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This is another article I originally wrote for Connections. It's not very timely I guess, but it may be useful.

Now that summer is in full glow it seems likely that many parents are considering swimming lessons for their children. If they are like us with a pool available in their building, they may be reasonably concerned about safety. Perhaps they just want their child to be able to experience the joys of mastery in water.

The story of Jayn’s journey to swimming I offer as a cautionary tale, a case against swimming lessons. As with so many other areas of our lives, swimming is something that I do well and can model for Jayn and participate in with her. However before fully embracing Unschooling, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to offer Jayn some fun and light private lessons at home. I was wrong.

Jayn has been going into the pool with us since she was less than one. And she has always loved the water. Temperature has been no object to her, and she loved sink, bath, puddle, pool and beach with such abandoned joy for the different experiences. Jayn was always the child who squealed with delight when the sprinklers came on at the park, leading the charge to dance in the waters, perhaps to the dismay of some of the other mothers. She twirls in the rain, as rare as rain is here in Southern California.

She fell in the pool once when she was a toddler after surprising me with a right turn instead of a left – the longest four seconds of my life. Her bulky knits held her up and I fished her out instantly, took her upstairs and got her all warmed up. I feared the experience would diminish her enjoyment of water but not so.

The lessons she took were from a nice enough lady who came to our house. We had come back from our 4 months in Texas, so it was when Jayn was 2.5. She had been using a vest type floaty with front and back pockets containing sheets of foam that you could sequentially remove as the child's proficiency increased. I had gotten down to about half of them by the time Jayn dispensed with this item entirely.

The teacher focused on getting Jayn to put her face under the water (to say hello to the plastic toys) and to get her to float face down holding on to a broom stick, without floaties. Jayn would decide when the lesson was over, and quite liked Joy. I guess the main idea was about floating, but I didn't see any "progress" towards swimming, or even the said floating.

Of course Jayn was already entirely willing to get her face wet, jump in, splash herself and whoever she was playing with, outside of the lessons. I never really felt the lessons were much good, and I watched every one of the four or five sessions from above expecting to gain some insight into how I could help Jayn learn to swim enough to be safe if she fell in again - didn't happen. We continued to practice constant vigilance around our pool. We dispensed with the unnecessary expense of lessons and continued to play with Jayn in water whenever she wanted over the rest of the summer. Luckily Jayn’s enjoyment of water had not been diminished by the lesson experience.

The following summer Jayn and our neighbors simply played in the pool. (Jayn being 3.5) In the course of those few months all three kids went from floaties to no floaties of any kind. I would ask Jayn if she wanted hers, and usually she would start with her vest on, and then have me take it off part way through the swimming session. The little boy, just a few months older than Jayn was a fantastic natural swimmer - diving to the bottom of the deep end to retrieve rocks and toys. His sister was so much taller (2 years older) that she was on her tip toes while the younger two were forced to dog paddle.

Either James or I was always in the water with them or with Jayn alone. They all did a lot of leaping into my arms in the water, a game we called “Jump to Mommy”. We did twirls and rides on our backs. Jayn and I developed an ongoing fantasy game about a mermaid princess and her captor, a hungry grumpy troll. By the end of the summer Jayn was swimming freely and very confident. She had “worked” at her own pace and in her own manner to gain this wonderful mastery. People in our building noticed her proficiency and commented warmly.

Imagine my disconcerted surprise when Jayn replied to such compliments with the information that her teacher had taught her to swim! Five futile lessons two years ago had made such an impression on her young mind that she was giving credit erroneously to another, for what was all her own determined achievement. Even the following year the unwelcome idea that Jayn swam well because of her teacher continued to pollute her self-image.

I contradicted the notion every time it came up, expressing my observations about how Jayn created her own learning in swimming, and I think I might have persuaded her to review her achievement. Painful as it was for me to hear, it was a very useful for me to have gained this insight into Jayn’s thinking. This tendency to give credit away, to exalt “The Teacher” at the expense of herself worries me. Part of it was undoubtedly Jayn’s vulnerable age when this ill-advised teacher moment happened, but it has made me pretty circumspect about approaching people to interact with Jayn in educational settings.

