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.
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.
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.
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