Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 to 19, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. Teaching your child to swim can help her know what to do if she accidentally falls into a pool or other body of water, and can help her develop a lifelong love of aquatics.
The Right Time
No parent wants to think about their child drowning, and it’s natural to want to protect babies and toddlers by teaching them to swim. However, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends waiting until your child is about 4 years old to begin swim lessons. At this age, motor skills are more developed and a child can voluntarily hold her breath for several seconds. While you can teach a younger child to propel herself through the water, flip over and float on her back, she should be within arm’s reach of an adult at all times in the water to prevent drowning.
Feeling Comfortable in the Water
A critical step in teaching your child to swim is letting your child get a feel for the water. Pool water is colder than bath or shower water, and pool chemicals can burn the eyes and nostrils. Begin your first lesson by teaching your child how to enter and exit the water safely using the pool steps. Staying within arm’s reach, make a game of going hand-over-hand around the pool and climbing out at the ladders. Let her get a feel for the strange sensation of moving through chest-deep and waist-deep water while walking, trying to run or playing games such as tossing a ball back and forth. Progressing beyond this step before your child is comfortable in the water can make her fearful during the rest of the learn-to-swim process.
Holding Your Breath
Keep swimming lessons fun with age-appropriate games and activities. Babies and toddlers enjoy rhymes and songs such as “Ring Around the Rosy” where everyone takes a dip under the water at the end of the song to get accustomed to not breathing underwater. Kids aged 4 to 9 enjoy retrieving underwater objects to develop their breath-holding skills. By age 6, kids are ready to practice the skill for its own merit, especially in pairs or groups. Holding hands and alternating bobbing is one fun way kids this age can learn rhythmic breathing. Diving to retrieve diving rings or other objects on the pool’s bottom is another.
Kicking and Stroking
A child younger than 4 or 5 doesn’t have the developmental skills to do specific kicks associated with swimming strokes, but she can undulate her body with a modified frog kick to propel herself through the water while you are holding on to her. When your child develops the ability to alternately kick her legs for a flutter kick, you can develop both body position and kicking skills with the Superman game. Have her extend her arms in front of her, kicking her legs behind while pretending to be Superman flying over the city. You can place toys on the bottom for her to dive down and “rescue” as well. Kids older than 6 respond well to flutter kick races or contests to see who can make the biggest kick. Once the kids have the hang of the Superman exercise, its just a matter of teaching them to pull alternately with their arms and turn slightly on their side to grab a breath. The thrill of actually swimming usually precludes the need for games at this stage.