How Unschoolers Learn to Swim

Swimming came up very early on in our unschooling journey…you can read more about the disaster zone that was our attempt at structured toddler swimming lessons by clicking here.

To save you the expense and hassle of a similar experience I wanted to share with you how straightforward it can be for children to learn to swim and how you can best support them to get there:


From an early age take them to the pool, even if they are just happy to sit and splash in the shallows they will see other adults and older children gliding around on the surface like magical beings and be curious as hell about what is going on.

At about one year old we noticed our baby was fascinated by one particularly slick looking 10 year old knocking out super speedy lengths in the pool with a set of flippers. After this experience our little one suddenly started pushing herself off from the side in a similar manner, trying to figure out how he was making all the magic happen. Her love affair with swimming had begun!

Goggles Not Arm Bands

Children learn how to swim by being in the water, not by floating on top of it. Buying arm bands or flotation devices actually hinders young child from playing around in water, experimenting with the feeling of their own buoyancy.

Yes it’s great that they get practice building up all those swimming muscles but you can easily hold them at a natural swimming position in the water rather then the unnatural one that arm bands provide. Just imagine strapping giant inflatables the size of your head under each armpit and trying to glide effortlessly through the water as an adult, it would be almost impossible! Like some crazy gameshow antics. This is exactly the experience that most people unintentionally end up providing for their children when learning to swim. Once children are ready they learn to swim their first few strokes by having the confidence to plunge themselves under the water. If they have spent a long time getting used to floating in arm bands on top of the water then it can be extra daunting to make that transition.

Goggles offer a child a gentler way of exploring what it feels like to put your face in the water. Our Two year old loved putting his goggles on and looking like one of the big kids, even though he didn’t put his face anywhere near the water for months. He just felt proud to be part of the goggles club! When he was ready to try swimming under water for the first time his trusty goggles were already on his head and he just went for it. So even if you think your little one is too young to buy goggles for, they are the much better long term investment and one day they might just suprise you!

Use The Pool As A Playground

It always amazed me how we would often be the only ones playing games in the pool while all the other parents seemed so focused on holding their children in the water and shouting ‘kick, kick, kick, Good Boy Jonny!!’

Our pool had a large shallow area that gradually sloped so the children could toddle around independently of us. We would often end up playing games just as if we were at the playground or at home. Sometimes they wanted to pretend to be guppy fish and get chased by the ‘daddy shark’, other times they were flowers and would water themselves with watering cans to grow big. Sometimes they just wanted to take themselves off to the side of the pool and make towers out of the floats and pool toys that were scattered around. Play continued as normal, the only difference being we were all submerged in water! We embraced and supported every creative whim that came up at the pool. The children loved every moment and were getting all the learning about being in water they needed without feeling bored or pressure to perform in a certain way just because we were at a pool. Take some waterproof toys (and even better, some friends) and let it be business as usual.

Never Pressure Your Child

Never pressure them to do anything beyond what they are already doing, only be there to support if they want help to try something out.

Obviously this is vital to life and every aspect of learning however with something that has the potential to be as terrifying as gasping for air underwater it’s so vital parents are not pushy. If your child has a stressful experience or if swimming becomes nothing more than a job to them. You risk undermining their confidence and they could loose interest all together.

At the same time allow them to take risks, if they want to jump in and go under the water let them try it out, just show them you are right there and quickly guide them back up to the surface so they can experience being submerged without panic. Always follow your child’s lead never try and lead the session.

Parents must stay tuned into what the overall experience of being in the water feels like for their child and forget completely about learning to swim (however subtly parents might think they are doing it!)

If you want to show a child something new, just practice it in the pool yourself. Children learn so much more by emulating what they see around them rather then being ‘taught’ or manipulated into doing it. Obviously if they ask you how you did that, feel free to share some tips but only if the questions come from them. Don’t over praise what you believe to be swimming skills over ‘just playing’ either as this also results with in-direct pressure to perform certain tasks rather then lead their own learning experiments.

If a child is in the water, having fun they will eventually learn everything they need to know about swimming in their own time, perfectly inline with their individual physical and cognitive development.

Regular Visits to Water

This one is the deal breaker. You don’t have to teach, instruct or demonstrate. You just have to get them there! I know busy life stuff doesn’t always make taking young ones to the pool regularly an easy thing.

If you can’t always get to a pool support children to play with water as often as they want, it could be the bath tub, paddling pool, the ocean or a stream. It all helps build up knowledge and experience of being in and around water. Obviously only offer them water play for as long as they have a desire to do it, but I’m pretty sure if children have had no upsetting or scary experiences with water most of them are fascinated by it and will choose to play with it often.

Don’t worry if your pool attendance isn’t keeping up with your best intentions. When our daughter was 18 months old her baby brother was born daddy was at work a lot and we didn’t get her to a pool more than a handful of times that whole year!

Even if we couldn’t get to the pool we used to play games diving for toys in the bath, sitting in buckets of water on the patio and jumping the waves in the ocean.

At around 3 years of age, a lot of the muscle groups needed for swimming will be developing and getting stronger. We noticed at this age our daughter pulled together everything she knew about water and how to coordinate her body and became dedicated to trying to swim unaided.

Luckily at this point we had just started taking the children to the pool almost every other day (we had membership passes for using their showers regularly anyway!)

Within three months of regular visits she went from submerging her face in the water and pushing off from the side unsupported for the first time (arms and legs thrashing everywhere!) To being able to swim.

She learned all of the basic moves whilst swimming under water and then standing to come up for air. It started as doggy paddle, next she practiced propelling herself through the water by kicking her legs. Then began lifting her arms out of the water in her own specialised version of front crawl. The final piece in the puzzle for her was figuring out if she lifts her head out of the water to take breaths whilst doing all this she could keep going up and down the pool as long as she wanted!

So at age three she had taught herself how to swim widths accross the pool unaided. Not that she cared too much about any of this, by far her favourite thing to do with her new set of skills was to be playing around under water. Spending the whole session diving down to retrieve toys that had sunk to the pool floor.

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