A Circle in A Square—Zen and the Art of Baby Swimming


by Kathy McKay

WABC2007 Conference

St. Petersburg, Florida  USA  Oct. 23, 2007


pdf of PowerPoint Presentation


For those of you who know Rob and myself and our work, you know that we have been advocating gentleness in teaching babies and young children for over 27 years.  Our methods are child-centered, family friendly, joyful, and playful. The heart of what we do is organic (In other words simple, natural, positive and healthy).  And it is holistic. In teaching, we consider the whole child, body, mind and spirit. We believe that any method that places skill acquisition above the emotional well being, the physical needs and the developmental readiness of the child is archaic and detrimental to the whole child.


We also believe that crying is not a pre-requisite to learning to swim. Therefore our classes are virtually tear-free. The only crying we hear is occasionally when one child will not share a toy with his classmate. Or, at the end of class, when a particular child is not ready to leave the water and the fun. Rob and I both teach a full schedule of classes and have always done so…we are practitioners.


Our swim school offers 5 different skill levels of infant toddler and tyke classes, ages 3 months to 4 years old and 5 levels of pre-school and elementary classes, ages 5-12 years old.  All classes, at all age levels, include a parent or trusted caregiver in the water acting as co-teacher with us.  All classes are group classes.  All classes share a progressive curriculum based on readiness and facilitated through  playful activities and skill drills, games and songs. Classes are offered in a session format from May thru October in 2 options for parents...our Optimal Track where students attend 4 days a week for 4 weeks or our Extended Track where students attend 2 times a week for 8 weeks. Classes are 30 minutes in length.


Because Steve Graves hoped to introduce new material at this conference, I chose to let you in on an aspect of our teaching which you could have guessed about the McKays and their program, but which we have not really discussed.  Our program is heavily influenced by cutting edge educational philosophy, grounded in modern developmental and age –appropriate learning theory and takes advantage of the latest insights in brain research, learning styles, sports psychology and science.


But what may not be as apparent about our program is that it is also grounded in what is old—very old, and very simple.  We have taken cues from Eastern philosophy, cultural anthropology, physical and spiritual geometry to develop harmony in our classes, our students and our teachers—harmony in the water, harmony in a social setting, harmony of self.


My goal this morning is of course, not to put you to sleep---but it is definitely  to give you a sense of relaxation—a heightened sense of awareness—a mindfulness when you teach so that you too can encourage joyful learning and centered teaching.


We have always spoken and written about the many roles a swim teacher of very young children must play.  Our belief is that a teacher must be part orchestra conductor, part magician, part entertainer, part clown, part psychologist and part practitioner. And we still believe that. However the trait I’d like to apply today is one that centers on the inner core of the teacher while he is doing all of these other active, engaging and highly animated roles.  It is his core, the elevated consciousness and the intention, that comes from within. It is the quiet interior—the inner voice and inner stillness that focuses you and grounds you while teaching.


As I prepared, I tried to think of heroic figures that symbolized the kind of teacher I had in mind.  I immediately thought of Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars and their understanding of “the Force” and how they brought out that knowledge in their student, young Luke Skywalker.


 I thought also of Mr. Miyagi, the martial arts teacher in the movie, Karate Kid and his simple, practical life skills that laid the foundation for his student to learn Karate moves.


 I even thought of the noble King Arthur, his egalitarianism with the Knights of the Round Table whom he taught and led in his utopian kingdom of Camelot. And that also brought me to   Arthur’s first teacher, Merlin the magician, whose wise yet comical instruction used lessons from nature as he taught the future king.


But, while I was shopping, I came across the symbol of what I thought the truly perfect swim teacher should be.  Sooooo….I brought along my little friend---a Zen frog.


Why, you ask, is this tiny guy our peaceful and perfect teacher?  Of course, frogs love the water…they are strong and graceful swimmers, they are amphibious(like most of us in this room)but they have that something extra—a chill, mellow, Zen-like demeanor, sitting serenely on lily pads, and just hanging out motionless in the water.  In this relaxed and calm state, our teacher is able to be fully present in the moment—clear of thought, detached from negative emotions, non-judgmental and poised to act efficiently.  He is, as athletes would say—“in the zone”.



