Learning to Swim
She just needs to know that you are there. The worst thing that parents do is to project their own fear onto their kids and weigh them down with water wings or life jackets or other apparatus that force the kid to never feel comfortable in the water. Just be there. Let her float, let her swim, let her sink and struggle, but never panic, never show doubt or fear. Just be there and let her grab onto you when she needs to.
That advice was given to me a few years ago, by a friend and aquatic director in a pool in Phuket Thailand, as I was teaching my then two year old daughter Kaia how to swim. She was (is) a natural in the water. She has been in the water since she was four months old and could almost swim before she could walk.
With Kaia, just being there was simple. She never really clung to me, and before we knew it she was swimming. People would gawk and stare. You could hear them whispering to each other or speaking out loud, “Wow, she really loves the water.” There seemed to be very little teaching involved. She just learned how to swim. I took Mike’s advice. I let her know that there was nothing scary about the water and that she should always know that I was there. I encouraged her to take risks, all the while constantly whispering, “I got you sweety. You can do this. Don’t be afraid. Daddy is here.” I modeled behavior and set challenges we did together. She was a natural. It was easy.
Things have been a bit different with my second daughter Skye. We started her early as well, did everything the same. She has always loved the water too, but she has been much more cautious and slower to take the leap into the deep end. She has taken her time and spent more time holding on and clinging. She has gone through phases and had moments of doubt and regression. This week, however, she turned a major corner. She let go. She trusted. She swam.
What does this have to do with education and why am I writing about it here? For the last few days, I couldn’t help but think about the nature of teaching and learning. I think Mike’s advice about teaching children to swim can be applied to all kinds of learning:
- Set challenges
- Model behavior
- Create environments where risks are encouraged and celebrated
- Be supportive but not suffocating
- Don’t establish a culture of reliance on unnecessary tools of support
- Learn in the deep end
I can do this. This is how I teach. I get it. What I have learned working with Skye, however, is that this model is great when kids are naturals and don’t really need you. I am good at standing in the pool and telling kids to jump, when I know they will most likely swim. I can tell kids to take risks and write, take photos, sing songs, make films etc… when I know that they only need a little support, but what happens when they sink right away, or when they cling a little too tightly for a little too long? This is my weak spot.
The worst thing you can do is compare kids. Kaia was swimming much sooner than this! Well, Skye is not Kaia, and no two kids are the same in our classrooms. We have to be able to understand how much support each child needs, and more importantly when how hard to push to instill confidence and not fear or failure.
I have learned a lot from my wife Mairin in this regard. She has been very patient and tender with Skye. It was in her arms that Skye finally let go and began to swim. I kept pushing Skye to let go and jump, only forcing her to pull back, but Mairin actually followed Mike’s advice and was simply there. She let Skye work in her own time. The support model does work. There is no need to panic and slap on the water wings, but sometimes it just takes longer and the level of being there needs to be more nurturing. You cannot force kids to let go, until they feel safe enough to swim. They need to know that the deep end is not any scarier than the shallow end when you can swim.
I should never have compared Skye to Kaia, just like we shouldn’t use “successful” kids in our classes as barometers for others. If they can swim, then send them off on other challenges. Let them work on strokes, let them practice diving whatever, but do not turn your back on the child who still needs you to be there when they jump. Let them grab your neck and feel their way in the water.
I cannot put into words how exciting it is to watch Skye’s excitement in the pool these last few days. I am literally watching her take bigger and bigger risks. She swims longer, grabs less tightly and smiles the entire time.
How do you deal with your pool? (classroom) Does this model work for you? Any advice?
ps: I guess this model is true for tech coaches and adult learners as well. How often do we ask teachers to simply jump in and swim, when they might need to just hold on for a bit longer?