I've loved swimming for as long as I can remember. However, my mother tells me that when I was about 4, I was afraid of the water and hated swimming. Might have had something to do with the instructor who forced me into three and a half feet of cold water. Thankfully, we found another swim program where I was encouraged to take my time and try new skills when I was ready. Since then, I have become a strong swimmer and later taught swim classes myself.
I share this story because too often I hear about the adult who hates the water, or can't swim at all. Most of them had a similar first experience with the water, but never found someone who kindled love of the water. In my opinion, knowing how to swim is a necessary life skill, like walking or reading. So how do you choose a program? And, what can you work on in the pool together?
Start with helping your child be comfortable in the water. In our parent-child swim classes, I led the parents in sponging their babies, dripping water on their skin, dipping their feet in, towing them around, carrying them through the water, and blowing bubbles. As their babies got more comfortable, we practiced lifting a sitting child from the side of the pool into the water. We helped the babies stretch out straight and float on their bellies. We also sang songs and had a great time. It's this playful relationship with that water that forms the foundation for learning all other swimming skills.
As your child gets comfortable in the water, you can play games that involve getting your face and head wet (jumping in, ring around the rosy, looking for dive sticks or pennies) Goggles are really helpful for sensitive eyes in chlorinated water. Encourage your child to regulate her breathing by blowing bubbles in the water, humming under the water, or quickly bobbing under and back up 3-5 times.
Encourage your child to stretch out super straight in the water by blasting off from the side of the pool and floating like superman (straight arms and legs) for as long and as far as she can. You can also help stretch out your child on her belly and tow her around the water, while holding onto her hands for support.
Straight leg kicks
Your child can practice straight leg kicks while holding a kick board, float, or your two hands. I like to tow around a child who is learning to kick with straight legs so they connect kicking with moving in the water. Another favourite game is to sit on the steps of a pool and kick your legs really fast or really slow by playing red light, yellow light, green light.
Get those arms moving
Once your child can keep a fairly consistent straight kick going, you can practice arm movements. Get out that same kick board, float, or tow them around like before. Now, show your child how to drop one hand, pull it under the water and then lift it up and over their head back in front. If your child is tall enough to walk in the water, you can play a game where you have to pedal your arms like a giant windmill to push your body forward while walking in the water.
Help your child practice entering the water while sitting on the side of the pool, and by jumping in. Knowing how to get back up to the surface and over to the side of the pool is a critical lifesaving skill to have. You can also show your child how to float like a jellyfish (face down, arms and legs hanging) and then show her how to lift her head up to breathe. Floating on your back, or rolling from front to back float are a little more challenging but just as useful to know.
Even if your child can swim well, she needs to know and follow basic water safety rules. All young children need constant supervision while playing in the water, and should have some kind of life jacket or flotation device on if the water is deeper than they can stand in. Falls into the water are dangerous, so make sure children know to walk carefully when playing in water.
Most towns offer swim lessons in their community pools, but you can also check out the YMCA, local colleges, private pools, or swim schools. Look for instructors who are willing to go at your child's pace and comfort level, and bonus points if the pool is heated!
Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions.