Learning to swim can be a scary experience for kids (and even for adults who’ve never taken the plunge!) While it’s important to keep kids safe, you don’t want to focus so much on safety that you make the water a fearful place to be. Focusing on the fun aspects of the process can help to keep your children entertained, in turn increasing their confidence and chance of successfully learning a valuable new skill.
#1: Make a game out of getting ready. First of all, make sure to include kids in the process of purchasing swim clothes, towels, pool toys, goggles, and other pool accessories. They’re more likely to get excited about putting on their hand-picked Spider-Man trunks or Dora suits when they’ve had a say in the decision. Keep swim gear in a designated container, such as a colorful, waterproof bag, and develop a fun routine (possibly with singing and dancing) of putting things on. This can double as a time to check items for proper fit, along with wear and tear.
#2: Start small. Bathtub water games are a good way to introduce your children to swimming concepts such as holding their breath or using goggles. Getting kids excited early on (with games like “Find the Pearl”) will increase the chance of them adjusting easily to more challenging lessons. Just remember – even a small amount of water can be dangerous, so always supervise.
#3: Combine water play with other fun activities. Think about toys and games that your child already enjoys, and add a water aspect. If your child has a favorite (water resistant) doll or other plastic toy, use guided-play to demonstrate how your child can “teach the toys to swim.” You can also introduce pool accessories to children away from the pool, and later create comfort with the presence of a familiar toy in an unfamiliar environment.
#4: Consider using a life vest. Life vests are excellent swimming education tools. A child who feels secure will enjoy the water more, and life vests make children in the water much safer. Best of all, it turns out that a vest is unlikely to make children learn more slowly or become dependent. Don’t forget to involve the child in picking the vest to encourage participation.
#5: Role-reversal. There are many benefits to letting a child “become the master.” In role-reversal, the child acts as the teacher, and demonstrates lessons to a parent or to another child. Play-act certain scenarios that might be an issue for your child. For example, pretend that you are afraid to float on your back and let your child encourage you.
#6: Play “rescue games.” Demonstrate that you will always be there to protect your child by retrieving dolls or action figures underwater. This is especially effective if you’ve taken lifeguarding or similar water safety courses, and know the proper rescue techniques (which are always a good idea if you’re spending a lot of time around the water). Children can also learn to “rescue” toys from the water, providing a feeling of power.
#7: Use plenty of props. “Noodles,” inflated toys of various shapes and sizes, diving toys, balls, sponges, hoops, other pool accessories, and even empty water jugs with glued-on tops can all be used to help children overcome water fear. Just make sure not to treat toys as safety devices, and observe carefully when toys are involved.
#8: Seek out new types of water play. Local ponds or creeks, public fountains, and water parks with areas designated for different levels of water-comfort all provide stimulating ways for children to enjoy learning swimming skills and water safety. Exposure to various water situations will increase comfort and reduce fear in children.
#9: Distract. Observing activities in the water, especially involving animals, is entertaining and comforting for kids. Watching fish or pollywogs or otters swim encourages fledgling swimmers to get in the water, and animal-specific games can later be used for teaching purposes (“How does a fish swim? How does a dog swim?”) Additionally, using snorkels in shallow water helps interest kids in underwater worlds.
#10: Educate. Visiting the local aquarium or a children’s museum that involves water lets kids get their hands wet in the water world. Knowledge of things like why people float and how animals breathe underwater equips children to understand that swimming makes sense – it isn’t magic. Make sure to keep lessons mostly positive – children should know the dangers of water, but too much focus on the negative can create unhealthy fear and make children resistant to learning to swim.
The most important thing to do when teaching children to swim is to know when to push, and when to pull back. A child who knows how to swim well will almost always be safer around water, so it’s a good idea to encourage even reluctant swimmers to learn and practice. Still, some children are naturally fish-like, whereas others harbor a lot of water-fear. Certain parts of learning to swim will be scarier to some children than other parts. Moving at a pace appropriate to your child, monitoring fear reactions, and providing plenty of opportunities for fun and distraction will keep your child cheerfully working towards a lifelong love of all things aquatic.
We want to hear from you! What techniques have you found successful in teaching your child to swim?