Don’t rush it. Don’t wish it away. Don’t hurry it up. You hear these kind of phrases a lot when you have young children, mainly from old women whose glasses are distinctly rose-tinted. But they have a point when it comes to swimming.
With my older children, I measured their first lessons in the pool without me as progress. I watched from the side as they got in the pool with other small children and a teacher, and felt pleased with myself for taking this next big step. A bit like sleeping in a big bed by themselves, or taking themselves to the loo; it felt right.
But it was a mistake. My eldest, aged just three, and in expensive, private lessons where the teacher had just him and one another child, repeatedly nearly drowned himself, until the teacher told me he was ‘unteachable’. Well, dur, he’s three; he can’t be expected stay at the side for five minutes awaiting instructions.
My second was closer to four, and in council-led classes of eight other pre-schoolers. In a half-hour lesson, she ‘swam’ about four widths, suspended at the water’s surface by armbands that restricted the lovely pulling arms she’d mastered over the time she spent in the water with me in her Water Babies classes.
Now I’m a swimming teacher, I see it again and again. Strong, confident little swimmers who leave me and join mainstream classes and regress; struggling to follow instructions, limited by armbands, confidence and independence knocked.
Small children need to be held up by a parent. Not just physically having someone they love and trust to help them get the right body position and catch them when they jump in, but emotionally they are still so young, and only just starting to make their way in the world.
And why wish away that chance? Before long, they’ll be swimming on their own, and your time will be over. Yes, you may not exactly relish putting on your costume, but once in a pool with your baby, toddler or pre-school, there’s nothing more fun or satisfying than helping your own child learn to swim. The laughs, the skin-on-skin; it’s all immensely bonding.
It aggrieves me that swim schools encourage classes for preschoolers and younger where the parent is absent. In my opinion, they do it for one reason alone: to make money. Rather than simply explain the many reasons why it’s better for small children to swim with their parents, they take their cash and let the children flounder.
Having a parent with them means learning far more than just swimming. Water is an incredible, sensory world that needs to be explored through singing, games, jumping, diving, splashing, playing. Just as you wouldn’t expect a three or four-year-old to sit at a desk and study all day, nor would expect them to swim width after width. Children learn through play, and that applies to swimming too.
Just as you read with your baby to give them early communication and pre-reading skills, exploring water together gives them important pre-swimming skills. At the stage, before they’re four or five-years-old, it’s about learning buoyancy, balance and streamlining.
It’s a question of safety too. Children should be supervised on a one-to-one basis. That supervision cannot and should never be substituted by flotation devices! Arm-bands are awful; giving a false sense of buoyancy, restricting arm movement, not allowing children to learn a good swimming position. That false sense of buoyancy is deadly: how can children be expected to learn how to kick up to the water’s surface, turn around and hold on? It’s unlikely they’d have on their armbands if they fell into the garden pond.
I’m still in the water with my third child, who’s just over four. That boy can jump, dive, swim on his front and back and enjoys nothing more than fetching sinkers from the bottom of the pool. He has the distinct advantage over his older siblings that I’m now a swimming teacher, and I can recognise that joining lessons where he swaps me for a piece of foam would be a disaster.
So what should you do? If you can find a swim school where you get in with your child, then go for it. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is take them yourself. It doesn’t matter what you do in the water, but avoid arm-bands and let them play and explore on their own terms. Remember that children learn through play, imitation and encouragement, and that they respond to you better than anyone else.