An estimated five to 10 million infants and preschoolers participate in formal aquatic instruction programs throughout the United States. Programs for the littlest water bugs focus on getting them comfortable in the water as well as helping parents become aware of basic safety measures (for instance, whenever infants or toddlers are in or around water, an adult should be within arm's reach, providing "touch supervision"). But when your child hits the age of four, he is developmentally ready to undergo formal swimming lessons. And every child should learn how to swim to reduce the risk of drowning.
"The best approach is to make everything about water fun and positive," says Caroline Kaczor, aquatics and health director at Sportime NY. "Take baby steps," she suggests. "At bath time, start small by getting your child to pour cups of water on his or her head. Let your child lead the operation depending on her comfort level."
But what if your son or daughter isn't so eager to get wet? Whether due to fear of the water or a simple aversion to feeling cold, some youngsters just don't want to get in the pool to learn. Remember that, as Kaczor reiterates, "It's best not to force anything if the child is fearful." But there are always measures parents can take to ease their child's transition from non-swimmer to willing participant. To help you, we asked local experts in Manhattan - including swimming instructors and aquatics directors - for their advice.
Ask the Experts:
How can I encourage my child to learn how to swim if she is completely uninterested or afraid?
"The fear of water issue is very delicate. Parents and teachers must exude patience and develop a sense of trust with children. For a child who is scared of the learning experience in the water, slower learning of skills and connecting with the instructor is a must. All of these components, plus making sure a child has fun while in the water, will ensure positive learning and repeated enthusiasm for all. If a child is merely ambivalent because of the cold or is particularly sensitive to it, we recommend going online to Kiefer or Speedo and ordering a kid's wetsuit for as low as twenty-five dollars. Several of the parents in our program took that advice and their children are fine now!"
-Agnes Davis, president/CEO, swim swim swim I say, Upper Manhattan
"The key is to make swimming fun! If an activity is enjoyable, the child will feel more secure and take more risks (of course, under appropriate supervision). Keep in mind that a child's individual personality and age is very important for aquatic readiness. So whatever you do, never force your child into the water. However, if your child does not seem particularly thrilled about getting in the water, keep in mind that 10-15 minutes with a professional instructor is a bigger step toward swimming than no exposure at all. Another suggestion would be to go in the water with the child. Encourage positive interaction while in the pool-even if your child decides to just sit on the side and watch you blow bubbles. Eventually he or she will want to join the fun. Make bathtub time a blast and then bring some of the bathtub toys into the pool to ease the transition."
-Lane Wineski, director of aquatics, May Center for Health, Fitness, and Sport, 92nd Street Y
"Establish pool safety rules such as: only enter the pool if an adult is watching; and, no running around the pool area. Don't focus on what can happen if the rules are broken, but be clear that the rules must be followed.
Trust is extremely important. If you say that you'll be there to catch your child, show him continually that you will catch him when he says he needs you. Show your child how much fun you have while swimming in the pool as he watches from the side. This may make him want to join you.
Most of the children I've worked with who were fearful or uncomfortable about swimming began to enjoy the pool experience while sitting on the first couple of steps. Let children play with underwater dive toys in the shallow water from the safety of the steps, where they feel comfortable and in control of the situation. When you're little, that pool can look extremely daunting! Practice kicking, putting her face in the water (even if it's just a little bit at a time) and reaching underwater for toys. The more at ease the child is near the water, the more likely she will have the desire to learn how to swim."
-Caroline Kaczor, aquatics and health director, Sportime NY, with locations on Randall's Island, in Westchester, and throughout Long Island
"Bringing your children to a pool or other swimming facility at a young age (starting at 6 months) will allow them to be comfortable in the water as they grow older. I have seen many children as young as 2 years old swimming on their own without taking professional lessons, simply because their parents have been diligent about bringing them into the pool consistently starting at six months old.
However, when an older child is resistant to swimming or has fear of the water, there are things you can do to help in the adjustment period. Cold water always makes children not want to enter the pool, so when choosing a pool to learn in, try to pick one that keeps their water temperature above 86 degrees. (Many lap pools are kept at much cooler temperatures to accommodate adult workouts.) Warmer water will create a more inviting environment for children, and will keep them in the pool longer, increasing the skills they can learn and practice. If this is not an option, there are many cool-looking wetsuits to keep children warm in the water, many of which are designed to actually help your child with buoyancy.
Other fear issues can develop suddenly, often brought on by an unpleasant experience in the water. In these situations it is important for children to regain their confidence by learning to build trust with a specific person in the water. Speak with the program director about your child's personality and swimming fears so that you can work together to find the teacher and class that will be the best match.
Children are intuitive learners, and they learn best when encouraged not only by a teacher, but also by other children. Swimming with their peers encourages children to participate and try things they see the other children trying. Not every child would be comfortable jumping into a group class right away. A good place to start is to join a pool that offers family swim hours. Children can adjust to the water by just playing. They will begin to let go of their fears and will even develop a desire to learn new swimming skills.
Lastly, it is always important to remember that fear is real. Be sensitive to your children's fears. And understand that with patience and the right kind of positive encouragement, they will overcome these fears in time."
-Alex Roche, director, Downtown Community Center, and former aquatics director for Manhattan Youth Swim School, Lower Manhattan
Also see more advice from experts in your area.