The Zone


So what exactly is “the zone” and why would it be beneficial for you as a teacher to be there.  We have seen athletes perform at their peek—effortless, graceful, accurate, and skilled. How do they and sports psychologists describe their activity in the zone?  (SLIDE) As a term denoting an optimal or heightened state of consciousness, the zone can be likened to the diverse range of phenomena covered by the umbrella terms of ecstasy, transcendent or altered states of consciousness in sport participation.


Such terms are variously denoted and include the concepts of "peaks", "perfect moments", "mindfulness", "peak experience" and "flow". In the sport psychology literature, the terms zone and flow are in fact used interchangeably and synonymously (Cooper, 1998; Heathcote, 1996).


Denoted as the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete, the zone characterizes a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability. It is a is a magical and

... special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. (Murphy, 1996, p. 4)


For you as a teacher, being in the zone means you are not reactive, frenetic, rushed, pressured or distracted.  You are purposeful, clear, at one with the readiness of the student, the water and the activity or motion.   You have dropped your ego and it is no longer about you. You are definitely not forcing a child to swim for your ego satisfaction—it is not about you and your superior skill as a teacher. But, even more subtly, at a less intense level of force, you are also not making a child swim either. It is not about you. It is all about the child, the learner. Hence, the child-centered, holistic, mind-body-spirit approach.  It is not about you imposing your adult will or your greater human strength or power or skill over another just because you can. It is not about show.  It is not about trophy babies or trophy students.


This ego dropping concept involves a philosophical shift for a teacher. It is much more about allowing the child to learn to swim. Being present with him and precipitating his learning. It is insightful, aware.  It involves a gradual unfolding…a relationship between child, parent and teacher that grows, evolves and is mutually respectful. 


In the zone, your skill as a teacher is applied in an energy exchange…you are reading the baby’s body language, adjusting the parent’s expectations to an appropriate level and applying the gentle guidance of your skill. It is a subtle connection with a moment in time and the people sharing that moment.   In the zone, you know exactly what to do, when to do it, and you do it from a grounded, calm place within you.  You can be the child, the water and the swim all at the same flowing moment.  The moment is glowing, the movement flowing, the result harmonious, peaceful and joyous. You are in the zone.


Meditators describe the same mindfulness that athletes in the zone achieve. Their consciousness is altered from the busy chatter of the world and of the mind and is focused down slowly to a place where the noise of the ego and the world’s demands are filtered out and clarity exists. From many perspectives, the world’s population knows and practices this meditative space.  In the Eastern philosophies and religions it is Zen, or the Tao. In the West, we can achieve it through prayer, mindful breathing, relaxation techniques. All can result in that peaceful place.


Teaching from the zone, that spot of calm clarity, allows you as a swim teacher to authentically see what each child needs at any particular moment and to adapt your curriculum for the day to most accurately fit his needs.  It places you in touch with the joy of the water and it’s velvety feel, the giggles of little voices, the fun of play.  It puts you where children are—in the moment—and lets you relate to them in a more aware, caring and sentient manner.


The Secret


How do you as a teacher create a learning environment that allows for, encourages and enhances teaching in the zone? How can we as teachers get in the zone and stay there?


Here comes the McKay secret.


Circles, circuits, spirals and spheres.


Circles are a perfect geometric construct—all points equidistant from a center point. There is no hierarchy in a circle. Circles are universal symbols of unity, infinity, wholeness, community. Circles are like water… They are everywhere—a part of our collective past—a part of our biology—a part of our shared experience.  From the spherical planets of our solar system to our swirling infinite universe to the way our planet spins on its axis, to the reason for night and day, time and tides. The circle is the stuff of our cosmos. And at the other end of the spectrum, the smallest quantum level of physics—from cell to atoms, spinning electrons and protons to sub-atomic particles--- spheres and circuits are everywhere.



Our art and architecture from earliest times to today reflects the desire to capture the perfection and harmony of the circle and all the symbolism it implies.


Across cultures and continents we build circles, dance in circles, tell stories in circles, entertain ourselves in circles.



How have we used circles in our teaching to create Zen space and the medium for mindful teaching?

First we have to put a circle in the square…


Remember most of us teach in artificial cement structures filled with water. Water occurring in nature is not generally contained in that fashion—it has movement and flow and soft, curved edges.  Consider a lake and its shoreline; the ocean and its currents, waves and tides; a river as it meanders. This flow is energy and it is abundant in nature.


