Why wait until the A Diploma to teach your child to swim? Deborah Nicholls-Lee finds out why Water Babies, the winner of our 2016 Amsterdam Mamas Recommend Awards for Best Swim School, is making waves in the Amsterdam parenting community.
A New Life Abroad
“Splish, splash! Splish, splash! Around in a circle and up in the air!” Mac, an ex-Navy, ex-Police, amateur rugby player, stands chest-high in water, singing to a group of babies and their parents as they dip in and out of the warm pool at the chic Corendon Vitality Hotel spa. It’s a world away from his old life at sea or working the beat on the tough streets of Glasgow, but both he and the babies are quite at home and he has a fine singing voice.
Water Babies is a swimming school for 0-4 year-olds, offering lessons in Amstelveen, Noord and West. Mac and his wife Willemijn, also a former police officer, were so impressed with the Water Babies lessons they did with their son in the UK, that when they moved to the Netherlands in 2014, they decided to launch the franchise over here.
The class sizes are no more than ten, and all take place in lovely warm 32 degrees water. Lessons are hugely jolly affairs with horse races on foam tubes, swimming after toys, and fish that squirt water. And of course, lots and lots of hearty singing.
Highly Trained Instructors
Behind the fun atmosphere of the lessons, there has been some seriously hard graft. All instructors must undertake intensive training, clocking up over 300 hours of pool time and training from 8am to 6pm each day. There is homework too – essays and hours of revision on the very detailed programme, which covers everything from medical conditions and child protection to recognising different types of baby cries. Water Babies is also, says Mac, the only school that does a child safety course and life-saving as part of the basic teacher training.
It’s such a privilege to teach such an important life skill.
Willemijn recognises the huge responsibility of offering these lessons. "It's such a privilege to teach such an important life skill,” she says. She tells me about an 18-month-old in one class who can jump in and swim back to the side already and talks about how they spend time teaching safe entry to the pool.
For Every Child
The Water Babies training also prepares teachers to work with children with different special needs. Willemijn learnt strategies for supporting deaf parents and children and was taught different holds that were safer for babies with Down’s Syndrome. Water Babies is an expert in this area and keen to be inclusive. “We can adapt any part of the programme to suit anybody’s needs,” explains Willemijn. “The aim is to get every child swimming…and get them swimming with everybody else.”
Willemijn also recognises that people enrol their children for different reasons: “Some have a fear of water and don’t want their child to have that; others just want to teach their child to swim…And some see it just as a really fun activity – which it is.”
Whatever your motivation, the benefits of baby swimming are manifold, says Willemijn. It is a great way for mums and dads to bond with their baby and have skin-to-skin time. Research has also shown that it helps the baby’s brain development and their eating and sleeping patterns.
The Water Wobbles
Mac and Willemijn recognise that different children progress at different rates and they know that a child may, at some point, feel anxious and experience what they call “the water wobbles”. I watched Mac expertly adapt his lesson plan to meet the needs of a nervous toddler, who was reluctant to participate. “We try to build up their confidence; we don’t force them to do anything,” he explains. “If they’re ready for it, they’re ready for it.”
For Willemijn, helping a child overcome a confidence setback and “seeing that change when something clicks” is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. She and Mac know that, with patience and the right learning environment, each child will recover their confidence. They experienced it with their own son who, for several weeks, had some kind of block in the water and refused to follow any instructions. The same child, now four-years-old, has just begun the Diploma A class, where he is outshining his peers and bemusing onlookers who wonder what this capable swimmer is doing in the beginners’ group.
Water Babies aims to enable the parents as well as the babies and the professional equipment helps with that. In the lesson I saw, the parents used foam mirrors to keep the babies looking up so that their heads were in the correct swimming position and Mac held up A3 cards with colourful diagrams of the skills that they were practising.
Water Babies can recommend useful kit for the lesson, including swimming goggles with an easy-release function so that you can adjust them while holding your baby, and neoprene ‘happy nappies’ which prevent any leakage.
Water Babies is the only school in the Netherlands to offer a baby swimming diploma and its little pupils make excellent progress for their age. “Our babies are achieving things years before most kids are learning to swim,” Mac explains with pride.
While Water Babies may not be as cheap as some baby classes, their goals are more ambitious and their programme more structured. The curriculum is divided into chapters, each with a clear learning outcome, and the completion of each chapter is rewarded with a swimming badge.
Our babies are achieving things years before most kids are learning to swim.
Parents can also choose to take part in a special underwater photo shoot at the end of each term, which makes a beautiful souvenir of the lessons.
“It’s a common misconception that baby swimming is just for fun,” says Willemijn. “Of course we do it in a fun way, and we sing songs, but our songs have purpose; there really is a thought behind it and it really teaches them something.”
The children soon become familiar with the structure of the lessons, and the set routines and chants help prepare them for more challenging tasks. Willemijn talks about an eight-month-old baby in her class who, recognising the underwater command, now blinks her eyes and takes her breath as she prepares to submerge. “It’s just amazing that with just ten weeks of lessons, you can see the difference. That’s what it’s really all about.”
Disclaimer: Water Babies has paid to be featured on Amsterdam Mamas because they believe that their services would be of interest and benefit to our readers, and we think so too. For more information on sponsored posts and advertising on Amsterdam Mamas, please see our Advertising and Disclosure policy.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a freelance journalist who moved to the Netherlands from the UK in 2009. She is the general content manager at Amsterdam Mamas and the founder of Clean Page Copy, a proofreading and copywriting service for non-native speakers of English. See her website to find out more about her work.