Building the Stage Around the Show

The Holistic Approach to Baby Swimming


Rob McKay

Monday 4:00 October 22, 2007     St. Petersburg, Florida


pdf Power Point Slides


Title Slide

A well organized, progressive "aquatic" curriculum supported by a cast of humane teaching methods, caring, "in tune" instructors and guided by a compassionate philosophy not only in word but in action, transforms people's lives.

Ages 3 months-10 years 


It is most refreshing to be here in St. Petersburg, with so many like minded individuals who share a common love of babies and the water.


It is a true honor to be here with the founder of the first WABC, Virginia Hunt Newman. The woman who pioneered the gentle, playful, stress free, non-forceful approach to baby swimming.


In the 1970’s I had been coaching swimming and teaching swim lessons to young children.


While serving as the assistant swim coach at Florida State University, I was shocked to witness a class of infants and toddlers learning to swim in a most disturbing manner, at my apartment complex. I immediately called the head swim coach at the university and told him what I had encountered. Children were crying and clearly trying to defend themselves. He said that though this was a most distressful incident; there was nothing we could do about it.


Over the following years I witnessed a wide variety of teaching methods through-out Florida and the US, with many methods forcing infants and toddlers to swim against their will. I vowed, I would never teach baby’s to swim, if this was how it was to be done. Babies were forced to perform skills prematurely before they were ready, or simply made to execute skills against their will. This all being justified in the name of survival, profit, or just plain indifference to the well-being and feelings of the baby. Conscience was yielding to convenience. Domination of the child prevailed; forced or rushed frontal submersions and coerced survival back float were the norm. Fear, sadness and surrender permeated the child’s faces. Breaking the spirit of these young impressionable beings in the most formative years of their lives. I thought how this could be. Adults imposing their will on those too young and unable to defend themselves.  There surely must be a higher road.


Then in 1981, I was introduced to baby swim pioneer, Virginia Hunt Newman in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We discussed at great length how her heart filled with sadness, for all those babies who were exploited by these aggressive methods.


Virginia’s wisdom and conscience manifested in cooperation not conquering.  Building a relationship and working with the child, not against the child.

Virginia though short in stature, was walking tall, calming the stormy waters, with gentle swim lessons, one poker chip at a time.  Giving a voice to those yet unable to speak. Her passion for the birth right of young children for the opportunity to experience a positive and playful learning experience inspired me to go forward.

Next Slide Sophia and Luis under


Over the next 27 years my wife Kathy and I would embark in an amazing gentle journey weaving through the lives of 10 of thousands of babies and toddlers. Teaching young souls from all over the world.


Like “The Endless Summer” we were always in search of the perfect wave. Constantly observing, learning and growing as we strived to create the most optimal teaching environment and curriculum possible to enhance the lives our youngest swimmers both in and out of the water.


Our goal has always been to build the stage around the show. Like Shakespeare with his plays. Adapting our program to what is most natural, optimal and joyful for each individual through-out their ages and stages.

Next Slide Kids on blue mat

We discovered that babies through-out the world shared a common affinity for the water, with only minor variations from culture to culture.


Every child in every culture learns to speak their native tongue in such a natural way. When learned from a young age, exposed in a nurturing environment, the native language is assimilated as effortlessly as taking that first step.


The same rationale can be applied to baby swimming. Baby swimming is also a universal language, if presented in a gentle, loving way; there will never be a time that our little dolphins did not feel at home in the water.


"Joy, peace and laughter" is becoming the hallmark of baby swimming today and ushering in the wave of the future. Unlike the past, swim lessons were never meant to be grim.

If you pay close attention, you will observe that there is a subtle undercurrent of change occurring in civilization, as consciousness and awareness are evolving to a higher wave length. We as teachers can serve as the gentle water mid-wives for these special Aquarian babies.

They deserve our undivided care and kindness in the water.


Next Slide James on step

Raising a child will be the most important job a parent will ever have and growing up is never easy. That is why well-informed, intelligent "child raising" choices by parents and teachers are necessary in order to provide their offspring/and baby students a positive start in life. We must remember that while we teach the children to respect the water, we must never lose our respect for the children during the learning process. Our foremost concern must be with the well-being of the child. Teaching a baby to swim is a subtle, long-term process which requires interpersonal sensitivity, altruistic motivation, insight, skill and joy. With patience as our guide, enjoying the moment, yet simultaneously "staying the course" over time, infants and toddlers will rediscover the virtue of water and its ability to nourish their entire being. For the right people, in the right situation, baby swimming can foster a connectedness to family, community and to the outer world.

Next Slide Perdermos all 3 under water

It is our intention and hope that those children learning through a holistic approach will also acquire the intangible yet real benefits. Through the skills and attitudes learned in the water, paths are created for the child to assist his/her growth toward their full potential as a person, as well as a catalyst to becoming a loving, healthy, happy and caring human being.

In addition to providing the highest level of service to the child and their parents, teaching in the holistic way, elevates the fulfillment of being a teacher to an entirely new plane of purpose and satisfaction.



