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Of Swimming & Schooling
How Unschooled Kids Learned to Swim Without Lessons
By Rachel Gathercole

swimming and unschooling

I have three children – an eleven-year-old, a seven-year-old and a baby. In our family, this will be remembered as the summer they all learned how to swim. On their own. When I was barely looking.

And that’s no small thing. For starters, my eleven-year-old, Saul, hates getting his face wet. Oh, how he hates getting his face wet. How does he hate it? Let me count the ways. Showers, baths, sinks, the ocean, lakes, rivers, pools. Sprinklers. Rain. Tooth brushing. He did not swim for eleven years because for him there was (it seemed to me) nothing worse in the world than water on his face. He’d rather sit on the dry ground and watch.

Sadie, my seven-year-old, was fine with getting her face wet, but was small and scared. You know, not wanting to drown and all that. And the baby, Luke – well, he just hadn’t been around very long yet. Six months, to be exact.

Now, I will admit, the older two have been working on it, in their own ways, for years. They have long been able to scoot about in the water in life vests that they could not survive without. And last summer when we got an above-ground, three- foot-deep “junior” pool in our yard, they began playing in that waterwithout vests (since they could always reach the bottom.) Sadie accidentally discovered during that time that she could float; Saul learned how to “doggy-paddle.” Still, they were far from true swimmers.

"On the first day that we were there, Saul found that he could jump into the water, and that the delightfulness of doing so actually outweighed his great aversion to getting his face wet."

But then came baby Luke. Luke loved the water. He adored it. So, in June, I did the unpredictable, at least for me. I signed my baby up for lessons. Yes, my six-month-old. It was a mother-baby class, and it was definitely an anomaly for us, neither of my other two children having ever taken swimming lessons except for one day, two summers ago, which amounted to nothing beyond the realization that they weren’t ready. But this baby wanted to be in the water, and I was interested in learning what fun, non-traumatic things I could safely do with him, or let him do, in the pool. During our lessons, my other two kids had nothing to do but play in the other end of the pool and stay out of the way. I knew they were safe in that pool, which was shallow and supervised by several life guards, and I paid little to no attention to what they were doing there. We were there exactly four times. On the fourth day, I found out what they had been doing: learning to swim.

Here is my understanding of how it happened.

On the first day that we were there, Saul found that he could jump into the water, and that the delightfulness of doing so actually outweighed his great aversion to getting his face wet. He jumped in many times that day and was soon swimming underwater. Sadie, I later discovered, had taught herself to do somersaults and to open her eyes underwater. I’d like to tell you how, but frankly, I just don’t know.

During the second visit to that pool, a few days later, Saul did more jumping in and more swimming underwater. He added using his arms. Sadie did more of the same as well.

On the third day, Saul discovered that he could float on his back, a fact that was a surprise and a delight to him. Minutes later, he discovered that if he floated on his back and kicked his legs, he could propel himself almost effortlessly across the top of the water. Someone pointed out to him that if he “windmilled” his arms he would be doing the standard backstroke. He tried it, succeeded and can now swim that stroke with ease. (Later he announced to me that he could “hover” – what most of us call “treading water” – and proudly demonstrated his proficiency in doing so.)

"There I stood on that fourth day, dripping and watching silently by the side of the pool, where I was once again reminded of the simple beauty of allowing my kids the freedom to learn at their own pace."
On the fourth day, having seen her brother suddenly learn these strokes, Sadie asked me after baby class if I would teach her “how to swim.” I spent a few minutes showing her how to do the front stroke and the back stroke and how to float. She tried them out, practiced them for an hour or so and learned. And thus, in quick and painless fashion, Sadie became something of a swimmer.

And also thus, after eleven years of not swimming, Saul learned in one week to float, tread water and swim two major strokes – enough skills to pass the swimming test I had to pass in order to graduate from college. He “waited” until now primarily because of his strong opposition to putting his face in the water (a legitimate concern, by the way.) In one day, though, that was all overcome, simply because he discovered something he wanted to do enough for him to decide to get his face wet. And that was all it took: intrinsic motivation.

As for me, there I stood on that fourth day, dripping and watching silently by the side of the pool, where I was once again reminded of the simple beauty of allowing my kids the freedom to learn at their own pace. My thoughts drifted to schooling, to unschooling and to the ways my kids learn in general. Swimming lessons, certainly, hadn’t done much for them. Neither, I’d wager, would any other kind of lessons that they didn’t go looking for. Saul has a natural learning style (and the swimming experience is but one example of it) that did not work well for private lessons, that would be neither appreciated nor honored in a traditional school environment and that could not easily be accommodated even in a non-traditional institutional environment. He takes his time, watches, thinks things through – often for years. And then, finally, BAM! One day, on his own time, he does it. Whatever it is. I mean really does it...and well. And then he excels quickly. He is a brilliant child who would not be understood in a school. And he is not alone. There are many like him.

Sadie, on the other hand, is more the “other” kind of learner. She picks things up easily, tries them out and acquires skills step by step. She, too, is brilliant, yet she would be better understood in a school environment because she learns in a more linear fashion. Not that she needs a school to understand her. After all, she already learns that way on her own.

And baby Luke? Well, I guess I don’t know his style yet. He is learning some swimming this summer, too, at his own pace and level. It is really I who learned most from the class, in the form of some helpful safety tips and many fun things to do with a baby in the water. And no wonder, since it was I who chose, enrolled in and paid for the class. Luke has mostly just smiled, splashed and played – just what I would have wanted him to be doing. He cannot swim on his own, being only six months old. But he’s having fun, and like most other things, he’ll do this one when he’s good and ready.

And as far as I’m concerned, that will be exactly the right time. Just like his siblings.

Until then, we’ll just keep on splashing along!  

 Rachel Gathercole is the mother of three beautiful, delight-driven, self-starting children, and the author of numerous articles on homeschooling, unschooling, parenting and children. She is also the author of the book The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling, which addresses the question of homeschoolers’ socialization in the depth that parents need. Look for Rachel’s book online at www.mapletree.com or your favorite online bookseller, or check out her website at www.rachelgathercole.com.

This is one of a small number of articles from Life Learning Magazine that are also available for free on this website. To read other articles like this, please subscribe.

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