How Levels Help Kids Learn – Naturally

By Jon Foss, CEO and Lead Instructor, Foss Swim School

It took me years to learn how to teach kids to swim; 50,000 lessons, actually. I am honored to be a co-founder of the school, with my wife Susan, but humbled to have been its lead instructor and program architect. We built the program on my coaching system that produced many successful competitive swimmers, including U.S. record holders.

In 1992, I started with a goal to develop a system where every child would learn how to swim well, a new idea at the time – many believed swimming ability was limited to certain people. Our system would teach swimmers young and old to be safer and more confident in the water. With our staff, we put into practice our unique approach that motivated children to work hard through play. Children don’t want to work but will play until exhausted!

I experimented with cataloguing the hundreds of skills swimmers would need to achieve safety thresholds, and broke those skills down into easy-to-learn motions and activities. But figuring out how to assemble those pieces in a way that would deliver the best learning environment took time and careful planning. You see it on the wall of every Foss Swim School – our map of levels. We started with just three levels and carefully added levels each time there was a distinct niche of age or ability; now we have 24 levels.

It looks complex, but it’s built on two simple ideas:

  1. Mastery: Make sure kids MASTER (not “perform once”) key “milestone” or graduation skills before they advance.
  2. Age- and Skill-appropriate levels: Keep kids with a group of students about their same age and skill level (because kids naturally yet gently push each other to do their best.)

Because learning doesn’t happen in a straight line, parents sometimes ask us:

  • “My child jumped several levels. Does that mean my child is a fast learner?”

If your child seems to have jumped, one big reason could be age – we want to keep kids with their peers to make it socially comfortable. They may ALSO have moved up in skills, but they also might be getting more practice at the same skills with an older group – and both of those things are great!

  • “Will my child be safe swimming at this new level?”

Safety is our number one concern – each level has a logical safety threshold. We would not move a child to an unsafe level. Moving from Baby to Little, or Little to Middle, or Middle to Big can mean your child has entered a new age group, while moving from a numbered class to another within a group means they have mastered one level’s skills and are ready for the next.

Each level has rules and procedures to promote safety in class and outside the school. For example, never strap floats to children who have not passed the “face in the water” threshold, which reduces the likelihood of fostering dangerous false confidence.

  • “My child has been asked to repeat a level. Is there a problem?”

No, certainly not. On average, a student takes 1.6 sessions (or 19 lessons) to complete each level. Again, safety is a driving factor for us – in this case, the safety of the child when they are in water OUTSIDE of FOSS. We don’t pass children who have not mastered the skills of that level – and mastery means doing each skill consistently, more than once. We won’t move a child up just to give the illusion of progress.

In fact, the way our lessons build from level to level, we really can’t. Your child may learn kicking and arm motion in one level, add the breathing pattern in the next, and then put it all together into a stroke in another level. If they haven’t mastered kicking, moving to the next level would cause problems with their skill development.

  • “What does success look like for my child?”

Learning to swim is a process, so we look at success over time. For example, if a child starts Little 1 at three years of age and swims consistently for two years, the vast majority of the time that child will complete Little 4 at the end of 8 or so once-a-week sessions.  We see similar success profiles for a child starting at 4 or 5 or 6.

Most kids who continue with lessons will find themselves repeating a level at some point. In a two-year window that’s not a failure. Each child learns at their own rate, no matter what the calendar says, and different kids have different skills and may take extra practice. Let them learn, and we promise we will make your child a more confident, more skilled swimmer.

A couple other things to know about levels at Foss Swim School:

  • Some skills are naturally harder than others. But once they are mastered, it helps learning the next skills. For babies, that can be floating on their back – getting water in their ears feels weird. For older kids, rhythmic breathing for freestyle, the butterfly and the breaststroke are often more challenging to master.
  • Kids learn from each other. That’s why we do group lessons in a session, why we keep the ages together, and why we teach to the highest level of skill among the students. Those who are working to master a skill are frequently pushed by the results they see in their class peers.
  • If your child needs to repeat more than once, talk to us about our “Swimmers Guaranteed™” policy. Our goal is to help your child learn and become a better swimmer. We have confidence in our program from our years of experience, but recognize there may be a need to try something else – adding in additional swim times during a quarter, to participate in a skills clinic or maybe a private lesson for a given skill that is difficult.

Confidence and safety in the water are important for kids of all ages. They open new possibilities for healthy exercise, the thrill of competition and just plain fun. We look forward to seeing your child next quarter to help increase their joy and skill in the water!

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