Learning to Swim in an Inclusive Environment

Learning to swim can be daunting. Lucky for us, our local recreation department is inclusive and welcoming.

learning to swim playing with toys by the water

We tried lessons for a day or two when Kyle was 4, but I don’t think he was ready for learning to swim. As I watched from afar, Kyle repeatedly tripped on the slope and his face went into the water. It almost looked comical from a distance, but I could tell that Kyle was getting increasingly upset and distressed with each subsequent loss of balance.

I didn’t want to be the mom that runs over to her kid ten minutes after lessons begin, so I hung back to see what the teachers would do. They looked on with amused, dazed expressions. I ran over and said, “He’s actually falling! He’s not doing that on purpose.” He spent the rest of the lesson being carried around in the shallow depths and crying.

The next day was windy and cold so I skipped lessons. Later that afternoon I found out Kyle would be having foot surgery within days due to an opening in his orthopedist’s schedule so we withdrew from lessons. I knew he would spend the rest of the summer in a cast and figured we would try again next year.

Flash forward to summer, 2015. I didn’t sign Kyle up for the first session and that turned out to be a wise decision. When I walked toward the pool with my older two for their swimming lessons, Kyle rose out of his stroller seat in fear. Either he remembered the scene from last summer or the whole environment made him uncomfortable. I had to hold and comfort him for most of his brother and sister’s first lesson.

He gradually warmed up to the pool and the routine, and so I asked the pool manager about signing him up. She didn’t hesitate in saying, “Absolutely.” Not only would they welcome Kyle for group swimming lessons, the pool manager was able to match him with a one-on-one teacher.

Kyle enjoyed himself from day one. He was fine with me leaving his side, though eventually I had to sit further away to avoid him wandering back to me during lessons. The teacher focused on getting Kyle to feel safe and comfortable in the water, which amounted to a lot of splashing and wading.

My own memories of first swimming lessons are not so pleasant, and involve the teachers forcing my sister and I to jump in against our will.

When I told Kyle’s teacher he could carry Kyle deeper into the water as many times as necessary, he said he preferred for Kyle to enter the water on his own. Thus, Kyle would feel relaxed about learning to swim.

So Kyle ends up spending a lot of time hanging out on the sidelines. At the same time, Kyle observes other kids in the water and is slowly working towards building skills.

learning to swim sitting on the sidelines with a frisbee

Another plus to summer swimming lessons: the pool is outside.

There is a small indoor swim school near us that reportedly caters to kids with special needs. I have heard a lot of praise for that school. The lessons there are not as affordable as our local recreation department, however.

I also have concerns about how Kyle would do in the facility. My daughter once had a Girl Scout outing there and the building was so small and echoed so terribly that even I felt the need to leave the immediate area. It seemed like an overwhelming recipe for disaster with Kyle.

As I sat watching my kids learning to swim today, I just felt thankful.

Less pleasant but similar situations come to mind. Last summer I asked the church hosting Vacation Bible School (not my parish) if they could spare a volunteer to accompany Kyle to their shortened preschool program. My older kids attended the same VBS the previous year and there appeared to be many extra teenage volunteers.

I explained that Kyle had been in school for a year and was accustomed to the classroom setting, but that a person at school always stays near to keep him safe and focused.

The pastor hesitated. She said she wasn’t sure if they could accommodate Kyle. She said she didn’t know if they would have enough volunteers. It wouldn’t be fair to the other kids if a volunteer focused on only one child. I didn’t sign him up and I certainly didn’t feel welcomed.

I remember that experience in contrast to how we have been welcomed at the pool. As I sit back watching each day, the only difference between Kyle and his peers is that he wanders away more often and is more resistant to going in the water. He enjoys himself, he interacts with his teacher, and he looks for me when his lesson ends.

It was so gratifying to read the teacher’s comments on Kyle’s report card from his first session: I loved teaching Kyle this session. He is a wonderful kid and I know he will become an awesome swimmer. Even though he is a bit nervous around the water, he has a lot of fun when he gets in. The more exposure he has to the water, the better he’ll feel in it. Thank you!

When the teacher handed me the report card, he told me how much he enjoyed working with Kyle, and that he would love to work with him in the future.

We are blessed that Kyle has the opportunity to learn to swim among loving and accepting people. Within this community, he will be able to grow and prosper. With any luck, this initial exposure could lead to a lifelong love of swimming. Special Olympics: Aquatics, save a spot for Kyle.

learning to swim happy child with Down syndrome in the pool

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About Katie

Katie Bee is the author of for Elysium blog: a site about family, Down syndrome, home, art, and writing.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Swim in an Inclusive Environment

  1. papakevin

    Hi Katie! Kyle is such an awesome and handsome little guy! My friend Jesse Hartman was just over visiting from next door.
    We interviewed him and his dad in our first pro life documentary.
    We are putting together DS interviews for another website, probably a documentary specifically about DS and we are looking for people willing to share their stories on film. The videographer is leaving next week from Sacramento through Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and back to Colorado. Know anybody interested? They can contact me through our website message feature at conceivedinrape.com or call me at 970-534-9053 Blessings, kevin

  2. rosemaryheddens

    I’m so glad Kyle is having a positive experience with swimming. You were wise to pull him out when things weren’t going well. Kirstin had a frightening experience with swim lessons. As an adult, she enjoys being in the pool but wants her feet on the bottom at all times. I wish she could enjoy the freedom of swimming, but I know she never will. We also had feelings of being unwelcome when I signed Kirstin up for ballet as a five-year-old. The next year we switched to gymnastics and had a wonderful teacher. Kirstin went on to participate in Special Olympics gymnastics and enjoyed it for many years.

  3. Pingback: A New School Year Letter to My Helpers • for Elysium blog

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