Monthly Archives: April 2012

Teaching Your Child to Swim


An Interview with Water Safety Expert, Mario Vittone

To help clear the confusion and conflicting information on the learning to swim process, SwimWays and nationally recognized water safety expert, Mario Vittone, have partnered to answer parents’ most frequently asked questions about teaching their children how to swim. Mario shares our mission to communicate the importance of knowing how to swim and ensuring the most accurate information is shared on the subject. SwimWays asked Mario some of parents’ top questions about teaching children to swim. Below are his answers.Teaching your child to swim

Question: When should my child start learning to swim?

Answer: There are a lot of opinions on this subject, but the American Red Cross Council of First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness (ACFASP) published an advisory in 2009 that answers this question based on definitive research. I agree with their findings. The short answer is that organized “swim lessons” should begin after children are four years old. However, that doesn’t mean that your child shouldn’t be in the pool before then. The ACFASP Advisory states that, “infants and young children may optionally start swim lessons for the purpose of building aquatic readiness and water acclimation on an individual basis any time after the first or second year of life.”

Parents should understand that learning to swim starts with positive exposure and introduction to the water. This rarely ever starts with organized swim lessons. Learning to swim starts with fun in the water! Before your child can learn the basic strokes and become a confident swimmer, they need to acclimate to being in the water and enjoying the experience. Lessons – formal or informal – come after.

Question: Do flotation devices help or hurt new swimmers?

Answer: The answer depends on how you use them. It’s important to make the distinction between toys and swim training aids. Many well-meaning people – even professional swim instructors – often tell parents that the use of flotation devices creates a “false sense of security” in children and shouldn’t be used in swim instruction.

Blanket statements like this ignore the first step in becoming a swimmer: liking being in the water. Your child must feel comfortable and safe in the water first. They should associate the water with “fun.” Without comfort in the water, learning to be good at swimming becomes very challenging.

The American Red Cross describes flotation aids as “useful tools that can help build the confidence of new swimmers,” and even simple pool toys can be used to “help children adjust to the water and help make spending time in the water more enjoyable.*” I agree. Flotation devices from the very simple (like SwimWays’ Baby Floats) to the more advanced (SwimWays’ Power Swimr) can help children build confidence, improve motor skills, and learn techniques until they reach the goal of being confident and capable swimmers.

Question: What about those infant swimming classes?

Answer: Many infant swim courses are billed as an added “layer of protection” in the drowning prevention strategy, but it is important for parents to know that the Red Cross could find no link between teaching infants aquatic self-rescue skills and drowning prevention. In the ACFASP study, they state “no evidence exists that introducing voluntary aquatic skills prior to 15-18 months of age produces more advanced levels of proficiency or drowning prevention.”

It seems intuitive that if an infant can learn to roll on their back and float and cry out for help that they would be safer around water. But as important as some of these courses may feel to parents, and impressive as the marketing videos are, consider what these infants are actually learning. Are they learning that it is ok for them to be alone in the water? Are they learning that approaching the pool edge is ok? And, at least as importantly, is this early exposure to water a positive one, or a negative one?

Evaluate any formalized infant or toddler swim training with these questions in mind. Observe the training firsthand and see if in the beginning of the training there is any screaming or crying. Screaming and crying indicate something other than positive exposure to the water. These indicate that the child is afraid, and that is bad thing, no matter how impressive the videos are at graduation.

Question: When are my children old enough to swim unsupervised with their siblings or friends?

Answer: My first reaction to this question is, “When they are old enough to buy their own pool,” but I realize that may not be helpful. Listen, we all want to keep our kids safe in the water but we also want to give them confidence and a feeling of independence, so some parents – particularly those with backyard pools – feel pressure from their teen children to allow them to swim with siblings or friends without Mom or Dad watching their every move. This is a mistake and here is why:

Kids, particularly teens (and boys more often than girls), play hard. They are natural risk takers and can be just reckless enough to have a problem you haven’t anticipated. Water confidence and solid swimming skills can be completely forgotten when something as simple as an unexpected splash to the face happens at the same time a person takes a breath. An accidental arm strike to the neck during an annoying game of Marco Polo can cause very real problems. Someone has to be out of the water, watching, and ready to respond if needed.

It’s not enough to have the house rule of no pool use if parents aren’t home. Someone has to be watching. So my real answer (not that making them buy their own pool first is a bad idea) is that it’s not so much about their age as it is the “unsupervised” part. If one of your kids is a lifeguard and will act in that capacity while the other kids swim, you can consider it, but personally I would still be near. Lifeguards usually have a backup person close at hand, and your child deserves the same security.

Question: My child is going to a pool party without me. How can I make sure he/she will be safe?

Answer: There are some pretty general questions you will ask, and the answers will give you a sense of how to proceed. How many children will be there, and how many adults will supervise? Will there be lifeguards present? How many? Is this a backyard pool party and if so, what is the condition of the pool? This may make you sound overly protective, but I’ve found host parents usually appreciate the concern if they have taken precautions to create a safe event. I’ve also used these questions to gauge the safety attitude of those hosting pool parties.