And of course now as an Unschooler I would never initiate swimming or any other kind of coached activity without discerning Jayn’s desire or goals. For example her interest in ice skating. Since I am not a skater I can’t be her competence model, so my first goal will be finding a coach who will allow Jayn to lead the experience and be her partner, with the first emphasis on freely exploring the equipment.

Meanwhile, as a further cautionary tale, the neighbor children, reflecting the conventional parenting they experience, were placed into Swimming Lessons – despite clearly already being able to swim and progressing with skills. The little boy, initially so confident, with such inherent ability, steadily lost confidence and became a visibly worse swimmer as the summer of lessons wore on. Somehow the lessons he was experiencing were interfering with his natural aptitude. He became timid and questioning. He became concerned with “doing it right”. His sister was apparently told to practice floating on her back, especially if she became tired while swimming, instead of swimming to the side underwater as she had been doing. She seemed to stall out, and what had been mostly fun seemed to become mostly a chore, a practice session.

Over the last several summers, and the occasional day in winter when Jayn would decide to enter the frigid pool in her clothes just for fun, Jayn has progressed to being able to swim the length of the pool under water, beginning diving, and starting the four basic competition strokes – freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly – as well as recently a beginning interest in life saving (sidestroke and asking about how to do CPR).

She became interested in attempting these strokes from watching me swim laps. I told her about the different strokes because she asked me and, without coaching or teaching or any kind of timetable, she beginning to notice the rhythm of my breathing. She can really fly at backstroke. I guess my next personal challenge is to avoid any attachment to my daydreams of Olympic Gold. Luckily any time I start getting too serious, Jayn will want demonstrate one of her crazy jumps or latest invented strokes, like “The Frog”. She continues to love the experience of swimming and being in the water.

She has started asking questions about SCUBA diving and surfing.


As an addition to this story, one of my friends was considering swimming lessons for her kids, particularly her little boy aged 4 who was still a bit nervous letting go of the side. I told her about Jayn's experience and she considered it, but still chose lessons in the end.

Later she told me how happy she was with the whole experience for her son. The teacher she found was lovely and helped the little fellow get over his fear of letting go of the side.

She gushed about how the teacher held her boy for the entire first lesson - about an hour - and for most of the second. Then after about four or five lessons her son is happily dog paddling.

I'm glad it worked out for her but I still feel terribly sad - like an opportunity was missed. I started thinking that *she* could have been the one holding her son in the water for an hour. *She* could have been the one impressed forever in his memory as the warm arms providing safety, security and empowerment. Instead she gave that lovely gift to a stranger.


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Tags: lessons, swimming


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Comment by Frank Maier on November 16, 2008 at 12:57pm
When MJ was 4 and Chloe 2 we had an amusing interaction with a swimming teacher. We were living in a condo on the beach in Florida and the girls were already independent little waterbabies. At one point, a lifelong swim teacher was staying at the condo and started offering the girls advice and help. They were polite for a while, then just ignored him. Did my heart good to see that!

It was devilish fun to watch other adults twitch when our 2-year-old did cannonballs into the deep end of the pool while we, her parents, sat calmly waaaaay at the other side of the pool. Snicker.

The girls were free to snorkel away from the boat by themselves when we took them to the Caribbean when they were 7 and 9 and we got them their own SCUBA gear when they were 11 and 13. (I'm a Divemaster.)

I think every person who spends a lot of time near the water should learn the drownproofing technique. Something I strewed (aggressively, I admit) when the girls were small.
Comment by Alex Polikowsky on November 16, 2008 at 1:14am
Cool. Naruto ( formely MD or MArio) went from not getting his face wet last winter to fully swimming and diving for toys this Summer without any lessons. Just playing in the pool. He always loved the pool but hated his face wet. He sarted with cannon balls and then swimming backards first. He now swims as good as some of his friends who had lessons for years.

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