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," says Jack Muchnick, director of Hudson Valley Aquatics in Suffern. "Let water experiences be part of quality family time. The positive tone can be set early on during a child's bathing experience, where it's easy to keep things fun and interactive."
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 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 for their advice.
Ask the Experts:
How can I encourage my child to learn how to swim if she is completely uninterested or afraid?
"As a swimming instructor for 22 years I have used many different methods to get children comfortable around the water. I tell parents to have their older kids take a shower and get their faces wet; to have their younger kids blow bubbles in the bath, then come out of the water and catch their breath. These are simple tasks that help give children control over their environment. Comfort is key. Children have to feel comfortable and trust you. I try to develop a bond with every child I am teaching so that he or she will want to swim with me. I try to take my cues from the child, but parents have to remember that a child senses a parent's fear, also, so try to be calm and also convey a sense of confidence in the teacher you have entrusted your child's lessons to. As a parent myself, I like other parents to realize that anything I do with their children I have done with my own.
I make the children feel comfortable by singing familiar songs that can easily be modified for the pool. Such as: 'The kids on the bus go up and down, up and down...' - which can be sung while the children are encouraged to start standing up (out of the water), then dip down (under the water). Try making playful connections: When you teach them to bob under the water, say they are poppingup like toast from a toaster. Such games and songs that they can also do on land help them make the adjustment when it comes time to go into the pool.
The most important thing is to let the children know that it's okay to be afraid, and that they will always be safe with you."
-Tammy Jones, aquatic director, Champion Day Camp, New City
"As children feel more comfortable around water, it becomes easier to introduce them to swim instruction. So I encourage parents to make the water an enjoyable experience; minimize a child's fears by playing together and being supportive and gentle. Use games and toys to encourage a child's interest level around the water. The more that holds his attention, the more likely he is to participate. And address a child's physical comfort as well as his emotional comfort: Keep water temperature warm (you can use a solar cover at home to help). These things will help a reluctant child transition more easily into the water. In our camp, where activities are geared to younger children (ages 2-6), we have a pool that is shallow enough to allow children to walk and feel the bottom, which gives them a feeling of safety and helps to build confidence."
-Gail Doroff, owner and director, Robin Hill School & Camp, Suffern
"The road to success is based upon patience and persistence. Be supportive and understanding. Remember to minimize the reaction to any issues that might be used as an excuse to not participate, and adapt to your child's needs to keep him or her involved. Some examples: For someone who complains of the cold, keep him constantly moving, especially kicking, to warm that engine! There are also thin wet-suit tops with short sleeves that can help warm a child up. If a child can't stand water in her nose, encourage her to blow lots of bubbles in the bath or the pool, starting just before her face breaks the surface of the water, so she gets comfortable. For unwanted water in the eyes, reassure a child that it is ok to open his eyes under water, and make it a game to see how long she can keep them open at a time. It's all about reassurance and helping the child feel more comfortable.
If your child is scared of heading into a formal lesson environment, it can help to join a class with another child he already knows. Request to visit the pool before the first lesson, to have a trial class, and keep yourself visible to minimize separation anxiety. It is well worth searching for a program that teaches with lots of training tools, and one that has the ability to isolate the various components of the whole stroke.
Remember to be positive and provide rewards for simply participating."
-Jack Muchnick, director, Hudson Valley Aquatics, Suffern
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