Ages & Stages Education & Play Gentle Parenting Grow Kids

Learning to Swim Naturally

boy underwater
Written by Kerry McDonald

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. In- stead, 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 a pond, at the end of the season, he watched as a new friend, also age four, swam with out 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 thewater.

I think most of us would agree that we don’t just want our children to learn to read, we want them to love to read. We don’t just want them to learn math, we want them to love math.We don’t just want them to learn to swim, we want them to love to swim. 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 com- pulsion.

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. Training works, but so much natural joy is lost. And isn’t that a shame? Because learning to swim can be, should be, really fun. It should be a summer time rite-of-passage: watching all of 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, grown- ups—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.

About the author

Kerry McDonald

Kerry McDonald has been deeply involved in education policy and practice for two decades. She has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy. Kerry lives and learns together with her husband and four, never-been-schooled children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can email Kerry at, and visit her blog at Whole Family Learning.