The importance of free play sessions

At Just Add Water we are very committed to teaching the children in our classes to be better all round swimmers – as you would expect from a swim school!

We teach them new strokes, new techniques, how to breathe properly when swimming, and everything else which goes along with swimming lessons.

But teaching isn’t everything. Free play is important too. The children are in our lessons to learn but they are also children and free play is an integral part of the learning process.

Our children are taught a wide range of aquatic skills, but prescribed learning is not the same thing as truly understanding something. If we teach a child to do the front crawl over a certain distance and they get a badge for this, have we taught them the ins and outs of the front crawl or have we taught them to simply repeat something in a prescribed place?

It is no different to their school studies. The children are taught things but if all the focus is on work and exams then have they really understood what they have learnt or have they simply understood that they need to know a certain thing in a certain way in order to pass a test?

This is why we value our free play sessions so highly.

Once a term we allow our swimmers a session of free play in the pool. We know this to be as valuable as any other session in our calendar.

These sessions give swimmers to chance to apply the skills they have learnt over the term to unusual and unscripted situations, earning for themselves a more well rounded swimming education.

Crucially, this improvisation and adaptation is done in a safe, monitored environment where mistakes can be rectified and problems solved on the spot as opposed to, for instance, having the first instance of an adverse situation occurring when a child is in the sea. They will learn that the skills they have been taught are transferable to different situations and how to apply them. This in turn makes them more confident and more capable.

Children retain information more effectively when they are enjoying it and they are much more willing to try new things and push themselves into new situations and learn from them when they are having fun. The children themselves look forward to this “fun session” all term and often recommend it to their friends and/or siblings. In fact, this session is often the only chance some children get to spend time in the pool with their siblings and parents, making it an extremely valuable time. We all know how important it is to spend time with your loved ones, especially for children.

Children who might find certain challenges daunting, such as jumping in the pool or diving underwater to the bottom, often surprise themselves in a free play session. For some children it is much easier to undertake a possibly daunting experience they have previously been reluctant to try when the pressure is off – they can just get on with it without overthinking the whole situation. Likewise, if they observe their peers or siblings doing something in a fun environment, such as a water polo game, they are more likely to try something which they might personally be apprehensive about. We see this happen regularly and it is always a delight.

Water polo itself is a great example of another clear benefit of free play sessions. It is a game which takes a lot of effort and stamina to play, but children who don’t think they can swim so far in lessons are regularly found to be playing water polo for ages and ages, far longer than they would normally swim in the pool for. As above, once they find they can do it once they are more inclined to try to do it again in the future. The self belief which comes with proving to yourself that you can do something is second to none.

The Swimming Teacher’s Association are convinced of the benefits of free play:

“Play is an essential part of learning and development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of babies, children and young people. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them.

Play influences the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-being, creativity, problem solving,and learning ability.

Active play in the form of games develops strength, flexibility, co-ordination, body awareness and endurance. Active play also stress relief, good sleep patterns and healthy weight.”

At Just Add Water our aim is not to create classes of super efficient swimming robots. Our aim is to help children to really learn and understand how to swim, and free play sessions are essential to that. Enjoyment for the sake of it is so important for children and this is what our fun free play sessions are! If they associate the pool with being a safe and fun environment as well as a learning environment then they will become better swimmers at the end of it!