Friday, May 13, 2016

Teaching a Toddler How to Swim: What Is Working for Us

"Wow, you're kids must be great swimmers!" We hear this a lot from people when they meet us and learn that we live on a sailboat with our young children. While our girls are only aged two and four - very respectable ages to remain reliant on floatation devices, mind you - in the live-aboard/cruising world, many children are skilled swimmers by these ages. Ours, however, were not. I was embarrassed to admit that, "No, none of our girls swim actually..."feeling a little pang of parental shame and longing for the day my girls could swim freely like many of their boat and island dwelling peers. Regardless, I knew not to push or force the issue, to let things happen on their own time and remained patient and vigilant about exposing them to swimming children and plenty of time in the water.

A few weeks ago I made the acquaintance of the lovely "Grannie Annie" who is something of a legend here on Tortola (her husband started the infamous Willy T floating bar over at Norman Island). She moved here in 1957 and has been a swim instructor for over 40 years, instructing hundreds and hundreds of children how to swim during her illustrious career.  Her entire family - right down to the grandkids - are lovely and they give back to the community in big ways. She oozes patience and kindness and is the kind of soul you are happy to know. Immediately drawn to her, we started talking and she said she'd love to help teach our girls to swim once a week when time and weather permitted. I was thrilled.

So far, we have had ONE lesson with the lovely Annie and I am super proud to say, we now have a swimmer! And once things clicked, it happened fast (we laid some good ground work, for sure). There are steps we took that expedited things, and I am going to share what we did and what worked for us (because I now wished we'd done some of them earlier). Keep in mind, I am not a child swim instructor and have zero professional knowledge on this subject. It's personal, not professional, experience. I share what we have done and learned (some of which came from Grannie Annie, who *is* a professional), simply to tell you what worked for us, and what might work for you. I realize there are many different methods and schools of thought regarding teaching kids to swim, so these may or may not jive with you. If you happen to be a professional swim instructor and have other tips to add, I welcome them! Please add in the comments so we all can learn. As with anything regarding children, use your own discretion and do your own research if you have questions.
Isla's first lesson with Annie, she started with a small back float and lost it within the hour.
Teaching a Toddler to Swim, Tricks that Have Worked For Us:
  1.  Don't force it. Forcing kids to do things (like eat veggies, potty train, and wear the cute outfit grandma got them) usually doesn't bode well for anyone. As much as I'd loved to have had Isla swimming by age two, she simply was not interested. She loved the water, but hated (and I mean hated) getting her hair and face wet. We were patient and let her get comfortable very slowly. Bath time helped a lot with this, but she was still what I would call a "slow adopter". Every child is different. The twins, on the other hand, have no issue getting their heads and faces wet, blowing bubbles and going underwater, so they are much further ahead at age two than Isla was at their age. We concentrate as much as possible on having fun in the water and not making it torture. 
  2.  Expose them to water as much - and as early - as possible. This is also a no-brainer, but a child who is never around water is probably not going to be super comfortable in it. Practice makes perfect. We are very lucky to live in a marina with a gorgeous pool that we can use freely, and we bring our girls there at least four times a week to swim and play. Don't have a pool? No problem. You can get over a lot of swimming hurdles (like getting hair and face wet, learning to blow bubbles, floating on tummy, etc) in a backyard baby pool or even a bathtub. 
    Watering cans and water toys in a tub can go a long way in getting kids comfortable in the water
  3. Start them with simple tricks. As mentioned above, starting early with things like: getting your child comfortable getting his or her head and face wet (you can use a small cup, or one of those cups with holes in the bottom to create a shower effect), teaching them how to blow bubbles in the water, showing your child how to wipe water out of their eyes, and practicing the proper kicking position either using a pool noodle, floaties or a kickboard can go a long way in garnering the skills that lead to swimming. These little tricks will lay some solid groundwork to help set up your child for swimming success when they start lessons (either with you or an official program). Start simple and don't forget to make it FUN!
  4. Get them a mask, goggles and/or a snorkel. When Isla was still in her puddle jumper, the introduction of a mask and snorkel really kick-started her efforts to learn to swim. The mask got her so much more excited about swimming, not to mention it naturally put her in the correct position in the water (prone on tummy, not straight up and down like so many children instinctively do when first starting). The mask and snorkel also greatly improved her kicking motion from the ineffective "bicycle" kick to the proper swim kick. We use these Aqua Sphere goggles for our girls, which are great for swimming. And we have this mask and snorkel set for Isla, which she loves and actually prefers over goggles. 
    The snorkel was a HUGE hit with Isla and she snorkeled months before she swam