Baby swimming is a journey, where the day to day water experience is as important as the destination.


Next slide 4 components chart


We believe that there are 4 components of the pyramid to build a caring holistic baby swim program.


(1)                 What you believe (philosophy)

(2)                 What your purpose is (your mission)

(3)                 What you are teaching (your curriculum) and

(4)                 How you are teaching (your methodology).




In the gentle, child-centered philosophy of baby swimming---learning is a process that happens over time. Each part of the process, each small step along the way has value. How we get to the goal is important.  Actually, how we get to the goal is just as important as the goal itself.


On the other end of the spectrum you may have heard the expression “The ends justify the means”—a clever way of saying” Do what ever it takes to get to the goal—even if it’s harmful, immoral, improper—anything… just get to the goal.. 


We go as fast or as slow as the traveler wants to go.  We provide a structure in our group classes, but the indidual learner determines the rate at which he proceeds through the skills being offered.  Readiness to learn a new skill is evident in the body language of each baby—are they relaxed and ready to try something new or are they tense, muscles tight, stressed or frightened and need more time adjusting at a slower speed.


Next slide chart 7 key elements


I would like to characterize and summarize our holistic philosophy approach for you by detailing some of its key elements.


First, it is child centered

As I have illustrated in our little journey…the child comes first and foremost. 


His needs, his wellbeing, the health of his body mind and spirit must be reflected in the lesson plan, before the adult expectations of the parent or the teacher.


 Spaghetti will break if it bent to soon; it must be soaked over time and patiently be readied for the meal.


Next Slide Intense vs. child centered chart



Intense, Goal Oriented vs. Child Centered


 Fear based                     Joy based


 Skill comes first                                 Child comes first



 Time frame rigid                                             Time frame accommodates for child’s readiness            

                                                                                         Force, coercion

     to accomplish goal               Gentle, guiding to encourage


 Teacher dominant                  Child/readiness  paced

  No nonsense                                          Fun,  play assisted learning format



 Pressure to perform                     Be in the moment



Next slide chart 7 key elements



Secondly, skills that are taught are age and developmentally appropriate

Based on physical and mental development, a baby can best acquire and master certain skills at certain ages. Some skills require linking several skills together; some skills require higher degrees of coordination or balance.  Teaching babies skills before they are developmentally ready is stressful and frustrating for the child. Also, babies live in the moment, celebrate that.




Third. Crying is not a prerequisite for learning how to swim.

There should be no forcing of skills, no crying when learning to swim. Initiating submersions prior to a child’s readiness for this skill is simply frightening to the child and quite frankly unnecessary. Making back float, an imposed priority to unwilling children before they are ready is simply unnecessary. Forcing accelerated skills of any kind on children before they are willing, is invasive and distressing to the child…there is no need for it, when simply going at the child’s pace ensures a happy, smiling, joyful swimmer. In fact if you teach at the child’s level of readiness, they will not only ultimately learn to swim faster, but better!

Such catches phrases as “it is better that they cry now, than you cry later” are overused scare tactics for uniformed parents. With practice, caring teachers can easily learn to read a child’s readiness for the next skill. Be careful of misusing such terms as “challenging” or “pushing him to his potential”.. If you simply read the young students true road map, you will be in line with the child and the holistic approach.


Parents should not make their choice for a learn to swim program based out of fear but use good common sense. Trust your gut feeling. Don’t be held captive by fear.

We can not ignore a child’s feelings, in order to accomplish a skill. And we certainly don’t wish our baby to associate learning with fear.




Fourth. See the whole child

The baby is a small yet multidimensional being with body, mind and spirit.  If we ignore this and starve the spirit of it’s joyfulness and natural light by frightening the baby we have failed. Fear blocks the healthy child. To what detriment can this have upon the child short term, long term, as well as upon society as a whole. We are here to nurture the growing child, to initiate those activities that create health in the baby’s body, an alert, centered mind and a joyful spirit.



We as adults need to pay attention and tune in to what’s really going on and pay attention to the child and observe where the child is.




Fifth.  A parent or trusted caregiver joins us in the water

As co-teacher moms and dads provide immediate security for the child and loving nurturing practice on a regular basis. 



The bond of parent and child is strengthened through their interaction. Positive moments are preserved for a lifetime of self affirming family memories.


Sixth. We present skills based on the readiness of the child.

Rather than stressing or frustrating a child, we will simply wait. Learning proceeds easily and smoothly when the learner is relaxed. As a matter of fact being relaxed in the water is the key to optimal learning.

I remember when I took flying lessons in my younger days at Fort Lauderdale International airport. I was learning to do runway take-offs in the little single engine plane with gigantic 747s in front and behind me. For a new pilot this was a bit intimidating. It put a damper on the learning process.  My teacher who was also my friend, turned out to rush me through the various flying skills over a very congested Miami air traffic area. I eventually quit as this was no longer enjoyable. The following year, I flew once again flew in Iowa landing in the corn field airstrips and absolutely loved it, as it was at my pace, not the teachers.

