I am wholeheartedly committed to unschooling in theory, but there are a handful of things that I find hard to wrench free of a schoolish mindset. And leading the way as powerful nubs of anxiety are reading, and swimming.
I’ll come back to the whole reading thing another time – huge leaps of learning have been happening for me in that regard lately. Swimming, though…
There’s something deeply visceral about my perception of the need to be a strong swimmer, especially given our lifestyle. My yearning for the water takes us regularly to the river and the sea, not always in the safest of circumstances. And instinctively I am fully behind all of the viral videos showing toddlers trained in water safety techniques, adeptly navigating their way out of danger.
But it isn’t us.
My 9yo has always loved water. When he was a baby we lived a stone’s throw from a seawater pool, and we started swimming there with him before he could crawl. Devon life has meant a seasonal trend towards full immersion in the summer months, and he has always been supremely confident in the water.
But our pragmatic mindset, focused on all of our enjoyment and agency, meant that until recently he always had a float or was always in his depth – and was regularly checking in with whichever safety net was available. His aversion to any form of direct teaching (combined with our unwillingness to coerce him) means that we have steered clear of swimming lessons entirely.
As with many aspects of self-directed learning to my still-deschooling mind, it felt fine until it didn’t.
Entering into summer this year A’s lack of swimming skills felt like a dereliction of our duties. He stayed in the shallow end at the pool whilst his peers ventured into the deep, and his desire to surf was held back by our uncertainty of his ability to swim 50 metres. Whenever we were at the beach he embraced the water with gusto – as long as he was in his depth he would duck and dive for hours. But he still wasn’t really swimming – if he’d found himself out of his depth for more than a few moments I had no idea if he’d be able to cope.
As the weather began to warm up, we increasingly found ourselves down by the river. This was a whole other test of skills, and initially he teetered uncomfortably around the edges, toes smarting on too-sharp rocks. He wanted to dive in, but he just didn’t feel safe.
And then one day, he did.
A combination of warm sun and kind friends meant that we had a couple of days of deep exploration of his limits. And he emerged fully victorious.
Suddenly this novice swimmer was able to launch himself across the unknown depths of the river with ease. He delighted in diving below the surface, and playing with the possibilities that brought. He discovered the ability to float on his back, taking back control when momentary anxiety hit. And he even started playing around with different strokes, mimicking the others around him.
It was basically like we’d had several years of swim teaching in a fortnight, and it was a salient reminder of why we’re approaching things the way we are.
Watching A swim since that moment of revelation, I have trouble imagining that he could possibly be further along in his skills if we’d engaged in swimming lessons since he was a baby. And knowing how badly he reacts to direct instruction I imagine that in reality things would have gone entirely the other way.
I don’t think he’s unique in this.
I know that he’s special, and unique in so many ways. But in terms of how he learns I think here are many other young people just like him.
Young people who try, and observe, and hold back, and explore, and refuse, and consider, and jump in when they’re ready. Except we still expect them to begin and to practise and to improve and to gain confidence and to perform.
Learning is not linear.
And that applies just as much to those skills we feel are essential like reading and swimming as it does to learning we’re less invested in.
Ultimately it all comes down to trust.
There are metaphors here to unpick, and conditioning we must shake off if we are to unlock the possibilities our young ones are offering up through their being.
We must keep swimming, even when it tests our nerves to the limits, and remind ourselves why we’ve chosen this path.