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DIY Swim Lessons for Kids: A Guide for Parents
A guide for parents who would like to teach their kids how to swim, from babies to school-age children.
No child, no matter how good a swimmer, is ever "drown-proof". Children should never swim alone or without adult supervision.
Not only should you supervise your children at all times, but you should also be in the water with them. Even if they can touch the bottom, they may loose their balance and submerge themselves, and if they panic they may not be able to stand back up. Until your child can swim at least the length of the pool by themselves, you should be in the water with them at all times.
Keep the actual lesson time fairly short. Most formal lessons are 20-30 minutes for babies and toddlers and between 30-45 minutes for older kids. You don't want to fatigue your child, especially if the skills are challenging.
Be judicious with the use of floatation devices. They can be very helpful for learning new skills and transitioning to independent swimming, but they can also become a crutch for children who refuse to try a skill without a floatation device. Noodles are a great all purpose floatation device for learning to swim.
With these points in mind, let's learn to swim!
Babies (Ages 3-12 months)
Safety Information: Babies are much more sensitive to chemicals and illnesses that can be carried in the water. Make sure to swim only in well-maintained swimming pools. These will also have the added benefit of being temperature controlled. Babies under three months of age will instinctively hold their breath when submerged, but this instinct fades quickly and older babies need to be taught to hold their breath. For this reason, it is not recommended that babies be fully submerged. This is up to your discretion as a parent. Lastly, make sure any pool toys you use are safe to go in baby's mouth!
Cues: A cue is a word, phrase or hand motion that lets a child know what to do or what to expect. Cues can be taught to very small babies by pairing the word with the action, and giving a positive response. For example, pairing the work "Kick" while modeling leg motions, and making a big deal out of any kind of leg motion the baby attempts. Other cues may include "Bubbles" and "Jump".
Skills: The goal at this stage of life is just to get children to enjoy the water. You can work on some skills, but don't expect your child to actually "swim". Parents can introduce splashing with hands and feet, spitting water out of the mouth, and floating on the back. Use different types of support techniques, even if your child is initially uncomfortable. This is the time to expose them to many different experiences!
Toddlers (Ages 12-36 months)
Safety: You have probably already started to establish rules for your toddler, and the pool should be no exception. At this age, keep it simple. 'Do not go in the pool without a grown-up' and 'No Running around the pool' will cover it. If you have a pool around your house, there may be other rules you decide to implement. While you and your child are in the pool, monitor submersions carefully to make sure that they are not swallowing too much water.
Cues: "Jump", "Kick", "Bubbles", "Big Breath", and "Reach".
Skills: Children at this age have much more control over their bodies, so you should start working on breath control. Have them experiment with blowing air out of their mouths and noses. Use nose bubbles as an alternative to plugging the nose. Children can also start to get their eyes, ears, and hair wet, eventually submerging their whole heads. Other skills include floating on the front and back, kicking legs and moving arms. Toddlers learn well by copying your actions and repeating them over and over. Give them an example, and let them experiment. Once your toddler can stand on their own, they are also ready to jump in the pool. Not only is jumping fun, but it's also a great way to introduce submersions!
Pre-Schoolers (Ages 3-5 years)
Safety: In addition to the two rules listed above, pre-schoolers are also old enough to learn how to call for help, and what to do if someone is in trouble. Emphasize "Reach or Throw, Don't Go" so that children understand that they should never try and swim to someone who needs help, but reach for them from the side.
Cues: All the cues listed for toddlers, with the additions of "Big Arms" "Little bird, Big bird, Flap" for arm motions on front and back.
Skills: If your child is comfortable in the water, he is probably ready to start learning the basics of actual strokes. The two to concentrate on are front crawl and elementary back stroke. For front crawl, encourage kids to float on their front and put their faces in the water. Start with flutter-kicking with face in, then move on to "big arms". It is important for the arms to recover over the water, so that it is not a doggie paddle. You may start out holding your child every time they take a breath, but as they get stronger you can have them take a "fast breath" and put their faces back in all without you holding them. This may take some time, and they will at some point swallow some water. Use it as a teaching tool, by reminding them to blow bubbles under the water.
Elementary backstroke is the easiest back stroke to learn because the arms never come out of the water. The motions are also fun for small children to learn. Little bird (hands under arm pits, elbows out) big bird (arms out to the side, even with shoulders) flap (push hands down to hips). This can be done with flutter kicks, or a modified whip kick where the feet move down, out and together simultaneously.
Other skills to practice with preschoolers include bobs (bubbles under water, big breath when you come up), and kicking and reaching for the wall. Kids that are comfortable with floating can also practice rolling from their front to their back.
School-Age Kids (Ages 6 and up)
Safety: All the previous rules apply. Kids this age may be ready for head-first entries and are likely to start doing crazy jumps. Discuss proper areas for head-first entries (9 feet minimum depth) and don't allow any flips off the side of the pool.
Cues: Will depend on the strokes you decide to teach your child
Skills: The majority of kids this age have the physical development to learn all six proper swimming strokes: front crawl, back crawl, sidestroke, breaststroke, elementary backstroke and butterfly. If your child is just starting swim instruction, the skills mentioned for younger kids in the preschool section is a great place to start for this age group as well. If your goal is to have your child swim competitively, this would be the time to get them onto a per-competition team in your area, as the coaches will be able to shape their swimming strokes. If the goal is simply to build their endurance and safety skills, concentrate on teaching front crawl, breaststroke, elementary backstroke and sidestroke. The Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety book and Swimming and Diving DVD are excellent, in-depth resources for proper stroke technique. Or, you can always look for YouTube videos detailing the stroke you would like to teach your child. Just search for "How to Swim Backstroke" for videos of proper technique. Older kids can watch with you to get a better idea of how the stroke should be done. Focus on four key areas of a stroke, which are breathing and timing, body position, arm action, and leg action.
More from this contributor:
Goggles: Essential Sports Equipment for Swimming Lessons
Swim Lessons for Preschoolers
Red Cross Swim Lessons: Level One