  5. Expose them to other kids swimming. There is no greater way to get a kid excited about doing something than to show him or her a friend or peer that is doing that same thing. When Isla would see her friends swimming in the pool without floatation aids, she would run up and ask when she could swim without them. Sometimes, a little peer pressure is a good thing. The fact that big sister is swimming now has Haven hot on her tail.
  6. Start with puddle jumpers. I know that using floatation devices is frowned upon by many swim instructors, but for me - bringing three toddlers to the pool by myself would be impossible without them. These Puddle Jumpers really gave my girls confidence in the water and gave me some serious peace of mind.  Our girls love swimming in them and the freedom and independence they allow. While they are rated for 30-50 lbs, we actually had the twins swimming in these much earlier, about sixteen months and just made sure to keep a close eye so no little arms slipped out. These are also Coast Guard Certified as child floatation devices so they can double as life vests on the dock or during dinghy ride if need be (we still use a proper life vest when sailing). Keep in mind, having these floaties on your children doesn't mean you can leave your kids unattended (one arm out of the sling and they will no longer float properly), but you can relax a little more knowing your kids will swim easily and comfortably wearing these.
  7. Move onto a progressive back float. We had some cruising friends visit us at the marina and their two (adorable) kids were the same ages as ours. Both their kids, however, could swim. "How?!" I asked, desperate. Hermione presented me with a progressive back float with four foam boards on it. The idea behind the float is three fold: 1) The kids must work to use them (do NOT take your eyes off the kids as this is a swim aid, NOT a floatation device) 2) They teach proper swimming positioning (on belly, not straight up and down) and 3) You can remove the foam boards one by one as your child gains confidence in the water. I ordered this brand and within two days Isla went from four floats to two. Haven, who started with four two weeks ago, is currently swimming two and well on her way to swimming unaided. Mira, our little 'lazy river' swimmer is happy as a clam to just float in the water in her puddle jumper still, and we're totally okay with that.
    Very proud of going from four floats to two. It was super easy and painless.
  8. Add fins. This right here is the piece de resistance and we have Grannie Annie to thank for it. Never in a million years would I have thought to put my toddler in fins to help her swim, but Annie told me that they instinctively teach kids to kick properly (and not simply bicycle) in the water. I was apprehensive, but trusted her implicitly. Within one hour of wearing the fins and getting used to them, Isla was confidently swimming without a float. It was amazing. She is still using the fins, mind you, which in and of themselves are a form of assistance I guess, but she is swimming properly, with good form and gaining more and more confidence every day. Soon enough we will lose the fins, just as we have every other device - but for now, these were the magic bullet that made the most dramatic improvement. Granny Annie got Isla's fins from K-Mart in St. Thomas, but if I were to buy a pair I'd go for these well-reputed toddler fins.
  9. Teach them to "zoom". Annie taught me this trick. What you do is hold your child under their arms alongside you near a wall or the stairs, somewhere they are comfortable and can easily stand or hold on, step a few feet away, and then "zoom" them - essentially glide by pushing through the water - back to where they can stand. This is how we got Isla swimming on her own. After three or four "zooms", she was good to go. The gliding feeling gave her the proper swimming sensation, and eventually she started kicking and swimming on her own. Note: this is a somewhat advanced technique and Isla protested a lot at first because it requires the parent or teach to let go of the child which can be scary for the child. But if we don't let go, how will they learn on their own? Eventually she got it. 
    The flippers that made the biggest difference of all!
Watching Isla learn to swim, and being a part of it every step of the way, has been one of the most incredible moments in parenthood for me thus far. "I am so proud of myself mommy!" she tells me. Obviously this particular skill is heavily weighted due to our lifestyle and the fact that being able to swim is not only a huge benefit to enjoying island/boat life, but also a means for survival, which is a huge relief. While we are certainly not at the point where I'd leave her in a pool unattended or take my eyes off her for any considerable length of time while she's in the water, she is getting stronger every day. We will continue her lessons with the infamous (and simply magical) "Granny Nanny Annie" and her skills will continue to improve. There is still much work to be done, but we turned a major corner over here and I hope our tips can help some of you to get your tots swimming!

A huge THANK YOU to the wonderful "Grannie Nanny Annie" who really helped us turn this corner. We are forever indebted to you! xo


Robert Salnick said...

I have long been an advocate of fins, as it is simply impossible to kick incorrectly when wearing them, and the feedback when you get it right is powerful, instantaneous and unmistakable.

Chantal said...

My four year old started swimming underwater at 3, but she cannot get her head above water, so once she's down, she's down! She can hold her breath pretty well and swim to where she's going, but we have to stick close. I think I'm going to get one of those back floatie things to help her out!

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