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Help Your Children Learn to Swim Without Lessons: An Unschooling Approach to Swimming

Swimming goes with summer like leaves go with fall. And if you have younger children, your desire to make sure they are water safe becomes a big priority in summer.

Many parents diligently rush to sign up their kids for swim lessons, but this year they may find class options and access to swim instructors is a bit limited. So, what is a parent to do, besides be at their young child's side, insert them into unwieldy inflatables where they can't move much, or simply limit their exposure to swimming opportunities when all of this becomes too much to manage?

The other option does not sound simple at first, but it's something that actually works: teach your children to swim yourself, but not rigidly. Unschool them towards learning to swim.

What exactly does that mean? And why would anyone opt out of formal swimming lessons?

I'm writing to you as a parent who tried to enroll my kids in all kinds of swim lessons when there were so many options to choose from: public pool, college pool, private chlorine pool, private saltwater pool, heated private saltwater pool, adult swim instructor, YMCA swim instructor. When all the lessons didn't work, I was forced into giving up -- or so I thought.

It took me a while to realize that what I was really doing was relaxing my expectations and finding ways to enjoy the water with my kids. And that is the first magical step toward unschooling your child to learn to swim without lessons.

I'll list out some broad, simple steps below, and hopefully, by the end of this blog post, you'll consider that the task of teaching your child to swim without lessons, in a relaxed approach, is not as complicated or dreadful as it may sound at first.


Adjust your attitudes and behavior with your children when you're around water so that you relay calm and confidence.

Many children are naturally scared of water. This is normal. A natural fear of pools, lakes, rivers and the ocean is healthy, in fact. Large bodies of water have the potential to harm us! We don't want to eliminate our children's protective instincts. However, children can sense when we have anxiety about something, and they may imitate that, and even magnify it, sometimes developing irrational fears related to water and swimming.

If you're anxious when your kids are around water (even if it's just an automatic/unconscious thing you do, worrying when they're in the bath, or playing in puddles), they've most likely picked up on that. This was definitely something I've had to work to overcome when my kids were younger.

In fact, it was the main reason that swimming lessons didn't work for us. I was scared of water. I had children who were very scared of water. And forcing scared, crying children into a big pool with a scary stranger was not the best way to approach this issue!

If your children are scared around water right now, just spend the next few weeks to a month showing a different side of yourself around water and letting them see that you're not so scared, so they can relax a bit, too. Don't push them to go near the water, and don't overwhelm them with tons of water activities. Keep the schedule of water activities to a mellow amount, while you work on being mellow around them and water.

If you have a couple of invites to pools and other places of water with friends or family, then bring non-water toys and things your children regularly enjoy, to signal to them that there's no pressure to go in the water. Of course, you should also pack a few fun things for the water, in case they decide they want to go in. But the point is that it's their choice. This is essential for helping a water-shy child warm up to water.

Don't forget to watch how you behave during bathtime. Make sure it's more relaxed and fun. Don't project any worries or anxieties around your child's bath or shower time and work on watching yourself and your reactions.


If your child isn't scared of water but is not ready to hop into a pool right away, simply focus on exploration, fun, and play, while you remain neutral and passive about what they decide to do around water. Find ways to focus on encouraging your children's curiosity and exploration around water in a neutral way. Control any anxious reactions of yours, and work on acting calm and natural. Don't have an agenda for how your child interacts with water. It's ok if they go in or stay out; you're neutral. And support however they want to play and engage - so long as it's not destructive or hurtful to others.

Next, increase your exposure to water! Visit local parks that have fun water features that are open during the summer. Visit beaches, lakes, and rivers just to play in the sand, or along the shore, with no pressure at all to get into the water. Exposure to other swimmers is very helpful in encouraging children since they will be absorbing what others are doing, even if they don't seem like they're paying attention to it.

Don't expect an overnight change or even a change within a week or a month. But if you're committed to exposing your child to places where people are swimming, sunbathing, engaging in activities around water, it will make an impact on your child's attitude. I did this with my shyest child and by the end of the summer, he was finally ready to get in the pool! He was disappointed when summer came to a close and the beach was too chilly, and the indoor pools all closed. So I made sure to give him plenty of bath playtime all fall and winter and by the next year, he was ready to jump into the pool.

And by the way, don't be surprised if your child's bathtub behavior changes, in either direction, during this exploration time. They might get more exploratory in the bath (mimicking swimming, dunking their head under), or they might suddenly want shorter baths, refraining from bath-play at all. All of this is normal while they developmentally process their new relationship with water. Have patience and don't put too much stock in their bathtime behavior. Continue being calm, neutral, and supportive. You're building trust with your child around water, and this is so essential for them to build a healthy relationship with water.

Regarding family and friends when your child is in either the scared-of-water stage or the tentative-water-exploration stage. It really helps to ask others in your world to help mirror your attitude about water; natural, neutral, and supportive of however your child wants to behave around water. If you're visiting a friend or family who has a pool, let them know that your child may not get in, and you're ok with that. You're simply letting your child decide how they feel about the water and what they want to do. You're so glad they're no longer scared of water and are willing to put their toes in and whatever they want to do is perfect and right for them.

You might want to gently ask family and friends to please not pressure your child to get into the pool. Sometimes it's hard to get this message out to well-meaning friends and family, who just want to get your child to have more fun, or who believe it's their mission to help them learn to be water safe. But gently bringing this up and advocating for your child, may mean the difference between a crying child, or a happy child during a pool, beach, or waterpark playdate, or family visit. And it may help any progress you've made stick, as you build more safety and trust around water.

Give them Wings! Water Wings that is --or better yet, water wings AND a life vest!

