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 experts in Nassau County, Long Island - 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?
"It is very important for any child to learn to swim with someone they trust. Look for an individual who is enthusiastic about swimming as well as excited to pass on to your children the fundamentals of swimming. It is a good idea to introduce kids slowly to the water. Parent/Child classes are a great option. Songs and games are a fun way to create an educational and productive swim lesson. Allowing children to bring toys from their home pool or bathtub to make them feel comfortable during a swim lesson is also a good idea. If a child is scared or has no interest in swimming, take them to watch a friend's lesson. Or a swim meet may peak their curiosity, and they can see for themselves that learning to swim is fun as well as important for their personal safety. Explain to children that once they learn to swim, there are many other aquatic opportunities they can participate in-water parks, lakes, beaches and boating. This will give them a goal to strive for. Most importantly, learning to swim is a lifelong skill that can also save a life."
-Melanie Zak, aquatics supervisor, Mid-Island Y JCC, Plainview
"There are a few ways to get a child to understand the importance of water safety even if the child is frightened of the water. One way is by having your child watch other kids his own age taking swimming lessons or just having fun in the pool. Seeing his peers overcome the same fears might inspire your child to successfully learn how to swim. Another option would be to make sure your child understands what he is missing by not learning how to swim, be it splashing in the pool, boating or other exciting water activities associated with summer.
It is important to overcome the excuses your child may give you for not entering the water. If he says that the water is too cold, then take him to a warmer pool. If he shows interest in something other than swimming, use that activity as a reward for swimming a lap or treading water. Remember, it is important to be patient. Children are all different and will learn at their own pace. A parent can only push so hard before the child will push back and resist learning anything. As an instructor, I strive for progress lesson to lesson, but I also want to make the water as enjoyable as possible to the child so they will want to come back!"
-Marshall Kurland, aquatic supervisor, Sid Jacobson JCC, East Hills
"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 throughout Long Island
Also see more advice from experts in your area.