Basics for Teaching Young Children to Swim

You do not need to be a certified swim instructor to teach your infant or toddler the fundamentals of swimming. Knowing just the basics will help you enhance your child’s experience in the water.

Many young children can swim before they even walk. The common misconception is that only children over the age of four or five can begin to master the art of swimming and, thereby, receive any benefits from actual lessons. Entirely the contrary is true: Children ages six months to three years can develop their swim skills—with the proper teaching. And, the best part is that you do not have to be a certified swim instructor to teach your children. Knowing just some basics about water safety and swimming techniques will let you better optimise your young child’s time in the water.

As a long-time swim instructor and competitive swimming coach, I have been asked by many parents for some tips for teaching their young ones how to swim. They wonder if there’s something beyond passively holding their children in the water, sitting with them on the pool steps, or moving them around on a float. It’s then when I tell them the story of the two-year-old I taught to swim across her home pool. Their mouths usually drop as they envision a small girl smoothly gliding across the water. The reality was quite different: Her stroke hardly resembled freestyle (the traditional crawl) and was more underwater than on top. It took a lot of time and a lot of breaths to manoeuvre herself from one end to the other—but she did it; she was swimming. Gliding, floating, kicking, bobbing, holding breaths, blowing bubbles: All reflect some aspect of swimming. It is these skills that you can train small children while increasing their levels of enjoyment and self-confidence.

Learn about First Aid and CPR

It is a good idea to become familiar with the basics of First Aid and CPR. It will give you the confidence to teach your children without nervously anticipating emergency situations or panicking when they choke on the water. There are some great resource sites on the Internet as well as instructional books, but hands-on training can be more beneficial. Non-profit organisations like the American Red Cross offer one 4-hour training class and even certify you upon completion.

Create a comfortable learning environment—in the water and out

Make sure the water temperature is suitable for the child. The younger and smaller he is, the less he will be able to tolerate cold temperatures. Many national aquatic organisations recommend that children swim in heats 86° to 94° because the warmer water relaxes the child, increasing his enjoyment level and his learning speed. Shivering swimmers have a more difficult time focusing on the task at hand. Avoid temperatures above 94° (such as in a Jacuzzi), for hot water can suck the energy out of infants and toddlers—my infant son fell asleep in a warm pool—and potentially harm them.

Also, check the learning atmosphere. Are older children jumping in around you? Is the water very wavy or choppy? If your child is a bit timid at first, find a quiet, peaceful place to instruct him.

Ease them into it

Except for a selected few who jump into the water and swim like a fish, most young children will see swimming as a series of experiments. It is not uncommon for a toddler, self-confident about experiences in the bathtub at home, to walk uninhibitedly into a significant body of water only to suddenly discover that this new “bathtub” is no longer fun. Others will timidly look at the pool, test a toe, then a foot, then a knee, and then turn away, traumatised by the experience. Children progress at their speeds. The key is not to push them but instead, take it to step by step (or toe by toe).

Establish trust in the water

With parenthood comes a bonus—you already have a relationship with your child, and hopefully it’s a trusting one. It gives you an advantage in the water because your child is more trusting of you than with a stranger. The more the child trusts you, the more he is willing to try new techniques. The goal is to increase this trust in the water. One way to do this is to hold the young child firmly, usually on his tummy with his arms around your neck, and then slowly move around the pool. Show him the different sides of the pool and explain the steps, ladders, etc. It is best if you can develop a natural rhythm with him by placing your body directly underneath his (almost like he’s lying on a bed) and then gliding around in the pool.

Another way to improve trust is to sit the child on the deck, his feet dangling in the water, and then to have him fall into your arms. With each catch, try to get him more and more involved with the water. Use your facial expressions and cheering words to pump up his enthusiasm. You may soon find that he will excitedly jump rather than fall towards you.

Wet their face

Putting their face in the water is a significant milestone for children who are learning to swim. Be creative in how you encourage your child to dip his face. Sometimes getting him to bob up and down is a great motivator. Another technique is to use imitation to inspire one to sink the face. Your happy smile will convey the fun of the task.