Because so many people will be there, pool parties often feel like safe bets to parents. But parties are distracting events by design, and the sense that everyone is watching the water can lead to no one watching the water. Some people engage in conversations, others cook and serve food, the phone rings, and without anyone noticing, suddenly there is a pool full of kids with no one paying attention to them.

Every well-planned and safe pool party should have a water watcher: a responsible and capable adult or trained guard who is committed to watching what is happening in the water, all the time, with no distractions. “Water Watcher” cards are available from the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s excellent website poolsafely.gov. With the card, everyone knows who is paying attention to the pool, and that they are not to be distracted. (A specially colored tee-shirt or hat, a “special” chair that is set apart, or a pile of leis around the watcher’s neck or wrist can act in the same way to differentiate them.)

Do you have any questions for Mario? Connect with him on this blog.

*American Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety Manual – 2009

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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The Use of Flotation Aids in Swim Lessons

by Mario Vittone

Ask any two professional swim instructors and you will likely get two very different responses to the question, “Should flotation be used in swimming lessons?”   Camps are divided and arguments have gone on for years about the proper way to teach children to swim.  For an even more heated debate, bring up arm floaties or Swimmies and you’ll hear everything from people talking about them as their favorite childhood toy, to well-meaning people calling them “dangerous.”

SwimWays Sea SquirtsThe concerns about flotation devices and children revolve around two very different but pervasive ideas, neither of which I personally agree with.  One is that using flotation gives children a “false sense of security” in the water.  The other is that use of flotation makes them dependent on flotation and that learning to swim is hindered, rather than helped with flotation.

To me, both of these arguments are classic examples of people thinking about the questions all wrong – and that is why there is such debate. To arrive at a good answer we have to understand what we are asking and in this case many people, including water safety professionals and educators, aren’t doing that. They forget that the question isn’t that simple. There are differences that have to be considered.

The difference between a lesson and playtime:

You can’t make every minute in the water with your kids a “lesson” in swimming.  In fact, good luck getting them to pay direct attention to you for more than about 20 minutes when trying to teach them anything.  Parents (and professional swimming instructors) should remember that playing is not the same thing as formal learning but it is still valuable time in the water.

Playing with floating pool toys is fun and the Red Cross agrees that pool toys and floating devices can help acclimates children to the water. Toys provide a variety of activities for parents to engage their children with in the pool and that engagement builds confidence and comfort.  That time in the water playing serves to improve the quality of instruction that occurs during more structured lessons.

If a child’s only time in the water is during structured swim lessons, much of that time is spent simply getting over their excitement and anxiety of being in the water. Recognizing the difference between play and lessons and appreciating the value in them both, changes the question of flotation use entirely.

The difference between a swimming aid, and a toy:

When used to maintain body position in the water, to develop proper swim mechanics, things that float your child (or part of your child) are swimming aids.  Otherwise, they are simply toys. A good example of a toy is the SwimFin.  It only provides flotation when the wearer is out of proper swim position.  But kids like wearing them because it’s fun to look like a shark. It’s fun, but not a supportive swimming aid.

Some pool toys – like those inexpensive noodles – are used by professional swim coaches to support student’s bodies during lessons. In that instance, the toy is being used as an aid in a lesson. Trying to draw hard line conclusions about any one piece of gear or flotation device is a mistake.  How is the device being used is the biggest consideration.

The difference in the child’s sense of security, and yours:

The false sense of security that is dangerous when it comes to any flotation device – even Coast Guard approved ones – resides in parents who treat them like substitutions for monitoring and close supervision.  There is no time that you should be farther than arms reach from a non-swimming child regardless of what they are wearing.  Clearly marked on every pool toy I have ever seen is the phrase “this is not a flotation device.”  Even approved flotation devices aren’t guarantees against aquatic injury or drowning, anymore than seat belts rule out injury in auto accidents.

Problems arise with the use of pool toys and other flotation devices only after a parent or other care provider walks away from a child supported by such devices.  If you aren’t willing to walk away from your child when they aren’t using flotation, then you shouldn’t do so when they are.

The difference in children:

A two-year-old is not half of a four-year-old. They are emotionally, developmentally, and physically very different. Kids themselves – at the same age and relative ability – are very different and can require different methods to attain identical skills.  I’ve met children who thrived and developed as a good swimmer with a progressive use of flotation aids, and met others who simply couldn’t wait to pull the things off and just go for it.  Neither type of learner was doing it wrong.

The difference between dependence and support:

Flotation in swimming lessons is primarily used to assist swimmers, even adult athletes, in maintaining a proper body position suitable for the task being learned.  Noodles and floating barbells are used to support the upper body so students can focus on leg and hip movements.  I can remember the laps my coach made me do with a float between my knees so I could do “arm-only drills” with my legs in proper position.  Devices like the Power Swimr are used by swim coaches to provide varying levels of support and help young swimmers achieve the correct body position and develop quality leg and arm mechanics.

Flotation, when used as a supportive tool, promotes independence by allowing learning swimmers to achieve proper body position and develop the swimming skills properly.  Dependence on flotation is not a problem when it is used appropriately.

So, can flotation aids be used during swim lessons do improve swimming skill?  Of course they can.  Can pool toys and flotation be safely used to develop comfort in the water during playtime?  Certainly.  You simply have to consider the differences in your children, your own reasons for using them, and the flotation devices themselves.

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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