Baby Swimming and Toddler Lessons In France – Montessori Inspired Teaching

In May 2015 I had the privilege to be invited to a swim school in France and observe their baby and toddler swimming classes.

Marjan Moosavi and Dr Daniel Zylberberg in France 2015Established by clinical psychologist Dr Daniel Zylberberg, the classes are now running in several community centres throughout Paris with the programme offered for children who are up to five years old (babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers). Dr Zylberberg is also a member of an experts group ‘0-6’ from the French Swimming Federation. He received the Virginia Hunt Newman Award in 2010 for services to infant swimming.

I met Dr Zylberberg at the Austrian Baby Swimming Association conference in March 2015.

In addition to being a clinical psychologist, he teaches infant psychology at the Medical University of Paris XIII. Daniel brought his own unique teaching method to the world of baby swimming over twenty years ago, using his experience as a psychologist who had worked with children as well as being involved with baby swimming since the 1980s. As an educator, he has been particularly inspired by Dr Maria Montessori (the founder of Montessori education) and her teaching philosophy whereby every child is a natural learner and that desire should be cultivated and encouraged. Consequently he has implemented many of the Montessori strategies into his baby swimming and toddler classes and the 0-6 learn-to-swim programme in France.

Over the years, I have observed different approaches to teaching baby swimming in many countries. The key differences in Dr Zylberberg’s approach to baby and toddler swimming classes are outlined below.

Classes at First Glance  

When I entered the swimming pool in Paris, parents were already in the water and there was a mix of babies and toddlers in the pool. Some children had one parent with them and some had both parents with them. As it was a 25 meter pool, every child had plenty of room to move around and do activities. There was no time-restriction for any of the activities. There were plenty of toys, floats, mats and fun educational gadgets available with the sheer variety and colour of them absolutely captivating.

As a swimming teacher with more than 20 years’ experience all over the world, I had never seen so many teaching tools so widely available to the children and their parents to play with.

At first glance, it looked as if a group of parents with small children were splashing around and having fun with the toys. The teacher was not identifiable by a particular uniform and every parent was doing something different. There were no nursery rhymes being sung or structured group activities.        

‘Learning through Play’

Similar to the style of Montessori education where learning happens through play, Dr Zylberberg believes that a child’s self direction should be a key outcome of early-years education and that adults should act merely as facilitators.

Play is defined as ‘a child-led activity which doesn’t have any fixed outcome or objectives’. Therefore, these parent and child swimming classes in France had no fixed structure and were not designed with any pre-determined objectives or outcomes.

No SUBMERSION in France

In classes everything was done through play and there was no adult-initiated SUBMERSION.

Baby swimming lessons in Wimbledon and PutneyYes, you heard that right, they don’t do submersion in France. They stopped it many years ago, because based on scientific research they found that submerging children forcefully, could put babies and toddlers under unnecessary stress.

Dr Zylberberg said: ‘submersion must never be imposed but always proposed.’

Therefore, in France they believe children go under the water themselves when they are happy to do so and they should never be forced. And, adults should only provide young children with the opportunities to do it (this is also the position of the French Swimming Federation).

Swimming Teachers or Facilitators?      

The teacher’s responsibility was not to instruct the parents or the children. His role was simply to aid and guide the learning process by helping parents to discover and do the activities to engage with once a child initiated or expressed an interest in doing something.

The teacher was responsible for providing learning and safety tips to the parents and to make sure children and parents were relaxed enough to play in the water, boost confidence and learn the three Bs of swimming: balance, breathing and buoyancy.

Baby & Parent swimming classes in Paris, France. Infant programme designed by Dr Daniel Zylberberg

I spent a great deal of time speaking with Daniel about his method and his thinking behind his style of teaching infants and toddlers to swim. He told me that although he had studied many different educational options, the way of teaching he believes most strongly in is that of Montessori.In Montessori education it is believed that:

1) All children love to learn

2) The environment/adult should encourage a “help me do it myself” mentality in children

3) Observation is a powerful way to learn

4) Learning should be hands-on and through play

5) Self direction is a key outcome

Educational specialist Tina Bruce (1) says: ‘Teaching means systematically helping children to learn, so that they are helped to make connections in their learning and are actively led forward, as well as helped to reflect on what they have already learnt.’

If we accept the above definition of teaching, we understand that although the way the these Dr Zylberberg led parent and child swim classes in Paris are taught very differently to us in England, nonetheless, it is teaching.

Key highlights:

1) I came to understand we have the same WHYs as in why we do what we do.

At Blue Wave Swim School here in London we also aim to teach the 3 Bs of swimming to our babies and toddlers. But, HOW we do it and WHAT we do to achieve our aims are different to Dr Zylberberg’s approach.

Our parent and child classes are structured and all of our activities are time-honoured and are aimed at achieving something specific.

2) In Paris, I was impressed by the huge pool space they had to teach just one class. The variety of toys and gadgets available to one teacher and the class was absolutely amazing. I personally really liked Dr Zylberberg’s style as being very creative.

Baby swim lessons

3) It was an inspiring experience to see how the ‘Learning through Play’ method could be applied to teaching infant swimming. It made me think of how we need to be more creative in our classes and maybe we also need to adopt more self-discovery activities in our infant classes. In fact, there are certain practices that we have adapted in our classes since my visit to France and I have noticed they are working well (I’ll write about them in another blog).

4) So the message to all teachers would be to keep learning and keep evolving.

A truly excellent teacher has to be creative to engage with the children in her/his care and this Montessori style of teaching swimming certainly requires lots of creativity.

A big ‘Thank You’ to Dr Daniel Zylberberg and Centre d’animation la Grange aux Belles, Paris for making this visit possible.

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Reference: 1) ’Learning through play:Babies, Toddlers & the Foundation Years’. Tina Bruce. 2005