Our rectangle, our square, our pool needs flow. So to give it that flow we introduce the perfect mathematical solutions—circles, circuits and spirals. And balance them at times with linear formations. 


Our classes actually begin with a linear formation…a kicking drill where we all stand shoulder to shoulder like a track start for the 100 yard dash.  Everyone moves together on our mark and there is a sense of excitement and exhilaration about chasing toys together.


Circle Time


 We then move to our first circle of class for our beginning song.  In this formation, we are all equals sharing a community.  Remember, in mathematics, all points are equal and equidistant on the circumference.  As we share a song, even though the teacher may be leading the rhythm—all are equal participants.  During this community time, the teacher can enter the zone for the first time.  Here he can unobtrusively observe the entire circle and its individual members.  Here the perspective is always 360 degrees.  What is the mood of each child today?  How is each child progressing with social behavior, water adjustment, skill acquisition. Which parents are engaging their child in the verses and movement? Who needs our help and encouragement? In the almost hypnotic repetition of a familiar children’s song, the teacher is able to quietly observe in a mindful way.  He or she can then act on that information gained in a positive, proactive manner throughout the rest of the class. The teacher’s consciousness is multi-tasking—like the athlete in the zone. 


Meanwhile, in circle time, as a learning community, we are gathering-- joyously celebrating, singing and dancing in the water together in unison like our forefathers before us in ritual circles.  It is our time to start and welcome each other.





Our initial, group circle time ends with a call to move freely and at the child’s individual pace through an activity circuit—with stations set along the perimeter of the pool. Here the flow, the energy, is not only circular eliminating the square of the pool, but it is also cyclical in it’s passage or orbit. Individual pairs of babies and parents will travel the circuit between 3 and 5 times in the span of 10-12 minutes.


 There are five major thematic areas in our circuit.


First, there is a Montessori-style water pouring station designed to facilitate water adjustment.  We set out cups, colanders, watering cans, bowls, water wheels, misters, baby dolls, puppets, etc. and use the various containers and toys for pouring water over baby, over parent, over toys. Children and parents select what they are drawn to as in Montessori schools, utilize the toy, then place it back for others to use.


The second station is a jumping station for practicing sitting jumps. Again, this is self-service…some pairs will do one jump and move on, others may be enjoying the jumps and do several before moving on.


Our parent child team then moves to our third station-- a floating baby pool filled with balls of various sizes, colors and textures and an assortment of small, hand- sized toys. 


After picking a toy, the pair moves to the fourth station--the  teacher’s station, mid pool. Here the teacher interacts with the pair and throughout the course of the curriculum offers passes, initial submersions, swims and later in the curriculum, advanced skills such as recovery for a breath and back swimming.   The teacher is but one of the stations and does not determine the pace of the flow.


The fifth station is a series of receptacles on the pool wall—buckets, toy trucks, big bowls—where the child will drop off his selected toy as part of the game. The circuit then repeats.


 No one is called to simultaneously switch stations; everyone is flowing through the circuit pattern in their own time frame.  The circuit allows the parent/child team to experience bonding time, self-serve water adjustment activities, and participation in an engaging ball game with ample choices.




This is the crux of our program and where the teacher once again becomes my friend, the Zen frog.  As the students are moving throughout the circuit, we take our place at one point on the route.  Able to view the entire circuit from this vantage, we can assess each student, calmly, in a detached fashion, without ego attachment, as they participate.  Is a beginner adjusting well to small amounts of water poring over his face or is he flinching and needs more practice, time and exposure?  Is the parent modeling well for the child by pouring water over her own head? Is the advanced student practicing a 180 degree turn toward the wall with ease and confidence? Do we need to send our assistant teacher over to any of the pairs for guidance?  We are in the moment---just like the frog on the lily pad—waiting, watching, evaluating, mindfully observing.


When the student approaches our station, we are able to transfer that calm, peace and harmony of the zone to our pass or swim… executing it with grace and in our own moment. The energy of the flow moves through us.



The ball game within the circuit then moves forward so that the parent and child team moves past us to complete the activity.  We are but a brief stop along the way.  Our station is important, but no more so than any other station on the circuit.


