The role our senses play in learning to swim

Learning to swim is a complex process and the journey is different for every child. Our reflex and sensory system can play a large part, and often we don’t notice what is happening. If we stop and watch a baby in the water, we can see them using their vestibular, proprioception system and their visual sense just to lean forward from their parent’s hold, to grab a toy. Why can one child do one skill in one point of time, and another can’t? There can be all sorts of reasons, but as we know, developmental changes don’t occur in a linear fashion and many times it is to do with our sensory system and interrelated with other bodily functions. For example, our sinuses can impact our vestibular system (balance). So if we have allergies, or sinus issues, this can really impact our balance in the water which is vital for floating and propelling ourselves forward. If we don’t feel balanced in the water, we don’t feel safe, and that can hinder our progress.

A child is developing their proprioception sense (the body’s ability to sense movement) through many activities on land such as tying their shoe laces and using scissors. An awareness of where our body is in time and space is paramount to having a safe connection with your environment, both emotionally and physically. Hence why in the water, this environment could be too far out of their comfort zone and they don’t want to try new things, or they feel uncomfortable in the deep end, or taking the next step in kicking by themselves without the Teacher. They will choose stability over mobility, they won’t move forward. They may cling to a parent, or stay by the wall, or not let go of the Teacher. If they don’t feel stable within their system, it has a detrimental effect on their self confidence. Some thrive on challenges, others will prefer to stay in their safe zone.

Our proprioception sense includes the ability to be able to transfer weight effectively to perform many gross motor skills, such as swimming. Rotating, and transferring weight through the water is essential in freestyle, backstroke, treading water, and sculling. Muscle groups are having to work harder in water than on land, so all of the feedback from your different sensory systems are being fed back into their brain when we do these movements. Hence why we do ‘humpty dumpty’s and dives a lot. Transferring of weight is developing gross motor skills and someone who ‘belly flops’ is still developing their vestibular and proprioception system. Swimming also requires fine motor skills and picking up something from the bottom of the pool helps with this as well.

Sometimes it may look like we are taking a ‘step backwards’ by getting them to walk around the pool, or push their feet off the wall while sitting on a noodle, but they are working on those senses to make the neural connections strong to ensure later down the track, they have no gaps in their network to take leaps forward. The proprioception sense for example stops a child from ‘slapping’ the water when entering freestyle and having control over that movement. That’s why playing in the water can be so helpful towards their swimming lessons, so the effort to take the family to the pool is well worth it.