Yesterday our children – both aged five and a half – had their first swimming lesson. That is more than I ever had: I love to swim but have little recollection of ever having learned how to do it. Until now we have relied on holidays to sunny places with nearby pools and plenty of visits to lakes, on the assumption that our children would somehow organically teach themselves to swim. Indeed, it did make them confident in water but it did not get them securely out of armbands. So when winter descended and we didn’t fancy weekly family Sunday trips to an indoor swimming pool (we are such fans of open water), we signed them up for a set of ten forty-five minute lessons, at a small local pool.
If you start asking around almost all German children seem to have swimming lessons – either organised through their KiTa, privately, or at school – certainly not the case in Eighties’ Yorkshire. But here, in Berlin, it is very much the norm. And where we live in child-heavy Prenzlauerberg that fact means contending with the swimming course waiting list. As with the last waiting list we encountered – the KiTa waiting list – this one was a rather nebulous, not entirely sure what criteria gets you moved further up it, intransparent, six-month affair, negotiated ultimately by that age-old trick of calling up frequently and asking whether it was finally our turn.
We were quite selective. Having braved the chilly waters of the Olympic set of swimming pools up the road, even in the designated children’s pool, we decided we would not inflict that on the kids whilst they are still at the stage of often just dangling in the water. They can get used to that when they can properly swim and swim fast so as to warm up. The place we chose is specially warm for the old ladies and babies who mostly use it. Being a little pool and surrounding building, it is also much less daunting to swim in for the young beginner and to organise your children in for the parent.
[Essential tips for when your child finally starts a course: turn up early (at least 15 minutes); bring flip flops for you and your child; pack a towel they can drape from their head (so much less likely to be dropped on the inevitably slightly mucky floor).]
The start of the course was very gentle, as we had hoped. The group of ten children, aged between four and six, wearing flotation belts and armbands, were coaxed into the pool by two kindly-looking instructors. They kicked in the water and tipped cups of the stuff over their shoulders, before clambering down the steps for a little pull around. Later they moved on to propelling themselves across the pool, still aided by all sorts of floating things, and, at the very end, even jumped in. Soon, the time was up, though all the children would have happily gone on learning for longer – a sure sign of a happy course.
That most children doing swimming courses means that most children gain a “Seepferdchen” swimming badge. This badge is recognised Germany-wide as proof that a child can swim independently. To be awarded it, they must show they can jump in from the side of the pool and swim without aid for 25m, as well as pick up an object with their hands from the floor of the swimming pool in shoulder-deep water. After that they can progress to Bronze, Silver, Gold, and then Rescue.
The sweet twist in this story is that our children’s signs for their hooks in the KiTa happen to be a seahorse (Seepferdchen) and a jellyfish (Qaulle). Our little seahorse is very pleased at the idea of getting a badge with her sign on it; our Qualle suggested he might call his a Qualle badge instead – and if not, he wants to go straight on to Gold (ambitious at least).
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The next step is taking off the flotation belt and trying just armbands for a while. In the words of the instructor, “we’ll be practising legs for weeks yet”.