After the child is familiar with dipping his face under water, try then to gently guide the sides of his head into the water, almost as if he was side-breathing. It will enable him to experience different sensations in the water and be more apt to completing submerging his head.

Help them hold and expel their breath

Learning to keep one’s breath is essential to swimming. Proper breathing in swimming is similar to riding a bike—once you learn, you always remember. There are two main aspects of breathing: holding breath and expelling breath. Most children will naturally begin to catch their breath the more they dip under the water. Especially at the beginning, expect your child to at least once gulp in a lot of water only to sputter (and cry) seconds later. It is how he starts to learn.

One helpful technique is to position your child so that he is facing you, with your head at surface level. As you open your mouth in an exaggerated way, inhale loudly and then close your mouth right before submerging your head under water. Perform this a few times in front of your child so that he is better able to imitate it. Then, the next time you inhale and begin to submerge your head, bring the child’s face briefly under the water. The more you practice this technique, the more he will get the point and learn to hold his breath underwater.

To teach the child to exhale underwater, try getting him to blow bubbles. It can be an exciting discovery for your little one. You can have the child practice with a straw in a cup of milk or by blowing out a candle: Use the analogy to encourage him to blow water in the pool. This technique also helps with getting the child used to submerging parts of his face.

Teach them to float

It seems that one of the most challenging tasks for youngsters is floating on their back. An anxiety or dislike about floating can be due to a number of reasons: 1) works the stomach muscles, 2) causes water to enter the ears, which bothers some children, 3) makes them feel like they are sinking, and/or 4) requires a certain level of trust in themselves and in their teacher. The ability to float is essential for water safety. If a child falls into a body of deep water without any immediate walls, the least he can do is flip on his back and float until help comes.

Teaching a child to float requires much patience, for the child often wants to sit up. One technique is to hold him securely, gently easing him onto his back while maintaining eye contact. Eye contact is vital: It helps him keep his point of reference. Quietly reassuring him also helps to calm him. You might want to try giving him a small toy he can hold to keep him focused. Once he is lying flat, move your body directly underneath his in a type of pancake position so that you are both lying on your back with his resting on your chest. It sets up a natural kind of rhythm, which is very helpful in learning swimming.

Another technique to introduce the concept of floating is to have the child practice lying flat in a bathtub with very shallow water or on the entrance steps of a pool. He feels safer trying to float, knowing that something is directly underneath him. Once the child masters this, you can then move him onto a float and then finally into your arms.

Improve their balance

Walking in shallow water improves muscle strength and overall stability. One exercise is to practice at a water level that comes up to the child’s waist or chest area (for example, in two feet of water). It can be especially fun if you put a few toys around the child and he has to walk through the water to retrieve them.

If the child loses his balance and accidentally submerges his head, give him a moment or two to try to find his footing again. Train him to reorient himself and return to the upright position by planting his feet on the pool bottom.

Get them moving

One of your primary goals is to help your child continually build a sense of independence in the water. Get him to become more active by kicking his legs, for example. I always like to tell my young students to flutter kick to make popcorn. The faster they kick, the more bubbles they create. Children usually get the inspiration with this concept and feel great when they can make a bowl of popcorn.

Have fun

Finally, and most importantly, make sure your child (as well as yourself!) has fun in the water. Swimming not only develops physical coordination, but it can significantly enhance a young child’s self-esteem and social skills. If your child does not seem to like a particular task, quickly switch to another one. Mix up the routine, introduce water games, and make everything dynamic, continually encouraging him to try new “adventures” in the water.

Be patient

Teaching swim to young children can be frustrating if you expect immediate results. But remember, they have a long time to improve their abilities. Rather than preparing them to join a swim team, focus instead on getting them water safe and enhancing their confidence and independence in the water. This process may take weeks, even months, but the rewards of swimming will last them a lifetime.

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