Contrary to what a lot of swim instructors might say about children who rely on floatation devices not learning to swim or be water safe, I have the found exact opposite to be the case with all three of my kids. The flotation devices gave them the confidence they needed to get in the water. It allowed them to understand how the water feels, and how their body feels in water, and it gave them buoyancy to explore the water on their own (under supervision of course). Once all of that was accomplished, it allowed us to work together on the basics of water safety, while they wore their water-safe devices.

You do want to be sure and get your child a quality water floatation device, and take their preferences into account when buying one. I used a life vest without water wings for my last child, since he was older (5 yrs old) when he was learning to swim and didn't like the way the wings felt and looked on his arms. But many moms I knew used a wing/vest combination like The Puddle Jumper and their kids loved it. It's a simple, affordable life vest/water wings combination. It's sold at Walmart for $12ish and comes in several different colors and designs.

Learning the Basics of Water Safety (in a private pool, public pool, or a calm swimming area of a lake or beach)

Once your child has progressed to getting in the water freely and playing happily in their floatation device and you're both comfortable, then it's time to work on learning some basics. You don't want to go too long before you work on introducing these basics because you want your child to learn these skills to be as water-safe as possible.

1. If your child is really young, you want to start with teaching them to close their mouth if it's touching the water and to not swallow water.

I didn't need to worry about this with my youngest son, since he was older, but my other two started getting in the water at age two and needed to be reminded of this constantly, poor things!

2. Teach them to hold their breath and don't be judgmental about how they do it. They have their reasons for doing things the way they do them -- just like you and I do.

My oldest son pinched his nose so hard it hurt every time he held his breath. I could never figure out what he was doing to make it hurt so much, and so I tried all kinds of things to help him find an alternative. Turns out his nose is pretty sensitive and only he really knew that, but didn't yet know how to express it. So, be sure and trust your kids when they tell you something about their bodies, even if it doesn't make sense to you. It makes sense to them.

3. Once children are able to hold their breath you want to help them go under the water's surface and practice holding their breath, either by asking them to dunk their head under or if they're really brave, jumping in!

4. Try getting your child a pair of goggles to make it easier to dunk their head under

while protecting their eyes from chlorine.

My oldest child preferred goggles even when swimming in saltwater pools, just because it helped keep water from flooding his eyes as much.

5. Don't be surprised if these basic lessons take a month, or more, or even all summer.

Many kids have resistance to dunking their heads underwater and some have a lot of anxiety about getting water in their ears, nose, and mouth. So, be understanding about those things. But rather than just being totally relaxed, calm, and neutral like you were in previous stages, focus a little more attention on these concepts during each water session. This is so your child begins to understand that these things are important for them to learn to be water safe. That doesn't mean you should make the entire water session about learning to hold their breath and dunk their head underwater, but it's ok to make a few requests after they've warmed up, are having fun, and are more receptive to working with you.

6. Once your child learns to hold their breath and dunk their head under, then progress to working to help them learn to kick.

You can do this by holding on the side of the pool (like you might have been taught in traditional lessons when. you were little), or give them a kickboard, or some other floating device in the water to hang on to kick. It can even be you, leading them around the water and holding their hands while they kick. Improvise and get creative, taking input from your child, and do what works best for both of you.

7. Work on arm strokes.

Do this while you hold them horizontally in the water. First, while they are wearing their floatation device, and then progress to having them use their body weight to force themselves as horizontal as possible in the floatation device. Pool noodles work great for this.

8. Don't force them to take off their floatation device. Simply encourage them to spend some time with you without their floatation device on, when they're ready.

9. When your child is comfortable enough, see if they can kick and push with the aid of a kickboard without the floatation device.

10. Experiment with ways to get your child to swim for short sessions without the floatation device, and to get more comfortable jumping into the water.

11. If you don't get this far in one summer, don't be surprised. But don't give up! You have next summer to work on it some more!

It took me three years of these steps with my middle son, and he would not have done any better with an instructor. He was incredibly stranger-shy and very stubborn about learning to swim on his time and in his own way. Forcing him to take swim lessons would have been too rough on everyone. But I never gave up exposing him to water and showing him that water activities can be fun and learning to swim doesn't have to be hard.

I lived a homeschooling life in summer that included water outings. We had beach days multiple times per week, we went to our community pool multiple times per week. We went to splash pad parks. We had water park passes a couple of years in a row. We camped and traveled across California, with other homeschooling families and enjoyed the outdoors, including its wonderful beaches, lakes, and rivers, every spring, summer, and fall.

All of my children learned to swim on their own, without lessons and they all enjoy going to the ocean to boogieboard, or surf, and they're often the first ones to jump in the lake or pool, this includes my stubborn swim-resistant son. This once water-paranoid child is now an experienced swimmer who enjoys surfing, snorkeling and has a scuba diving certification just so that he can go out on deep dives in the ocean and explore marine life underwater if he wants. I never would have guessed that he would be this comfortable around water from how we failed out of swim lessons, but I'm also not surprised. Like everything else with homeschooling, learning things their own way has been more fulfilling for my children than learning the way people think they're supposed to.

Swimming is the same way -- so yes, you can teach your child to swim without lessons and it doesn't have to stress either of you out in the process. It can be a fun and rewarding experience for both of you! So enjoy some summer water outings with your family, at whatever level of water comfort and skill your children are at.


Written by Paige McKinney

I’m a mom of 2 grown unschoolers, and 1 nearly grown unschooler, who have never been to a traditional school. I have over 20 years of experience homeschooling and unschooling, including working with homeschool groups, educational non-profits, and independent study charter schools. I have a strong background in attachment parenting, peaceful parenting, non-violent communication, as well as home birthing, natural mothering, and journaling for self-discovery. In 2019 my family and I moved to Pennsylvania. We are enjoying exploring the East and homeschooling in a new state!


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