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Keeping Cool in the Pool

  Most parents recognize the need to give their children swimming lessons to keep them safe in the water. But teaching philosophies may vary from one program to the next. So how do parents choose the right swim program for their child? Check out what these experts have to say about age appropriateness, program size and instruction, submersion techniques, fear of water and more.

  When should lessons start? The earlier the better, says Rob McKay, American Swimming Coaches Association level 4 instructor of the Lifestyle Swim School in Florida. “The sooner a child gets acclimated to the water, the more comfortable he will be. I recommend starting classes no later than 18 months of age. Somewhere around 19 months children are more resistant to new experiences,” he says.

  Eric Norman, administrator for Health and Emergency Education at the American Red Cross (ARC), agrees. “It’s especially important for children whose parents have fears of the water,” he says. “Even if they say they’re not afraid, kids can pick up on that fear and feed off of it.”

  How long and how often should lessons be? This can vary depending upon the age of the student, his attention span and the program. For infant/parent classes, McKay recommends one to two times a week for approximately 30 minutes. As children get older and begin learning various techniques, instruction should increase to four to five times a week for about 30 minutes each session. The longer a child goes between sessions, the more likely he will forget what he’s learned.

  What is the best class size and student/teacher ratio? This too can vary. For children, it normally ranges from six to 10 students per instructor. More important than ratio, says Norman, is pool depth, age and ability of the class.

  What should I look for in an instructor? The two key qualifications an instructor must have are proper certification and good interaction skills with students. Norman believes anyone teaching swimming should be certified through a water safety instruction course, such as ones offered by the ARC. Equally important is that the instructor has a good rapport with the students. “Unless a child trusts the instructor, it’s hard to make any progress,” he says.

  What is the right way to handle fears? The way swimming is taught is the most crucial factor, says McKay. In his 30-plus years of teaching, he has encountered a host of children and adults who were afraid of the water due to improper training. “The biggest mistake many parents and instructors make is forcing a child into the water,” says McKay, who spends numerous hours each week deprogramming fears. “The key is to redirect their attention with something they will enjoy — activities, games or puppets.”

  For example, during a recent swimming class, McKay encountered a 20-month-old child who screamed every time he got near the pool. Rather than forcing him in, McKay replaced fear with fun. First he took a basketball hoop — one used during class sessions — and set it outside of the pool so the boy could shoot baskets. Once he was distracted from his fear, the basketball net was moved closer to the pool, and eventually to the edge of the pool. After two hours, he was standing on the second step in the pool, tossing the basketball through the hoop.

  What is the safest way to submersion? Perhaps the most frightening aspect for those who have a fear of the water is not getting in — it’s going under. Although there are many right ways to teach submersion, there is definitely one wrong way. Both Norman and McKay agree no one should ever be forced to put their head under the water. When well-meaning parents and instructors try this approach, it results is an even greater fear of the water.

  “Only when a child is happy and comfortable with his surroundings — the water, the teacher and his classmates — should he be taught to put his head under the water,” says McKay. For a child new to the swim experience, or one already having a fear of the water, McKay suggests easing into it. “The first few days we spend time playing — getting used to being in the water. Then we pour water down the front of their faces,” he says. This continues until the children are completely comfortable with having their faces wet, normally by the fourth or fifth session.

  “Then we dip their cheeks one at a time in the water,” he continues. “Finally when the child is completely comfortable with having his face wet, we hold and dip him under the water. It’s important to put the entire face under — eyes, nose and mouth — all at the same time.”

  What should I look for in a program? Before enrolling in a program, stop by the school and sit in on a class. Watch how the instructor interacts with the students. Is he encouraging them without pushing too hard? Is he patient and respectful of any fears? Is he consistent? Does he use positive reinforcement? Are the students listening and attentive? Do they seem happy? Is the program geared for the skill level and age of the student?


Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines, the mother of three children and has four grandchildren.

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