Last summer, when he was four, my older boy learned to swim. He never took lessons. He wasn’t coerced or cajoled. We didn’t encourage him to get his face wet or to kick his legs or make arm-circles in the water. Instead, we let him play.
He spent much of the summer by a pool or lake or ocean, splashing and jumping, exploring and experimenting—most of the time with a life jacket on. He watched his older sister swim across the pool on her own, saw the fun she had diving underwater for various items and playing all sorts of made-up water games. He watched other kids playfully swimming and took it all in.
And then one day at the pond, at the end of the season, he watched as a new friend, also age four, swam without a life jacket, all by himself through and under the water having a grand old time. Well, my big boy just had to try it, had to see what all this fun was about. And just like that, he could swim. Now, this summer, he’s a fish. From the moment he wakes up, he’s asking when we can go to the pool or the pond, and just before his eyes close at night, he’s asking how many more hours until we can return to the water.
I wrote last month that I don’t want my children just to learn to read, I want them to love to read. I don’t want them just to learn math, I want them to love math. I don’t want them just to learn to swim, I want them to love to swim. And the best way for that love to blossom is for them to want to do it, on their own time and in their own way, without adult coercion or suggestion.
If someone forced you to swim, told you that you had to learn, that it was imperative and non-negotiable, that these were the steps you would follow each week to make it happen right now whether you liked it or not, you might learn to swim, but you probably wouldn’t like it. Or at least you wouldn’t like the process of learning it. And isn’t that a shame, because learning to swim can be, should be, really fun. It should be a summertime rite-of-passage, watching all your friends, your parents, enjoying the water and you eagerly joining in when the time is right for you.
Learning anything is most meaningful, most fulfilling, when it is self-directed: when the resources are available, when the time and space for learning are provided, when we are not coerced into it because of some arbitrary expectation, when we see others around us—friends, parents—doing it and enjoying it.
Want your kids to learn to swim this summer? Take them to the beach, to the pool. Often. Let them splash and play and watch. Do a few laps and cannonballs yourself. And then back off.
If it’s their summer to swim, they will. If not, there’s always next year.