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 Suffolk 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?
"In reality, there are very few children who aren't afraid of the water before they learn how to swim. The best thing a parent can do for their child is act calmly and confidently around the water. If Mom or Dad is fearful or anxious, the child will sense it and mimic that behavior. Having fun in and around the water is essential for a child's confidence. Starting from an early age in the bathtub, have children submerge their faces, blow bubbles and attempt to float. Once young children begin to be invited to friends' houses for swimming parties and play dates, their desire to swim competitively and competently with friends and classmates becomes a wonderful and healthy incentive.
Parents should focus on being safe around water. And always remain positive. Say something like: 'Mommy wants to be sure that if you ever fell in the pool you could be brave and strong enough to swim back to the side all by yourself.' An approach such as this gives the child a goal to focus on, and uses real-world possibilities without being too specific or scary. The words 'drowning' and 'dying' should be left out of every pool talk with young children.
While parents can make sure their children are taught in a heated pool for comfort, in my experience, a child who is complaining about being cold is generally fearful of the next activity or skill and uses 'being cold' as a way of avoiding the undesirable task. If you see blue lips, though, it's time for some sun and a break!
Play with your children in the water! Go slowly at first, holding the child in your arms, then by the hands, then hold only one hand, and so on, until the child feels confident. This can take a few hours or a few days. Always be honest, and never move faster than your child is comfortable. Once they have some confidence, play small games of water tag (where they can stand) or throw around a beach ball. The more fun and experience they get, the more excited and ready they will be to take their first swim."
-Kevin Cranmer, certified water safety instructor, Sportime, Kings Park
"All children want to learn how to swim, especially if their friends and family already enjoy the water. The best way is to make the learning process fun and to reassure the child that he will not be forced to go under the water until he is ready. Allow a child to learn at his own pace. Once children realize this and learn to trust the instructors they will be much more willing to try different tasks that will be necessary during the learning process. They'll begin by learning the proper water-safety skills necessary in case of an emergency, and eventually learn to swim. Patience is the key to teaching this type of student."
-Jim Hazen, president and founder, Saf T Swim, with locations throughout Long Island
"As a former kindergarten teacher, I think it is important for parents to accept that they are in charge of the decision-making for their children. The child does not get to decide whether or not he or she wants swimming lessons. Knowing how to swim is a survival skill generally speaking, and particularly on Long Island, where most families have pools and we live so close to the water. I have often encountered children who cry and have temper tantrums upon entering the pool for the first time. Our instructors are trained to deal patiently and lovingly with the children, and parents should take the same approach. The children always come to enjoy the pool experience by the second or third lesson. We often ask the parents to leave the pool area where their children can make eye contact with them and attempt to exert control of the situation by having a temper tantrum. Children usually stop crying at that point. After a few lessons, the children feel more confident and see that the swimming pool is a fun place.
-Susan McCormick, TITLE TK, School of Fish Swim & Scuba, Rocky Point
"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.