A year ago, in the crystal clear waters of Enseada de San Francisco in Ria de Muros, Galicia, Lily swam for the first time. She lifted her legs from the sandy sea bed and splashed and kicked and stayed afloat for two seconds. ‘Just one more time’, she said, and tried again, all afternoon trying and trying again ‘Just one more time’, so that by the end of the afternoon she was swimming for four or five seconds at a time and covering five metres.
But, like everything children learn, her swimming didn’t progress in a smooth linear fashion. There were days when she didn’t want to swim. There were days when she grew frustrated by her attempts and simply couldn’t swim. There were days when she preferred to paddle around with the support of a rubber ring or foam noodle. And there were days when she swam beautifully, making clear progress, wanting to succeed, working hard to push herself to do better. She’s done it all herself. I never intervene or push her. I offer advice and (physical) support when it’s requested. When it comes to swimming, I’m more interested in instilling a love of swimming and playing in water. I hope they learn from the example I set. I sometimes exaggerate my own swimming movements, so they can see the mechanics. But when we are in the water it’s play time. And through play comes learning.
Since Lily’s first tentative but determined strokes in July last year, she can now swim a width of a pool. I don’t know when she figured that out. After watching dolphins one day last year in Ria de Arousa, both girls decided they wanted to swim like dolphins. Katie put her head underwater for the first time (something she now rejoices in) and Lily attempted to emulate the movement of a dolphin – arms by her sides, legs together, face down, moving her whole body through the water. Though she lacks the grace of a dolphin, she now has the confidence to put her head under and swim a short distance. Few things make my heart swell more than the sight of the two of them resurfacing, glistening in the sunshine, water cascading off their little golden bodies, and big grins on their faces.
So Lily’s swimming improved, in an unsystematic and semi-linear sort of way. In early May the girls and I were in the outdoor pool at the youth hostel in Alcoutim (where you can use the pool for free while your laundry is in the washing machine!). Katie had the foam noodle and insisted I provide no help as she slipped in from the side, swam a noodle-assisted width, climbed out and repeated. Lily gingerly climbed in, swimming the occasional width and playing while holding on to the side of the pool. I was on high alert as, at most shallow part of the pool, both girls were still well out of their depth.
After a while, a little boy came along. He was about Lily’s age, but a much stronger swimmer and he could dive properly. I watched Lily watch him. He dove, he leaped and splashed, throwing himself far out into the middle of the pool, disappearing below the surface, resurfacing and swimming to the side.
Lily’s tentative climbing in vanished almost immediately as she tried to copy the boy or outdo him – I’m not sure which. She leaped in, disappeared below the surface, reappeared, swam to the side, climbed out and repeated. Over and over she did this, clearly exulting in this new form of water play. And then she did something else she had never done before. She figured out how to swim on her back. Two new swimming skills in one morning. I was amazed and Lily was delighted.
Later that day and the next we went to the river beach at Alcoutim. With no poolside from which to jump in, Lily used me as a platform, standing on my thighs and leaping in as I crouched in the water. On the second day a boy of about twelve came along. Again, I watched Lily watch him. He dove down, head first, into the water, doing handstands on the sandy river bed. Lily tried and tried but lacked the forward thrust to propel herself downwards. She asked for my help and I assisted by positioning her legs upwards as she went down. It only took a few assisted dives for her to get the hang of it and to touch the river bed.
And what of Katie? Well, here’s the thing. With her usual aversion to any instruction from Julian or me, Katie’s been unwilling to take any friendly advice when it’s offered. She’ll kick her legs but refuses to move her arms. Julian brought the noodle to the beach one day and she discovered the movement potentials of simultaneously moving her arms and legs.
Then it happened. A day after Lily made those dramatic advances in her swimming skills, she decided she was going to teach Katie how to swim. She actually said it: ‘Kate, I’m going to teach you how to swim’. I wasn’t swimming on this particular day, but sitting under an umbrella on the beach, reading and writing. Katie readily agreed to the swimming lesson.
Lily began by holding Katie’s hands, instructing Katie to lift her legs and kick, while Lily walked backwards. ‘Kick, kick’, Lily instructed. ‘Don’t stop’. Both were taking their roles very seriously and there was none of the usual boisterous playfulness. When she thought Katie was ready to use her arms (a couple of minutes later), Lily showed her the proper way to hold her hands, fingers together, hands slightly scooped (Lily herself usually swims fingers splayed and hands flat!). She showed Katie the required arm movements and told Katie to try. ‘Keep going, good girl’, sounded familiar to my ears! The instruction carried on far longer than if Julian or I had attempted it. In a very short space of time Katie was swimming. I couldn’t believe it.
They both called for me to watch (of course I’d been watching over the top of my book all along) and when Katie swam five metres, she stood and gave me two thumbs up. Later, when they came out of the water to dry off, Lily said, ‘Kate, tomorrow I’ll teach you to swim on your back’, a skill Lily herself had discovered 24 hours earlier.
Julian missed out on these days of swimming, so I enjoyed watching his surprise when he next came swimming and discovered that both girls could now swim and Lily had mastered diving and swimming on her back.
Like virtually every aspect of their home educated lives, the girls learn far more through play than through formal instruction. They learn at their own pace and when they are ready. At 4 and 6 years old, I care far more about cultivating their enthusiasm and passion, whether that’s for swimming or the natural world or reading or maths. Learning from and with each other and from and with other children and adults through play and encounter is our path to lifelong passion and desire for learning.
‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood’ – Fred Rogers.
‘For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play’ – Penelope Leach.