Have you ever tried to get your young child to enjoy spending time in the water? Reactions can be varied, with some children taking to it almost immediately—splashing and laughing, they cry when they have to get out. Others respond to being placed in the water by screaming and struggling, desperate for escape.
Well, one sweltering summer day in southeast Texas, I was peacefully reading a book by the side of the pool at our rental complex, when my six year old daughter ran up to me dripping wet, and pleaded, “Mom, teach me how to swim!”
She had been playing in the shallow end of the pool, wistfully watching a group of 8 to 11 year olds play “Snatch the Penny from the Bottom of the Deep End of the Pool.” (This was in the late 80’s, before the days had arrived when all kids, from 3 to 30-something, had become computer-game geeks!
She kept jumping up and down, splashing water everywhere, pleading with me to get in and teach her how to swim. “Watch out! You’re getting water all over my cast!” I quipped. “You know I can’t get into the pool and get it wet.”
A very strong swimmer myself, I had been able to swim the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool underwater, as well as, using only my hands, or only my feet, when I was a college student ten years earlier. However, a few weeks before my daughter’s insistent request, I had stepped off the side of someone’s porch after dark, right into a hole formed by rainwater falling from the roof, and broken my left leg, just above the ankle. There was no way I was getting into the water that day.
However, it was also the day my strong-willed daughter had decided she was going to learn how to swim! So, there I was, high and dry, trying to figure out how I was going to accomplish the task of teaching a person to swim, without getting into the water myself!
Over the years, since that time, I have used the techniques I’m about to describe, to assist parents in getting their children to overcome their fear of the water, and learn to swim. A screaming three year old, terrified of the water, and clawing to get out, can be transformed into a splashing little giggle-pus, happily blowing bubbles in the water with Mommy or Daddy. And a five or six year old can go from being afraid, to becoming a swimmer in a single day!
Now ordinarily, a six year old would not have the attention span, or courage, to follow only verbal instructions, and hand gestures, to learn how to swim. But, my daughter was especially motivated that day. She had watched that shiny penny repeatedly sink into the watery depths long enough. It didn’t matter in the least to her that the neighborhood children were older than she was. She just wanted her turn at winning the game of “Deep Water Copper Coin Keep-Away!”
Note: Never attempt these or other water activities, without the close supervision of a responsible adult who knows how to swim.
These are the steps we used in the shallow end of the pool, on the day I stayed dry, and my daughter learned to swim:
Water Readiness Training
1) Practice putting your face into the water, to get used to the feel of being submerged.
If you want to pinch your nose shut at first, that’s ok. When you feel more comfortable, try it without holding your nose. Just blow bubbles while your face is under the water, and don’t breathe in, and you’ll find that it’s not so bad.
2) Open your mouth wide, stop breathing, put your face under the water again, and come right back up! (You will see that all the water just falls right back out of your mouth—if you don’t swallow or breathe in.) Practice this step over and over.
3) Next, sit in water up to your shoulders (or neck, if you’re brave), and let your arms and hands hang loose and relaxed, out by your sides in the water. Now, make a “scoop” or “cup” with your fingers and start pulling yourself forward. Practice until you can feel yourself being pulled forward by your hands every time.
4) In this paddling practice, you stay in the seated (or a kneeling) position, and begin to make figure-eights with your cupped hands beside, or slightly in front of, your body.
As you try pushing your “cup” downward, you will begin to feel your body being pushed upward, from the force of your hands pushing against the water. (If not, try relaxing your arms, only, not your hands.) Use the downward part of your figure-eight stroke to forcefully push against the water, until you feel yourself being lifted up a little. Practice again, until you can lift yourself every time!
Now that you’re not afraid of getting your face wet, and know how to move your hands, it’s time to float on your back:
5) To do this, kneel in water that reaches your neck, with your back facing the shallow end of the pool (so you’re not afraid that you won’t be able to stand up and save yourself). Slowly relax and lay back in the water (letting your relaxed arms dangle out at your sides), doing light figure-eight strokes as you drift backward.
As your neck and head begin to get even with the top of the water surface, tilt your chin up to the sky. This simple step literally controls whether you sink or swim! (Your ears will have to be submerged for your head to float, because your head is surprisingly heavy —whether you use it or not!) Your upper body will begin to float backwards, and you will be almost there!
6) As you practice floating backward, you will notice that your legs and feet remain at the bottom. To raise them up, as you float backwards, start taking little steps upwards, (like you are trying to walk your feet up to the surface), using a little bit of a bicycle-pedaling motion.
Again, the harder you push down with your feet as you pedal, the more upward force you will feel on your legs and lower body. When you feel comfortable going inward towards the shallow end of the pool, try going across the shallow end, in about waist-deep water.
7) Grab the side of the pool with both hands, facing out of the pool, and push your lower body up from the bottom. Practice your bicycle kick, pushing hard on the kick going away from your body, until you can feel your legs pushing you forward.
(Here, I taught my daughter the “frog-leg kick”—because that’s the only one I knew! In the frog kick, you kick hard out to your sides and back; then, put your feet and legs together, and draw them up close to your body & repeat.)
Continue practicing your kick, until you feel yourself being pushed forward against the edge of the pool every time you kick.
8) Crouching down in about waist-high water, put the backs of your hands together, and stretch your arms out, until they are straight out in front of you. Next, cup your hands and pull out, away from you and back, like you are forming a big “D” in the water with each hand. You will feel yourself being propelled forward, and you can use your legs to “creep” along, as you pull yourself around in the shallow end of the pool. (My daughter called this the “Crab-Walk!”)
Now, get ready to put 2 and 2 together, and . . .
“Make Way for the Swimmer!
9) In this step, you will stand in waist-high water and launch yourself across the shallower end of the pool.
First, put the backs of your hands together, out in front of you, as you propel yourself forward, aiming your fingertips where you want to go, along the surface of the water.
10) Next, as your upper body makes contact with the water, use your outstretched hands, formed into cups, to scoop the water out from in front of you (pulling out and back, in the “D” formation). Start the bicycle (or frog-kick) leg motion.
(You will find that your mouth will dip down slightly below the surface of the water, right after each backward pull of your hands. Simply blow a few bubbles to keep the water out of your mouth.). Continue until you are able to go all the way across the pool, non-stop, without touching bottom.
Practice, and careful supervision of these 10 steps, is crucial to success, and my daughter was more than happy to practice that day. She was motivated by the prize: a penny! But the skills she gained that day are priceless!