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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Getting Your Child "Into the Swim" of Things

Jan 02, 2008 12:00AM

Knowing how to swim is an important lifetime skill—social as well as physical. In addition, with California’s many natural waterways and swimming pools, it is a critical safety skill.

“It’s important to start learning early,” says Debbie Meyer, winner of three Olympic gold medals for swimming and today the owner of a swim school near Sacramento. “The earlier the better, especially if they have regular access to a pool. By the time many babies are six months old they can become acclimated to the water and taught basic water skills.”

These basic skills include relaxation and confidence in the water, tolerating total submersion and floating. Most experts agree that early, happy water play prepares children for swimming lessons without fear of the water.

The groundwork can begin with your baby’s first bath as you dribble water gently over the head and face. As your child grows older and steadier, get into the bathtub together. While you hold on securely, let water cover the child’s body as he or she “floats” and “doggy paddles.”

Even when children have mastered the basic skills of submersion, floating, relaxation and confidence, they are not swimming in a technical sense. Still, they are well on their way to being ready for lessons because confidence in the water is the key to learning to swim.

Some experts believe formal swimming lessons should be delayed three when most children have the needed physical strength, coordination and maturity. On the other hand, some children can swim at 18 months or even less.

Should I Teach My Child?

Parents can often teach their children to swim, however this can be a trying experience, not unlike teaching a teenager to drive. Even if you are an expert swimmer, read a book or two for step-by-step methods to make your child water safe and a confident swimmer. Literature is also available from the American Red Cross and the YMCA.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel prepared to teach your child, you’ll want to turn to established swim lessons. For the very young child, there are often programs available where parent, youngster and swimming instructor all work together as a team.

Finding Swimming Lessons

Check local clubs, schools and park districts as well as the “Y.” Ask neighbors who have children of similar ages. Many local recreation & parks departments offer summer swimming lessons.

Swim programs are generally are staffed by accredited professionals with the skills to ensure steady progress and proper techniques. Programs range from one-on-one sessions to semi-private or group lessons. While location, facilities, program content and cost are important, an on-site evaluation may be the deciding factor.

Visit to watch some lessons in progress. Just as children’s personalities and capabilities differ, so do those of instructors. Perhaps the most important ingredient is that you and your child have trust and confidence in the teacher, so gauge teachers’ capabilities and the way they relate to children.

See if pool rules of behavior are enforced. Rules limiting running, yelling and other boisterous behavior are important to minimize apprehension and create a safe and relaxed learning environment.

Private or Group Lessons?

While private lessons are more expensive, most children learn faster in a one-on-one situation. Individual lessons also allow instructors to adjust their teaching style which is especially important if your child is afraid of the water, is shy around other children or becomes anxious in a new environment.

On the other hand, children in group lessons are motivated by their peers. For example, if Ryan is timid about blowing bubbles under water, it may be easier if he watches Emily “bubbling,” then holds her hand while they do it together. Most group lessons conclude with a “free swim.” This is unstructured time when the learner can practice newly acquired skills while playing with other kids with the instructor watching over the group and offering helpful hints.

Learning to Swim Takes Time

Most children progress steadily rather than rapidly, sometimes requiring many lessons and considerable encouragement from family members. Since each child is unique, the rate of progress will vary.

Olympian Meyer points out, “After children learn the basics, they must practice regularly or they will regress.” With the right start and enough practice, your child’s swimming skills will strengthen. Maybe your child will join a swim team at a local pool or later in high school or college. Who knows, your child could splash all the way to an Olympic Gold Medal!

Most children, however, are content with being able to play a game of “Marco Polo” as they swim with their friends. At whatever level, your child will possess the self-esteem and safety which come from competency at swimming.

Glenn Pribus taught “polliwogs” at his local YMCA during high school and college. He still swims daily.