When Beckwith Hastings first started teaching swimming at a camp in Hanover, she realized she could do more than just teach children to swim: she could teach them skills for life.
Hastings started as a lifeguard and swim instructor more than 20 years ago but when she worked at Victory Junction Gang Camp, she realized children with chronic medical conditions had a hard time finding places where they could learn how to swim.
“I felt like other instructors would turn students away based on their needs [because] they felt more comfortable with typically-developed peers,” Hastings said. “But if they had something like language difficulties, they were told they didn’t have a place for them.”
Hastings decided in 2018 to create a solution for that problem and started the Swimmers with Exceptional AbiLitieS program which provided swimming lessons for children with chronic medical conditions. Students through the program were able to experience camp lifestyle, swimming and other activities alongside relatable peers.
The experience also helped to change Hastings’ life path as well.
A close family friend during that time survived a car crash that caused him to have to relearn how to swallow, walk and speak. Hastings found her passion for speech pathology as she worked with her friend to address his speech and language needs during his recovery.
It was in 2009 that Hastings returned to Virginia to complete her degree in speech pathology.
She started to get the idea over the past few years to incorporate her past inspirations to create a new program: Speech and Swim.
Hastings started the program last summer as a way to supplement speech pathology lessons for children during the summertime. She said while many children receive speech therapy during school, the months during the summer leave a gap.
Starting the program last summer was something new to Hastings and she spoke with other leaders in the field, locally and nationally, who had never heard of a program that incorporated speech therapy and swimming lessons.
“Over the past several years, I have discussed the premise of Speech & Swim with well-known experts in the field,” Hastings wrote in an email. “Although the use of the swimming pool is novel, they highly encourage the idea of engaging children and youth in an engaging, natural environment during the summer. Many are surprised it wasn’t previously readily available.”
Hastings believed the program would work because it incorporates activities as part of the speech and language lessons.
“Play is such a natural part of learning,” she said. “You can do drills at a table for months and years, but the generalization of those skills happens in a natural environment.”
She developed a program that incorporates songs and games into swimming practice, which helps students work on their motor training while trying to figure out what they’re doing with their arms and breathing. The program also incorporates a lot of back and forth conversations during swimming instruction, which she tries to focus on a student’s individual weaknesses.
Hastings said she is able to provide 75 or more drills of natural repetition during a 30-minute swim lesson that help a student learn a particular sound or skill. She also provides parents with overnight work and allows them to watch sessions and observe strategies they can take home with them.
“The swimmers are overjoyed to return the next day,” she said. “The learning occurs in such a natural, engaging manner that generalization, which is the greatest stumbling block of speech therapy, is more likely to occur.”
Hastings said she has seen multiple child breakthroughs on a daily basis and the program has started to slowly grow in popularity. Parents do have to pay for the cost of the program because insurance is not currently accepted, but Hastings said it’s typically lower than a co-pay might be with health insurance.
The program offers multiple week-long sessions for both groups and individual lessons throughout the summer. However, in its second summer the program has faced some challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hastings has still been able to host some lessons but with limited group sizes that are set between times of pool sanitation at the Windsor Great Park Recreation Center.
The program currently just involves Hastings teaching the lessons but she said she hopes to grow it in the future to possibly partner with some local organizations.
“I think this has been a dream of mine for a long time,” she said. “I love the impact it has made on families and I foresee it continuing to get bigger each year.”
Speech and Swim’s last summer session will begin on Aug. 4. For more information, visit Speech and Swim online.
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