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Gently does it when it comes to introducing children the joys of wild swimming, says Simon Reeve.

Swimming with Jake

The river was dark and inviting under the beating Devon sun. I leapt off the jetty and disappeared briefly under the water, emerging to see my son watching me sceptically. ‘Nooooooo,’ he said. He wouldn’t be joining me.

Swimming is something we’re taking our time over. I worry that if I force him to do something and then it goes wrong he might develop a complete terror of water. I grew up taking holidays to Studland Beach in Dorset, one of the finest in the country, and I spent months of my young life messing about on the waves. Studland gave me the confidence to become a competitive swimmer, representing London as a teenager. Even now, I can keep pace with a dawdling turtle under the waves. I pray that Jake will feel equally at home in the wet.

We had an upsetting moment on holiday in Spain last year where he stumbled backwards, fell into a small baby pool and began to sink. I jumped towards him even before he hit the water. But as he went down, face upright, our eyes locked, and I saw the mortality of my tiny, terrified man. Part of me expected his survival instinct to kick in, but water can be a killer. I grabbed him and hoisted him to the side. He spluttered for a second, had a hug and carried on playing. Maybe it’s only me who is traumatised by the memory, but since then, we’ve been gently highlighting the fun that can be had in water, rather than making him enjoy it. On a gloriously sunny

Wild swimming

On a gloriously sunny day last summer, we went with friends for a picnic by the spring-fed Goldiggins Quarry on Bodmin Moor. It’s a natural amphitheatre with flat rocks, perfect for hurling yourself into bracing water the colour of jade.

The older children braved the chill, swimming, diving and leaping from giddying heights. Jake just shuddered. Wild swimming is a joy I hope he will embrace. But at the moment Jake is still at the paddling and dabbling stage.

Even in Greece last year, when the temperature out of the water meant the sea was a blessed relief, he just wanted to potter around the water’s edge and chuck stones and sand at the waves.

Introducing children to the water

Through the winter we’ve been playing at the local swimming pool. Most of the time Jake’s been running around the edge and hitting me on the head with foam hammers rather than getting into the water.

But then we had a revelation. He fell off me while trying to climb onto my head, and landed on his feet in the water. He looked at me with amazement. ‘I can stand,’ he said, as the water lapped at his chin. ‘I can stand up!’ he said again. The boost in his confidence was immediate and amazing. Now he’s jumping off the side of the pool into the water and walking slowly back to the steps. This summer, I suspect he’ll be leaping off that jetty into the river on his own, and into the inky depths.

Top tips for parents 

  • Parents should go into the water first and check for rocks and holes.
  • Choose a spot with an easy way out of the water for children rather than a steep bank.
  • Lightweight swimming shoes are a good idea, so kids don’t have to worry about where they put their feet.

TV adventurer and author Simon Reeve is the presenter of multiple BBC TV series, including Sacred Rivers, Indian Ocean, Tropic of Cancer and Australia. His next series is Caribbean.