. Kelly @ Happy Whimsical Hearts

    Intriguing idea – as you say in Australia the push to get them to swimming lessons is very much there. We have done swimming lessons at various times with our kids, none yet with bub (and no plans yet). It must have been wonderful to watch her take that leap and succeed.

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      It was so wonderful, Kelly! I don’t have anything against swimming lessons and we will probably get Lucy doing some early next year just to help strengthen her techniques etc. I was just pleasantly surprised that all that worry about not having her in lessons was for nothing! 🙂

  3. katepickle

    Loved this story of trust and patience… I have a similar story!

    My big boy was always petrified of getting water on his face, and flatly refused to put his head in the water. We’d tried lessons once or twice but it always ended in trauma as teachers tried to force him to put his head under.

    I felt bad for not ‘trying harder’ or pushing him more, I felt bad for not just ‘making him do it’ like everyone suggested. I felt bad that he was missing out on something ‘essential’ even though I knew that backing my boy into a corner or trying to force him to do something, especially when he was scared. was not the right thing for him. So I gave up on lessons and ignored the niggly voice that said this wasn’t ‘right’ and moved on.

    With school swimming lessons looming my girls asked if they could start lessons and I decided to encourage my boy to have another go. He was still very scary and had a hard time getting himself in the water for his trial lesson, but he was older now (aged 6) and I hoped I’d found a swim school that would be gentle. I was hoping that trusting my gut and dropping lessons for all those preschool years had given him some time to mature and be more ready…. and I was right.

    By the end of the first half hour lesson he put his face in the water, of his own free will, for the first time, ever. By the end of the first term he was swimming freestyle!
    All those people who told me he would never learn to swim if he didn’t get lessons as a preschooler were wrong… he is a beautiful, confident swimmer, who now loves the water! Patience paid off!

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      What a beautiful story, Kate! I love that with trust, respect and patience, our children know just when they are ready for these things. All we really need to do is provide the avenues for them to get there. Thank you!

      Kate xx

  4. kate @ livinglovinglaughing

    What a little champion 🙂 How lovely!

    Agree that it can be a different scenario for every child. I eagerly took my first along to swimming at 6 months, more for her than me. But quickly realised that unless you are doing aggressive ‘survival swiming lessons’, the early intro doesnt do much for the actually learning to swim solo at around 4-5 years. So with my second (and now my third) I held off classes till they could go in solo at 3 years.

    But anyway, thats not a really relevant story, lol! the point is, its great your daughter was able to teach herself. I think many ppl feel for safety they want to introduce that skill earlier but I love the way you were able to work with her at the right time!

    1. peacefulparentsconfidentkids Post author

      It’s completely relevant, Kate! The point is that lessons or not, children can and will learn to swim at about the same age as long as they are given plenty of exposure to water. I have seen the infant survival lessons and whilst I can see why people do them, I would never subject my children to that type of training. And then as you say, gentler swim schools simply do water confidence and water familiarisation activities, not learn to swim activities until much later on. I’m glad I saved my money 🙂

      Kate xx

  5. Danya Banya

    What a beautiful story. We’re putting formal swimming lessons on hold for now, mainly because the ones near us don’t allow catch up classes, and we found that with other commitments and random childhood illnesses etc, we were effectively paying for two classes for every one we were able to attend. Instead we just take to them to the pool once a week, and we swim with them. We let them play. And they are learning to swim by themselves. They are coming along great guns!

    1. Kate Russell

      I don’t see why not. Although, I would take your time and introduce the experience slowly and mindfully. When my 4 month old first went to the beach, she stayed with me under the umbrella. That was a lovely, slow introduction to the beach environment. When we went back when she was 13 months, we stayed up near the umbrella for the first 5 days of our holiday and then she finally decided she was ready to make her way to the water. There was no pressure on her to go. She did it when she was ready and it was perfect for her to explore it all in her own way and time. I hope that helps,
      Kate ❤️


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