4 Things You Need to Know About Teaching Kids to Swim, From a Professional Swim Instructor
I'm a Floridian through and through. I swim in just about any body of water available to me, short of retention ponds. Most of my friends growing up were the same way. We swam in lakes, rivers, the ocean, intercoastal waterways, the gulf, and of course endless pools. Regardless of murkiness or the critters that inhabited it, if there was water, I swam in it. I was in the water so often year round that I'm not sure I ever took swim lessons. I remember around 5 years old my dad showed me a few pointers for swimming in deep water, and that was about it. Swimming was entertainment for my family, an activity all five of us liked to do together.
When I moved to Texas I was exposed to all sorts of people that had only swum in pools, and rarely at that. Some of them had received formal swim lessons from trained professionals. I began working at a local swim school in Texas about a year and a half ago. My eyes were opened to a whole new way of learning to swim. I had no idea that an infant as young as eight months of age could kick its little legs and swim underwater for up to ten seconds totally unassisted.
I could not have imagined it until I witnessed it. It turns out schools have been doing this all over the world for decades. I was immediately hooked and soaked up all the knowledge I could from the experienced professionals around me. As I began to work with infants and toddlers regularly, I realized that teaching young children to swim is a process, and sometimes a long one. I have four takeaways that I think all parents could benefit from as they consider how to spark a love of the water in their children while also developing a safe regard for it as well. Those takeaways are: we can't change how they feel, demonstrate how to move in the water, talk about the details, swim with your head in the pool.
The first takeaway may seem obvious, as parents you know your child very well. However, I think it's important to keep this idea very close in mind: Some children naturally love the water, they love it on their face when they're newborns in the tub, they like to drink it, and to float in it. Some children do not. It's ok! We have to accept, as teachers and parents, we cannot change how a particular child feels about water.
What we can change is how they think about and move in the water. If you keep this in mind, it will allow you to support your child as they learn to swim. The child that loves to swim will not want to get out (tantrum alert!), will always be trying to get in (jumping/falling alert!). Have patience; it's a love of swimming that you are witnessing. The child that does not like water or is afraid of water will want to be carried through the water (crying alert!), they will most likely not want to be left alone, even on the stairs (clambering out of the pool alert!). Have patience, it's a fear of sinking that you are witnessing. These apply to school-aged children as well. If you are struggling either getting your kiddo to be safe or pushing them through their fear, just remember they are who they are, and we can't change how they feel.
But how can we change how they think? That's the second takeaway. Demonstration, demonstration, demonstration. This is most applicable to fearful children. We can't really explain to an infant or toddler why we want to keep our hair dry or makeup in place. That's way too many ideas for them to process. So never seeing mommy get her hair/face wet only confirms what they already think, avoid water on the head/face. Instead, let that hair down!
Try demonstrating that you can blow bubbles in water, you can close your eyes as water pours down, and you can hold your breath with a big air bubble in your mouth. Children trust their caregivers to keep them safe and show them how to do things. If you swim with your child, play in the pool, play in the tub, they will begin to trust that water can be safe. If swim lessons aren't going well, stick with it, and add an extra weekend trip to a local pool and demonstrate to them that you think water is safe too!
The third takeaway is to talk about it. This is a simple one that parents do all the time, but maybe forget to do around water. Around water, it can be stressful making sure your family is safe and protected from the sun, and all the other nine million things you all are juggling. Talking about water, while it's easy to can go a long way. You have probably already communicated that water can be unsafe without an adult, but the finer details of water may have been missed. For example, I find that often when older children, 2 to 5 years old, are afraid of water it's because they think they will sink to the bottom like a rock. I find an explicit statement like "humans don't sink, rocks do" helps children begin to think about buoyancy applied to them. This would be a good time for a demonstration as well!
Show them your best impression of Drew Barrymore in Ever After.
I also find that while infants often enjoy or passively ignore water in their ears while they float, around the age two many kiddos want nothing to do with water in their ears. I find that another explicit statement like "Water in our ears is loud right? But it doesn't hurt our bodies" is very helpful for a child to learn to push themselves through the discomfort of back floats, while in return learning a life-saving skill. That same statement can be adjusted for water in the nose too.
The last takeaway is one on the form. I only mention it because it makes a huge difference in safety. Body position is the number one most important thing for efficient swimming. Sometimes children forget this when they get nervous. This nervousness can happen in an instant and may not seem to make sense to the adult. It usually looks like doggy paddling. The child's head sticks straight up with eyes wide open, and the rest of their body hangs under them, and they make no forward progress. This can be really scary for even the best swimmers.
Luckily it's a straightforward fix. The child is panicking and needs a reminder to put their head in and kick. By putting their head into the water, they will put the bulk of their weight in front of them giving them forward direction. Their kicks will propel them in the direction their head is pointed. As long as their head is up, they will not be able to move forward. At the swim school, we say "You're ok, put your eyes down and kick!" Goggles go a long way for making this an easier task. Goggles come in all sorts of shapes. It's worth the ten minutes to try a few pairs on your kiddo and see which ones seal the best and get them most excited. Just like undies for potty training!
All in all, in my experience, all kids can learn to swim safely and have fun in the water. When adults have fun with it, children will follow. These four takeaways should help your family, regardless of the age range, have fun this summer in whatever body of water you find yourselves.