For beginners, this movement within the circuit removes the anticipation of submersions and places it as only one small, brief stop along the route he is traveling and re-traveling.  For the teacher, it reduces any pressure to perform based on perhaps an unaware parent’s accelerated expectations.  Or based on developmentally unrealistic or inappropriate expectations.  It allows us as teachers to work directly at the child’s pace and provide as much or as little as he is ready for at that moment.


The circuit has provided each group member individual time with the instructor where bonding and trust develop and has allowed the gradual introduction of skills at each level of class, and over the course of time.


This is a process, a journey. You, as the teacher, are encouraging the process, creating the optimal learning environment and then stepping to your station to let much of it to happen without you. You are dropping the ego voice that has to go in and “fix” everything…to do everything for others…instead you are providing space for them to learn, bond and grow together in stages on their own.   The parent and child are fully in the moment, moving from moment to moment. We are allowing things to unfold rather than using force to make them to happen.



Following the circuit and for the remainder of class we rejoin in several other celebration circles-- singing songs, using the floating mat as a twirling carnival ride complete with jumps and swims, riding noodles like carousel horses as we play with each other in the water.



We use spins or spirals to change a child’s perspective or mood, to redirect his attention while giving him a little ride in the water. Twirls are happy circles…children know we are playing in a dizzy, silly way. Often a cranky child will be turned to gales of laughter when spun.   


Spiral spins can also redirect and refocus a child whose breathing pattern is too rapid and uneven due to excitement or for one who is too distracted and unfocused to appreciate and catch the breath cue for submersion. A little spin and they are ready, calm and alert.

Spins, turns and circles that also incorporate directional change in songs have been noted to promote brain development across the brain’s left and right hemispheres


So now we’ve given you the big picture of the circle in the square and how it creates a physical climate conducive to placing the teacher, and the students for that matter, in the zone.


Not only does our overall format involve group circles, circuits and spirals, but we also use props and apparatus in the form of circles. Hoops, rings, bubbles and balls.


No doubt you have been using the same simple tools at your pool, too. But it may be time to re examine why these circular shapes work so well. I’m here to help you see the deeper reason why these toys contribute to changing the energy in your space.




We use hula hoops to create a visual focus for swims.  Contained within the interior of the hoop is a magic space where the journey of a swim to mom or dad is heightened in sheer excitement. By focusing space, the hoop’s circle blocks everything else around it and dedicates the swimmer’s view to the passage and the target at the end—mom or dad. It’s the baby version of time travel!!   Kicks can improve in this journey due to the motivation of swimming through the hoop space.


Lower the hoop in the water and suddenly it seems more like an underwater tunnel to be explored.  Use two hoops for swims and you can use the space in between to teach recovery for a breath… again, visually containing the focus within the interior of the circular hoop. And pointing to actual space where the recovery for breath should occur.  You can also use two hoops for beginning back swimming so that the student can look up, chin up to see each colored hoop as he passes through underneath. Place two hoops opposite each other in line with your body and you create a drill for learning directional changes in the water.



Use hoops at the wall in the deeper water for our older students and you visually create the trajectory for a safe, rudimentary racing dive or forward dive.


In our 4-6 year old beginner classes, the hoop becomes part of an elaborate puppy training day in our circuit. The children each become a little dog learning new doggie tricks and are praised “good doggie” and given an imaginary treat or a toy from the ball pit for good behavior. Pretending to be a puppy negotiating a pass through the hoop or quickly dipping their own face in briefly as they near the hoop, children are so engaged in play they forget their fear and attempt skills they might not try if directly asked to perform.  As a prop, the hoop facilitates that sense of fantasy. We have gone from the ordinary to the imaginary.


Switching from big hula hoops to little dive rings---these smaller circles also provide visual focus.  We utilize rings once our swimmers begin learning age-appropriate safety skills.  In one of our group circles, we implement a peek a boo song and pattern  180 degree vertical turns from teacher to mom in search of the hidden ring held underwater at waist deep level.  At an appropriate comfort level, rings then are hidden in the pool gutter for a simple 180 degree turn in the continuing peek a boo game. Later still, safety skills are taught using the ring as the focus to return to the wall following a seated jump.


