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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