Ever baked a wonky biscuit or cupcake? You know the ones – they scream bad Hogwarts spell.
Cookie cutters can come to the rescue – designed to create perfectly shaped treats that produce the same delectable experience for every eater. But life doesn’t always yield to the perfection of a cookie cutter.
Bega Valley swimming instructor, Katrina Scarpin wrestled with the ‘cookie cutter’ approach to her work for 18 years. She says she taught kids a regimented “tick box” program that failed to take into account individual abilities and personalities and the complex ‘recipe’ that make each of us who we are.
Armed with teaching and psychology degrees, Katrina became inspired by children with special needs and has thrown the cookie cutter away – for her sake and the kids.
“We can really learn how to teach from our special needs kids,” she says.
“They see the world in different ways so they make us reassess what we do because they don’t think in a standard way.”
That philosophy helped Katrina take the plunge to create a custom-built swim school in an industrial shed at Pambula.
In its first four months, nearly 300 kids, from babies to 15 year-olds, including 45 special needs children, have enrolled in learn to swim classes or for squad training, with aqua-exercise soon to start.
Classes are “child-led”, meaning students decide how a class progresses based on the day’s theme. On the day I visited, a full-on “Dinosaur Safari” was in session.
“What I hate about standard swim schools, is that they’re all about ticking boxes,” Katrina says.
“I was bored teaching that, so I thought my kids would be bored so I wanted to create something that engaged them.”
About 15% of Katrina’s cohort face daily challenges including autism, hearing and vision impairments and Erb’s palsy, an upper body paralysis caused during childbirth.
However, those children don’t learn to swim in a separate class.
“I create an inclusive learning environment where everyone feels loved,” Katrina beams.
“No-one knows whether the kids have special needs or not – we don’t tell them and no-one cares.”
One child who loves her weekly private session at Splash Swim Soar is 11-year old Ella-Mary Dunn. Ella-Mary is autistic and can easily become anxious but once in the pool, transforms.
Her mum Pam tells me, “She relaxes enough to be playful – it’s when her personality comes out.”
Describing Katrina as “just wonderful because she understands our needs”, Pam says Ella-Mary is “coming along in leaps and bounds” by interacting, verbalizing and following instructions.
“I just want her to be happy, to feel happy with herself and help manage her anxiety,” Pam says.
Katrina’s long-term plan is to provide swim programs specifically for indigenous students and roll out more “non-cookie-cutter” centres. She intends to cap enrolments at 450 children to avoid undermining her “child-led” philosophy.
“The whole idea is to help people evolve and change,” Katrina says, without the restrictions of labels, boxes, or cookie cutters.
Words by Jo Thorpe