We switch our chase game for older students using the mat as a table top and setting out colored rings in a line near the edge. Each child is given a small toy and instructed to “chase us with your big kicks and put your toy inside the ring”.  On another day, it may be reversed and the children are handed the ring and asked to “chase us and put the ring over the toy on the mat”.  These exercises are motivational, involve both gross motor and fine motor skills and require following simple 2 and 3 part directions with sequence.






Balls are really 3 dimensional circles known as spheres. They play an important role in our program.  Children love balls and for many it is among their first, simple words.


Balls of all sizes, colors and textures fill the floating ball pit in our circuit. Some are small enough to fit the tiny palm of a 8 month old, others are large enough to be thrown for a long pass by a coordinated 4 year old. Selection of the ball is often a lengthy, exciting process for each baby or child.  The ball can be held and cherished for security (like a stuffed toy) or it can be passed to Mom or Dad for as a motivational target to swim to underwater and later recovered as a reward that is retrieved after completing the swim.  For a frightened child or one who is experiencing separation anxiety, we will not attempt to take that child from the parent for a pass.   Instead we will utilize the ball to play a simple, non-intimidating game of catch as we become friends over the course of several days or longer. When we observe that the child is ready to move the game from catch to throwing the ball to Mom and letting us briefly pass them, we are also noting a change in body language, readiness and trust.  The softness and relaxation of the child in our hands allows us to give them a very brief pass above water over to Mom.


Popping a buoyant ball under water releasing it to the surface always brings delight as well and will redirect a frightened child.  Hiding a ball in your hat and then dropping the ball to the water’s surface is slapstick comedy that children love. There is something familiar and happy about a rolling ball.


For correcting body or head position the ball can be submerged by the receiving parent to change the line of sight downward—head and body move prone in the water as eyes look down.


A big beach ball or lightweight play ball can also be used to create intimacy across the circle. As the group of beginners of any age forms a tighter/closer circle, the big ball is introduced into the middle of the circle with the instructions—“Use your hands and push the ball to your friends”  This simple task requires extending the arms out from the body (which is nice for reaching and grabbing the pool wall or gutter).  Everyone loves sharing a turn across the circle.  We can see each others faces and enjoy their excitement.  After we’ve played that aspect for awhile, we switch the instructions—“Put your feet up and kick the ball to your friends”  or  “Splash the ball with your feet!” Kicks abound and everyone gets very silly and wet.




Bubbles are spheres that float—and they have a treasured place in our swim school. There is always a bottle or two of bubbles at the water pouring station available for self-service play.  During initial submersions by the head teacher, an assistant will stand just behind the parent-child pair so that when they turn to resume the circuit, the assistant redirects the child’s attention to the bubbles being blown specifically for them.  On holidays, we incorporate special big bubbles from a homemade recipe and blown with an embroidery hoop.  These gigantic bubbles are like fireworks without the frightening bang and truly delight children and parents.


Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication—Leonardo Di Vinci

Something as simple as circles in the form of hoops, rings, and balls are the rudiments of real play.  No batteries, no bells and whistles, no little computer chip inside.  Imagination and movement steer our activity, increase the child’s skills, motivation, sense of fun and enjoyment. 


The perfection, the unity and wholeness of design in circles, circuits, spirals and spheres creates a learning environment that is active, moving, creative, unique and flexible.


For the teacher, it puts the circle in a square.   It creates positive flow that enables him or her to stay in the zone—calm, positive, alert, supportive, able to perform.


It also places the student in the zone—happy, comfortable, relaxed, muscles not tight or tense.


In that union of relaxed, positive, non-aggressive teacher in a relaxed, flowing format and environment with a relaxed, receptive, cheerful learner—magic happens.  Mindful teaching.  Mindful learning.


In that zone, there is no force, no domination, no battle of wills or egos, no fear, no worry.


There is respect, right intention, trust.


This space creates an awareness of human spirit even in the youngest of us—a spirit that should be lifted in celebration, honored and respected. Teach me, don’t harm me.


So, Rob and I encourage you to become the centered mindful, peaceful teacher. Get in the zone.  Have an inner, grounded consciousness—a core from which you teach.  


I leave you with our favorite quote from Mahatma Ghandi—“Be the change you wish to see in the world”  


Go and Be.