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Teaching Young Children to Swim

An Interview with Swimming Instructor Dan Miller
Dan Miller, M.A.T., is a swimming coach and teacher at Hubbard Woods School

Learning to swim is a life skill that all children should have. Swimming has many benefits for kids.  Safety is the primary concern, but being comfortable and competent around the water allows children to participate in water sports and to take advantage of lakes, pools, and any other body of water.  Swimming is a skill that, once learned, will be with a child for the rest of his or her life. And, of course, swimming is great exercise, too.

But what is the best way to teach young children to swim?  Early Childhood interviewed Dan Miller to learn more.  Dan has been a swimming instructor and the manager of the Old Willow Club in Glenview for 17 years.  He has coached the New Trier Swim Club for 16 years. He is also a second grade teacher in Buffalo Grove and, before that, was an aide for five years at Crow Island School.  He holds a M.A.T. from Northeastern Illinois University.

Before they are old enough for formal swimming lessons, how can parents help their infants and toddlers feel comfortable around the water?

 Helping very young children feel comfortable in the water is a good first step to learning to swim.  To accomplish this, parents need to feel comfortable and relaxed themselves, as children can pick up their parents feelings of uneasiness.  Parents should hold infants firmly while in the water, with a hand under the infant's chest. Young children often don't like getting their faces or heads wet, so it may be a challenge for parents to encourage a young child to try.  Blowing bubbles in the water teaches children how to blow out, not in--a key skill to learning to swim.  Parents can also encourage infants and toddlers to experience floating on their backs, while still being held by the parent.  Young children often don't like the feeling of being on their backs and don't like water on their ears, so they often will need encouragement to try this.

Mom and Tot classes are often available for kids who are 12 months or older. While there are classes available for infants, the trend now is to wait until kids are at least a year old.  In these classes, games and other means are used to help young children feel comfortable around the water. These classes can also give parents some ideas of things to do with their children when at a pool.  

Should infants and toddlers use flotation devices around the water?

There are many flotation devices available for infants and toddlers, including arm "floaties," swim suits with removable flotation devices, and inner tubes with vests.  These devices are more appropriate for children 2½ and older, as they give kids a taste of independence in the water.  However, parents should never rely on these devices as life jackets for young children who cannot yet swim.  Parents need to always be in the water while their infants and toddlers are.

When is the best age to begin swimming lessons for young children?

While three or four is the best age to begin formal swimming lessons, hopefully children will be accustomed to being in and around the water prior to that.  In order to join a swim class, a child needs to be ready to listen, to follow simple instructions, and to wait his or her turn in a small group.  The benefit of group lessons is that a child can watch other kids and learn from them.  The later that a child starts lessons, the more hang-ups and fears may develop.  If an elementary school child has never had exposure to the water, private lessons are probably the best way to begin, since an eight year old would understandably feel embarrassed in a beginner class filled with preschoolers.

What should parents look for when choosing a children's swimming class?

Classes for young children should be small--no more than five three and four year olds.  As children get older and are more comfortable and proficient in the water, class size can increase to eight or 10.  For younger children, classes should be fun and the teachers caring nurturing, with the emphasis on helping children feel comfortable in the water through games and other fun activities. At first, children learn skills such as getting their face wet, blowing bubbles, and basic breathing.  Next, they learn front floating.  Children naturally do the "dog paddle," as they try to keep their face out of the water.  However, they will be encouraged to learn the breast stroke.  The front crawl or free style is not taught first, as young children find it difficult to get their arms out of the water.  Kicking is taught early to help children learn to keep themselves up.  This is especially important, as some children are "sinkers" and need to know how to keep themselves afloat.  Kicking is practiced holding onto a wall, holding onto Mom or Dad as they walk backwards in the pool, or holding onto a long barbell.  Kicking helps kids get the idea that they are able to move in the water.

By the age of five or six, kids should experience swimming with their clothes on. This is important so that they don't panic if they fall into the water by mistake.  Clothing should include long sleeved shirt, long pants, and shoes.  Younger children should just get the feel of swimming with clothing on.  Older children should practice removing their clothes while in the water.

Should parents stay for a child's swimming lesson or should they disappear?

It's usually ok for parents to stay and watch a private swimming lesson, but that is less often the case for group lessons.  However, if a child is frightened or crying, it is good to have Mom there to comfort him or her.  Parents need to know their own child and also discuss whether to stay or go with the instructor.  However, parents should not be surprised or offended if the teacher asks them to leave. If there are any concerns, parents shouldn't be embarrassed to ask what is going on. 

What kind of credentials should a swimming instructor have?

There are two popular methods of teaching swimming--the American Red Cross and the YMCA.  Both use similar techniques.  Red Cross instructors will have earned their Water Safety Instructor.  The Y has a similar program for potential teachers.  Look for an instructor who has taught swimming before.  Experience counts!  

What do you do when a child is afraid of the water?

It's not uncommon for young children to be fearful of the water.  Helping a child overcome their fear of the water will usually take some time.  For example, I have been working with a 12 year old for the past year and half to accomplish this.  If a child is terrified, a group lesson is usually not the best place to work on this.  You should try a few private lessons, with Mom or Dad participating in the lesson, too.  Be sure that the child can touch in the shallow end, so he or she is comfortable.  Also, try to determine exactly what the child is afraid of.  I recently had a child who was not afraid of the water but of how the black lines on the bottom of the pool looked under water.  Once his mother and I understood that, we could address that fear and move on.  Another thing that happens is that young children will forget what they have learned from swimming lessons last summer and be uneasy in the water at the beginning of the next summer.  It is helpful to find a way to swim over the winter, so children can maintain the skills that they have gained.  If a child continues to be extremely fearful, consider taking a break from lessons for several months and then try again when the child is a little older.

What are some safety rules to use when you take young children to a beach or pool?

Before you arrive at a pool or beach, go over the rules with your children.  Some good rules include: No running on the pool deck.  Tell Mom where you are going (to the bathroom, to get a snack, etc.)  Don't go to the deep end until the child is very comfortable in the water.  Also, parents should not rely on life guards to watch their kids.  Life guards are there to watch the whole pool, not to monitor individual children.  Don't let an older sibling, for example, an 11 year old, watch a four year old. On the other hand, you can have a family buddy system, with siblings keeping an eye on each other.  What about the old rule of not swimming after eating? That depends entirely on the child.  It's usually a good idea for younger children to wait awhile after eating.  However, by the age of seven or eight, depending on the child's swimming ability, swimming after eating is usually ok.

When should a child participate on a swim team?

By the time that kids are comfortable being in the deep end, can swim one to two laps, have a fairly good front crawl, can swim the back stroke, and are getting the idea of the breast stroke, they may be ready to join a swim team.  Occasionally a kindergartener is ready for a swim team, but most aren't ready until first or second grade.  Participating on a swim team has several benefits including stroke development, endurance, sportsmanship, and competition.  These skills will stay with kids throughout their lives. 

Sometimes kids--especially boys--who have been part of a swim team for several years will drop out in 7th or 8th grade and then will pick it up again in high school.  Swim teams for younger children should not be high pressure, but should be fun. 

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