11 October 2010

unschool monday :: learning new things, naturally...


When big owlet was younger than little owlet is now, we took her to swimming lessons. After the fifth week bobbing around the pool and singing nursery rhymes with her, we realised we could do it ourselves. So we stopped the lessons and decided to undertake swimming by ourselves for a while. We didn't continue as often though, only going sporadically. Then earlier this year, I started taking the owlets swimming more regularly. Once a week. Big owlet started off stuck to me. She was afraid to put her head underwater. She'd use floating barbells to help her float and keep her confidence. She was making baby steps towards moving around independently. I bought a book from the op shop on teaching children to swim which had lots of pictures and excercises to work through and I tried some of them out with her. She wouldn't listen. She was resistant... We wondered if we should put her back in swimming classes...

I decided to lighten off and approach things the way we do everything else. Just let her learn in her own time. One day I started playing with her in the shallow end of the pool where she could stand comfortably. I swam down to the bottom and around her legs, playing mermaids - her favourite thing at the time. She laughed, then bobbed down underwater and touched the bottom of the pool! The look of surprise on her face was priceless. She did it in her own time. She found a reason and challenged herself and found she could swim! For the next half hour, she continued to be a mermaid, ducking down underwater and bobbing up to the surface with a huge smile. Over the next few weeks and months she continued to swim underwater, now quite confident, listening to ideas on how to move through the water very occasionally and experimenting... When we went swimming on Sunday, she decided to use her arms, like she'd seen me do. When she reached the end of the pool and when I told her she'd just swam freestyle, she giggled excitedly. Then she decided to swim on her back for a bit, before turning over and leaping out of the water with arms "like a bee" - she was doing butterfly, then breastroke... The strokes are there, coming out slowly. Far from elegant or efficient at this stage, but she's discovering them. Huz spent some time with her at the deep end - she was still holding a little fear. By the end of the hour she had touched the bottom of the pool there too...

As for little owlet, she's still afraid of putting her face under. She's afraid of most things these days. She's happy to bob around with the barbell floaties and has a beautiful kick going. Most of all, she loves to kick to the end of the pool and delights in hitting the wall. She's working on the idea of swimming to the bottom and will get there... in her own time.

I've learned so much about how they learn from watching them attempt new activities. Ballet came and went, as did piano. Now big owlet is losing interest in gymnastics, but only sometimes... It depends on the instructor. Watching her at gym last week, it occurred to us that she doesn't like repetition. Once she feels that she understands how an activity works, she's not keen on doing it over and over again. She likes to be challenged by new things. Often she will happily return to things she's done before, after being shown something new. It was like a little light bulb moment for us. Here we were encouraging the natural learning/unschooling process at home, while expecting her to learn everything else in a traditional way... You see, much of the teaching methods for activities follow along a similar theory to traditional school. Repetition. Mastering a concept fully, before moving on. For big owlet, it kills the fun. Its like when she does a maths workbook. She'll ask to do it, get to a point of understanding and want to move to the next page, usually without finishing the activity she started, sometimes coming back to it later. Its often not important that she masters it straight away, just that she's hungry to learn new things and if she really enjoys something, she'll diligently stick to it.

We sat down and decided that if she wants to try something new, we'll find a way for her to try it out, show her the basics and let her play with it. If she develops a passion for an activity, and we can't help her master it, we find someone who can help her. If she's truly passionate, its likely she'll be ok with the repetition and keep wanting to learn, but there's time. So that's where we're up to with tennis. Huz took the owlets to the local tennis club open day and big owlet loved it. We thought of formal lessons, but really, at the moment she's just interested in learning how to hit the ball over the net, play and have fun. And that's something we have around here by the bucketload.


  1. I have a couple of little people who are very similar. One who after years of swimming how they wanted decided they wanted lessons at 8 :)

    We have found too there is a lot less stress following the childs interests.

  2. Great story about big owlet learning to touch the bottom by playing mermaids. I learnt to swim by splashing around with my mum at the beach during summer holidays - we played dolphins.

  3. Hey Lauren...I see I missed the tennis open day, we missed rthe last one cos the little man was having an asthma attack:( Reassuring to read your sentiments, as soon as he is interested in something i think of lessons...but he just doesnt like them, it is me who likes the idea of it. we are struggling with one lesson a week atm, a learning curve, and i think that the feeling that there is time is a good one to hold on to. x

  4. Great post.

    I think we sometimes run into a similar problem with organised activities - they're just so dang uber structured. We end up still needing to take the kids swimming even though they're doing lessons because the teacher only allows TWO MINUTES of free play out of a half hour lesson. And I can see that our gymnastics days are probably numbered, because they don't appear to cater for kids who aren't that able but want to do it for fun, once the kids get to a certain age. G is stuck doing the same stuff every week - he is apparently not allowed to do flips because he hasn't mastered the stuff they're meant to do first.

    We're kinda coming to the same conclusion though, that if a child is truly passionate about swimming, piano or whatever, s/he will want to do the hard work.

  5. I've been having the same quandry about swimming lessons with my daughter. For the cost of three terms of lessons I could have taken her to the pool myself and she'd probably be swimming by now - as it is she's still not even putting her face under the water!!

    Isn't it funny how sometimes the penny drops about how our children 'work' - they are complex creatures (as are we all)!

  6. Hi
    I have just discovered your wonderful blog via my daughter AEK who is having a wedding next weekend accompanied I think by 2 owlets.
    Hope I get a chance to meet you IRL
    xx Marg


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