Applying this concept of readiness to submersions, we precede first submersions with preliminary activities such as water play at our “water pouring station”.  There are cups, watering cans, spray toys, strainers, small pails, a rubber baby doll, puppets…all kinds of ways to get the head, hair and face wet while playing with toys.  This learning happens in a happy, simple format that prepares children for the feeling of water on their face during their first cheek dip.  This area has become so popular in class that sometimes we have to eliminate an extra song or game to accommodate for the time the parents and children want to spend pouring water.




If your heart is not into the positive upliftment of the whole child, and if you ignore the child's feelings please consider the whole child approach and the multitudes of positive benefits, it will only add to your program.



If teaching babies is only a business to you, please, consider all the true good you can really do for the baby and their family, teach for the right reasons and your business will grow.


If you are a swim coach and hope to have swimmers later on, be sure that your babies are enjoying the water from day number 1. 


If you  teach submersions with accelerated expectations and compressed time frames or you just plain rush submersions, please consider tuning in to where the child is really at, and make the transition from above the water, to submerging under, seamless, natural and exciting. It will only add to your program.


Baby swim teachers must have a conscience and have the ability to know right from wrong when teaching young children. The advent of U-tube on the internet has brought about a resurgence of interest in infant swimming survival back float. The results look pretty convincing. They neglect to show the process.   If you are focusing on techniques or skill acquisition to the neglect of the child, consider expanding your awareness to that of the child's feelings and readiness, it will only add to your program.


We all want our students safe in and around water. This involves a comprehensive plan of pool and water safety, supervision, swimming skills and CPR and first aid. Parents and caregivers must have awareness and understanding of all these safety issues. Babies can learn water safety skills in their own time in a very natural sequence; but we must not sacrifice the well being of the child to learn these skills prematurely with out proper foundation and readiness. Teaching these skills over time, will only add to your program.




 Seventh. Learn through Playful format. 

Maria Montessori the famed Italian educator said, “Play is the work of children.” Children will remain fascinated by simple toys or sorting games trying them again and again and playing until they finally get the square block into the square hole.  Our swim school looks very much like a colorful classroom for babies or toddlers that you would find on land. There are toys of all shapes and colors and textures.  We devise simple games involving kicking or swimming using the toys.  We use toys to redirect the attention of a frightened child or one who is unsure of a new skill he has just tried. Group songs sung in a circle are a large part of our classes…they are cheerful, have skills worked into the lyrics and are a relaxing break for the baby between swims and skills at the wall. A child never tires of play.

Applying these key elements will allow the gentle journey to naturally unfold leading to happy, healthy and whole baby swimmers and parents.


Next slide Adrianna swimming


A mission statement should be a brief statement of what you are all about.  It is the practical application of your philosophy.  What is your philosophy compelling you to go out into the world to do?


Our mission statement:

Our mission is dedicated to addressing the needs and readiness of the whole child. Never teaching through fear, domination or force.  Always teaching through joy, kindness, understanding and patience.  Creating a nurturing environment where learning is fun and loving to swim is a lifelong gift.


Building from your mission statement, then you can establish a curriculum---what you will teach to whom and at what age or level.  The curriculum must be in keeping with your mission statement and your gentle philosophy.




Next comes your methodology.  How will you teach?  Your drills and skills. Again, how you do, what you do, matters a great deal.  Do your methods reflect your philosophy, do they mirror your mission statement and do they help to accomplish what is set out in your curriculum.


Finally, your daily lesson plan is at the top of the pyramid. 



Each day as you put your methodology into practice with your daily lesson does it match with:

1. What you believe (philosophy)

2. What your purpose is (your mission)

3. What you are teaching (your curriculum) and

4. How you are teaching (your methodology).


There should be a smooth easy flow if everything is in order harmoniously.  There should be no inconsistencies. For instance, if you say your philosophy is a gentle one, you can not be out submerging a crying or frightened child…that simply doesn’t match. Using drowning concerns as a justification to force children is not consistent with the gentle philosophy. Placing the blame on or rationalizing with a frightened child with such phrases as “why are you crying, you are embarrassing your mommy” etc. are not consistent with the gentle philosophy.


Next slide FAU pool


Our swim school is located in Palm Beach County, Florida. There are over 55,000 backyard pools in this county in an area only 40 miles long and 30 miles wide. The swim school sits on the campus of Florida Atlantic University several miles from coastal beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Boca Raton is dotted with miles of backyard canals. Due to this high degree of exposure to water, as with most Sunbelt states in the United States, many parents initially bring their children to lessons in response to drowning prevention, while very important they quickly learn that there is much more to baby swimming than solely the safety aspects.



Creating an Optimal Learning Environment


Through our web site, videos, book, our teacher training workshops, international location, and speaking across the globe, we receive queries and questions from parents and teachers from all over the world on a constant basis.

Each generation of parents is new at this, each baby needs to be treated with respect and honored,

parents need to be guided and informed. Lets us all help to awaken parents and teachers to our amazing and joyful water world.