Looking down the long black line that runs the length of the pool I can’t hear anything except the bubbles from my exhaling breath and a trickle as my hands enter the water. Pulling my way from one end of the pool to the other and back again, I glide and twist in a way that has become habit. I suddenly realize that I could do this all day.
Today I’m as confident when swimming as I am when walking down the street. Of all the goals we have for our children that has to be one of them. Being able to swim makes our children safer, it makes their lives more fun, and opens them up to sports and activities that are not practical for non-swimmers. With so many different ideas out there on how to build that confidence and ability, parents should keep in mind the following:
First Things First:
I don’t remember my first experience in the water, but I have seen home movies of the event. My father is standing in a knee-high wading pool near our home, holding me under my arms and swinging me down and across the surface of the water. Still in diapers and just a few months old, you can tell that I was laughing. My first experience in the water was fun.
The first thing anyone needs to do when learning to swim is always the same, regardless of their age; they have to want to be in the water. Make sure your child’s first experiences in the water are happy times. It’s important that they feel safe and actually are safe by having someone right there with them at all times. Make this early exposure to water about play, about having fun and sharing laughter.
The goal is to simply make the water a comfortable place for your child to be and to develop trust between the two of you. Whether that is through you holding them in your arms or pulling them through the water in a Baby Spring Float - any introduction to water, particularly before their 12th or 18th month, should simply be about an association with the water that is about having fun with you.
Second Thing Second:
Balance and breathing in the water come next; this is where your child learns to control when to hold his breath at the appropriate times and begins to get used to the feeling of supporting himself more independently in the water. There are a lot of opinions out there about when this should happen, but parents should remember that this part should be fun too. Staying within arms’ reach or holding your toddler and walking them through the water helps them learn how the water supports and hinders movement in different ways.
Being confident with submersion and going face down are also critical first steps in learning water
confidence before learning to swim. I do not recommend that parents ever forcefully submerge children to teach them how to hold their breath. Breath holding can be taught using games. With your child wanting to imitate your behavior and allowing her to control it herself is not only safer, it is more fun.
One way to encourage children to practice breath holding and putting their head down in the water is through the use of goggles. A submersible toy will give them a target to focus on, and you can lower and raise the toy below and above the surface of the water. This game of following their favorite toy above and below the surface is a great way to help children practice something while playing.
Third Things Third:
This is the part where supporting vests like the Sea Squirts Swim Assist and the Power Swimr can be valuable tools. Fully supported and confident being in the pool, children can then learn to use their arms to pull themselves through the water, support themselves with kicking and develop the muscle coordination necessary for independent movement.
You can start by just having them float (in water just deep enough for their toes to touch) and use their arms and legs to spin in circles. This is still just about having fun, and they should hardly know you are trying to teach them to do anything. You are just playing games and having fun moving through the water. Having them pull themselves – even with dog-paddle like strokes – towards you as you back away will teach them that they can control where they go and how they get there.
At this stage, particularly if your child is now age four or older, you may consider formal swim lessons. A qualified and experienced swim instructor can make a big difference. Exposure to other children learning the same things may also help with confidence and help encourage a lifelong love of water. This is the phase of my learning to swim that I do remember vividly. My mother would take me to the “big pool” where there were lots of other kids, and I was introduced to swimming underwater, proper breathing and useful flotation devices. After years of play and fun, I finally began to learn the techniques I would use for the rest of my life. Parents can teach children to swim themselves, but a mix of formal lessons and at-home practice and fun can be a learning multiplier.
The final phase is when your child is completely confident being in the water and you have to force them to get out of the pool before their skin wrinkles – this is what you were going for in the first place! Gaining confidence and skill learning to swim using kickboards and swim vests, they are now ready to take the training wheels off and just go. And though you may have them enrolled in formal swim lessons, keeping the water fun is still a great way for them to build skill and confidence. Water toys of all kinds can be useful in getting your kids to practice without them even knowing it.
This is also a very critical stage where you need to be watchful and present while they are in the water. During the early stages of independent free swimming, they will want to explore and discover their limits, and you’ll want to be right there when they do. It can be a nervous time for parents, but let them play and practice and maybe even get a little pruney. If getting them out of the pool is difficult, then you have done a good job.
Throughout every phase of your child learning to swim, remember to be patient. Swimming is a lifelong skill but real water confidence and ability take years. With your patience and their consistent and enjoyable time in the water, your children can one day be just as confident when swimming as they are when walking down the street.
Mario 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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