One of the things that is standard practice in the Netherlands is that very strong emphasis is put on the necessity of children having swimming lessons. This seems a very logical idea in a country where canals are almost everywhere and kids accessibility to water is usually only just a short distance away.
The ethos of the importance of learning to swim well is in fact so strong here, that one of the swimming staff I spoke to said that 96% of children in the Netherlands learn to swim and get all three swimming diplomas, which I think is an amazing credit to Dutch society and demonstrates a huge level of recognition of the responsibility needed when surrounded with so much natural water. It may also be a reason why the Dutch often do well competition swimming all the way up to Olympic level.
There are three main national diploma’s called the “A”, “B” and “C” that need to be achieved and the idea is to both teach water safety to children and confidence and enjoyment in recreational swimming and water sports.
Before children start with their A, B, and C diploma’s, there are also three “Puppy” diplomas that introduce young children to basic water skills, include play with water skills and promote confidence …things like getting your face wet, holding your breath underwater, opening your eyes underwater and the like.
I’m ashamed to say that growing up in New Zealand I never learned to swim particularly well, I can do a few basic strokes if forced and can’t open my eyes under water. I usually wear glasses or contact lenses and without these, in the water can’t see very well, my lung condition means I can’t hold my breath particularly well either so combined with my lack of confidence in my swimming skills, I never feel particularly safe in deep water.
I would of course not hesitate to jump in to save my kids (or any child) but if I’m really realistic I am hardly going to have the physical skills to be a hero lifesaver. Baywatch material I most certainly am not.
I’m highly impressed to see that Dutch swimming lessons have a real depth to their training and take a very practical pragmatic approach. They expect children to learn to swim with their eyes open, Diploma swimming examinations require children to perform tasks with clothing and shoes on, they need to do things like a forward-roll into the water, clothed, and get themselves out of the water onto a large floating mattress unaided also clothed.
The logic is that the biggest risk of accident and drowning will come when they fall unexpectedly into a canal, or off a boat and there is a high possibility they will be clothed and need to know what sensations of disorientation underwater and weight of the clothes are like should they ever fall into the water in this way.
They are taught not to panic and how to react in a controlled, safe environment and the tasks even for very young children are quite substantial, the First diploma is the “A” certificate and children are required to be able to swim 50 metres in both breaststroke and backstroke and swim 3 meters underwater through a large hole in a canvas panel for instance, and this increases to 75 meters and 6 meters underwater for the “B” diploma exam.
Later for the “C” diploma the kids have to achieve 100 meters swimming, in swimsuit and then swimsuit and clothes, with obstacles and forward rolls into the water, and 9 meters underwater and swimming through the panel with the hole in it.
Children who have not yet achieved their “A” diploma are required to wear inflatable armbands in all public swimming pools until they do, and many school and outdoor organisations will not let children take part in water activities if they have not achieved the three ”A”, “B” and “C” diplomas. Therefore there is also a strong social and peer incentive for the kids to loose their armbands and gain all of the A,B,C diplomas.
Kiwi Daughter is an amazingly strong swimmer, she can swim about 24 meters of a 25 meter pool completely underwater and that last meter is annoying her so much that it’s now a goal she’s working on. Himself as house-Papa first took her swimming when she was 6 weeks old and they went pretty much every week for the first three years of her life, and on occasion more when friends came too. Time constraints were harder to manage when Little Mr. arrived 3.5 years later as I had a bed-rest pregnancy with him because my oxygen levels were too low and we were in and out of hospital constantly for checks during the third trimester.
Little Mr. had a kidney infection at 11 weeks old and was hospitalised for almost 2 weeks as was I shortly afterwards for complications to my COPD lung condition due to reduced medications during the pregnancy. Little Mr. had many follow-up hospital appointments and whilst they all luckily turned out fine in the end and he went on to be a very healthy toddler, the contrast in the amount of swimming opportunities he had could not have been greater when compared with Kiwi Daughter at the same age.
For me it’s really clear that introducing your child to fun water experiences at a very early age, and keeping these opportunities up regularly, must surely influence that child’s confidence and eventual ability in the water.
Little Mr. has achieved his ”A” diploma but is currently being held back for the “B” because they need to build his confidence far more in all areas of the test. He has good swimming days and less good swimming days, some days he just can’t manage the underwater parts of the test at all and we have to heap on the encouragement so that he will continuing trying, whereas Kiwi Daughter very rarely missed the targets and was usually the first, fastest, strongest and most confident in her swimming classes.
Little Mr. will get all of his swimming diplomas in the end, as do almost all children here in the Netherlands and I have nothing but praise for the thousands of swimming trainers and volunteers in this country who place an amazing importance and seriously high standard of competence on the kids because they understand the responsibility of living in an environment where a water related tragedy could often only be meters away.
Many countries around the world could do well to emulate the Dutch swimming system for kids, I myself, deeply aware of my own lack of swimming skills can only wish that I had learnt to swim like my children have. Maybe one day when my foot functions properly again I will face my fears and take a few swimming lessons myself. In the meantime I remain firmly planted on dry land as much as possible and take a big breath of relief that my kids are already so much better at swimming than I am.