If you’re anything like me, teaching a young child how to swim can be challenging. However, over my two years of experience, I’ve figured out a few things that have helped me.
1. Make up a schedule
When you set up a few different lessons in one day, it’s easy to make mistakes. Some people schedule theirs weeks in advance, while others do so the day before, which can get confusing. As soon as you confirm a time/date you’re going to have a lesson, add it to your phone or paper calendar. I learned that the hard way. (I’ve made the mistake of scheduling two lessons at once more than I should have. Luckily, those affected were flexible and forgiving. Not everyone will be.) It’s calming to be able to wake up, look at your calendar, and know exactly what you have to do that day.
2. Keep them Short
I personally do not offer swimming lessons for more than a half hour at a time. Some children can be difficult to entertain even for 30 short minutes, and a distracted child won’t be able to learn quickly or easily.
3. Switch Topics
Drills and kick can get repetitive, and if the kids get bored, they won’t cooperate. One of their favorite things to do is go underwater 1.5 seconds after you start speaking, come back up, pretend they heard everything you said, and proceed to do the opposite of what you asked. This can be extremely frustrating. Switch from kick, to swimming with the noodle, to diving sticks, etc., until you run out of time. The younger ones tend to get bored every few minutes. If you keep them on their toes, they’ll be more attentive and learn what you need them to.
4. Kicking is key
I don’t think there’s anything I say more than the words Let’s do some kick. The thing I see most with the little ones is that their legs sink when they try to tread (or swim freestyle). They need to be able to balance out their bodies. Keeping their legs as straight as possible and kicking with a kickboard (or holding onto the gutter) is essential to learning how to swim. With practice, this will eventually allow them to stay afloat.
I try to start out my lessons on an experimental basis. What would you like to learn? Can you swim in the five feet by yourself? Do you like jumping in? Be sure to ask the parents as well as the child what they would like to get out of their lessons. Families with two siblings sometimes try and schedule their kids at the same time, but I’ve found that working with two kids at once can be distracting and counterproductive. In some cases, like if you’re working with a younger and older sibling, the younger one tries to mirror what the older one does, so it can be beneficial to work with them together. You have to figure out what works for each child, because everyone is different.
6. Make a game out of it
The kids that are the most fun to work with are the ones that like a challenge. Challenge them to swim from the wall to the ladder, and if their feet touch the ground, they have to start over. After they’ve done that, have them try again, except a little bit further. It is important to make sure you take everything slowly, which can be difficult when swimming is so easy to us. My favorite thing to do is bring my hula hoop into the pool, stand it up perpendicular to the bottom of the pool, and have the child swim through it. Bright, eye-catching diving sticks can be super helpful as well. Ask them to pick their favorite color and go get it from the bottom of the pool. Take baby steps going deeper each time. By the time they’re in the deep end, they won’t even have realized how far they have come.
7. Lighten up
The child you are working with is most likely starting out using a floatie. Yes, there are great for safety and comfort, but learning to swim is about going out of your comfort zone. Gently tell them that you want them to try using something else, and that it’s going to help them float, too. Gradually give them lighter and lighter floating devices until they are swimming with a noodle, and then nothing at all.
8. Words are important
Being a swimmer for 10 years now, it is easy to use terms like “fly, back, breast, and free”, which, while automatic to us, sounds like a foreign language to others. Find different ways to explain things. I now call butterfly kick “dolphin kick” or “mermaid kick”, and ask them to think like a dolphin (glue their legs together like a tail.) When teaching breaststroke kick, I find that kids are more prone to getting it if they say the movements out loud (up, out, together) as they kick. Associate a word with each movement.
9. Make them feel safe
One of the most frustrating things can be fear. For the majority of children, water is scary. It can be difficult to pass the fear stage. However, it helps that I am a lifeguard. The kids tend to feel safer when I am wearing my red Guard bathing suit. If you tell the child that you’ll stay right with them, they are more inclined to do so. Let them hold onto you. They will grab your hand when they need to. Constantly remind them “I have been swimming for years” or “I am a lifeguard” and that you are right with them and that they will be safe. Trust means the world when it comes to teaching them how to take on the scary deep end.