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Hi, I’m Mama Shark!
Let me start out by saying: I’m a huge can of swim lessons for kids (and adults!). In fact, my first career (prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom and founder of Mama Shark) was dedicated to forming, building, and running a swim instruction business that included a swim academy for swim lessons. I love swim lessons! So why would I write about how to develop your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons?
With the present pandemic restrictions, many pools and instructors have not been able to resume swim lessons as usual, and many kids are missing out on a key part of their education- learning to swim!
So I’d like to pass along some of my professional swim instructor tips for improving your child’s swimming skills when you don’t have access to swim lessons. Notice I did not say that this is a comprehensive learn-to-swim tool- because it’s not.
Developing your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons
These are bits and pieces that it’s easy for parents to work on with their children to make the learning to swim process easier and faster when regular lessons and more pool exposure can resume. You can easily teach your kid to swim when you focus on these pieces!
Also note that different ages of children learn differently, so these tips are primarily targeted at kids ages 5-8, mostly because a little creativity will allow you to adjust things up or down to fit your child’s current age and needs! I’ve also focused on learn-to-swim skills, since that’s the subsection of lessons least likely to be available currently (due to the face-to-face nature of it).
For the absolute beginner- no swimming skills
This is the child who shies away from putting their face in the water and has no swimming experience- but it’s also the foundation for the rest of the skills, so it helps to start here when teaching your kid to swim, even if it’s review!
1. Practice cuing.
“Laura, 1-2-3!” *splash*
Cuing is using a set of words over and over to associate a word with an action and reaction. In this case, this cue is going to tell your child that their face is about to get wet and they need to hold their breath. This is one that you can start in the bathtub as you rinse their hair- I like “NAME 1-2-3 (then pour water on their head)” but you can choose what works for you- as long as you’re consistent! This is a great way to develop their swimming skills without swim lessons if you don’t have access to a pool or other body of water.
Once they’ve got the hang of the water being poured on after the cue, you can try using the same cue before submerging. Feel free to start slow- submerge the chin or mouth, then once they’re good with that, move up to the nose, eyes, etc.
Some kids may not move straight from cuing into submersion and may need some time on in-between steps- take it at their pace!
2. Practice getting OUT!
I know this may seem counter-intuitive to practice getting out of the pool, but think about it: the number one priority is water SAFETY. That means that if your child fell in, they could safely get out or get help. Therefore, one of the first skills that needs to be mastered is actually getting out!
To practice this, take them to any area of the pool where they could potentially get out, and practice there. Ramps, ladders, steps, and the side are all good places to practice.
In addition, practice reaching for and holding onto the side of the wall and crawling hand over hand to somewhere where they can get out on their own.
Developing skills for the non-swimmer – unable to swim, but willing to put their face in the water
With children who are willing to put their face in the water, you can move onto the next step of developing your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons: breathing and floating.
1. Breathing practice
It wouldn’t seem like breathing is something you’d need to practice, but trust me. It’s one of the main skills for learning to swim! Our brains are hardwired NOT to breathe in water. That means it can sometimes be a challenge to override that and learn to breathe out under water and in near the water.
To teach this, first teach your child to HUM- mouth closed and noise coming out of their mouth. (This is another great one for bath time!)
Once they’ve got the hang of humming, have them hum above the water, then slowly lower their face into the water while continuing to hum. Keep humming until they’ve lifted their face back up out of the water.
This one may take some practice. Don’t be surprised if they get some water up their nose a time or two. It happens! Make a silly game of snorting the water out or making a silly face when it happens and encourage them to try again when they’re ready. Remember, we want this to be fun! So don’t force it if they’ve had enough!).
When I’m teaching this skill, I like to make a big deal about the bubbles coming out of their NOSE. That’s usually a hilarious concept to this age group!
2. Basic front floating
Once they’ve got the hang of humming under the water, it’s time to try a front float! The important piece of developing this swimming skill is HEAD POSITION.
Think of it this way: Your body wants to go whatever direction the top of your head is pointing. If your head is pointing straight up, your body is going to want to go straight up; but since you can’t fly out of the water, your body will line up under your head IN the water, and your feet will end up underneath you.
On the other hand, if you want to do a front float (laying down in the water with your face in the water- a basic beginning position to start swimming!), tucking your chin and putting your face parallel to the floor of the pool will right away start to lift your feet!
Have your child try by stretching their arms in either an “I” or “Y” shape with the palms of their hands facing the bottom. It’s okay to add a few small kicks, but complete mastery means being able to do it without kicking to stay up.
The beginner swimmer – able to front float
The next step in developing your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons is learning to kick and to float on their back. Again, the focus here is on water safety and developing the ability to self-rescue. If a child can fall in, hold their breath, and either kick to where they can climb out or float on their back and call for help, then they have a lower chance of a water emergency.
Ultimately, we’d also like to combine these two skills. That way a child can float and kick on their front, then rotate to their back to breathe/be able to call for help, then flip back onto their front to continue toward the exit. This, however, can take a lot of practice- the rotation from front to back can take a while to learn…so patience is helpful here!
1. Learning to kick
The basics to remember:
-straight legs (not riding a bicycle!)
-pointed toes (like a dancer)
-feet just under the surface of the water
Below is a video that sums it up and shows this skill being taught with some games!
2. Floating on the back
Learning to float on your back can feel a little unnerving to some kids; usually it’s the water being in the ears- so encourage relaxation and make this super fun and positive! Sing songs, count, make their toys do it- and this is another one you can start introducing in the tub. They won’t float (unless you’ve got a pretty deep tub), but you can start getting them used to laying back and getting water in their ears. This will speed up the learning process at the pool.
To teach floating on their back, place your child’s head on your shoulder at or above the water. You can go down a bit once they’re comfortable. Encourage their arms down by their sides and not up and grabbing your hands or face!
Place your other hand under the small of their back to encourage a “belly up” position. Walk backward throughout this practice so that the water flows (slowly) from their head to their feet.
Practice relaxing in this position- and lots of it! Once they’re totally chill here (it may take a while), lower your shoulder so their ears are in the water. Notice if their feet pop out of the water- tell them “toes under/belly up!” to help them arch their back a bit instead of little their bottoms sink.
Then transition them off of your shoulder- one hand still on the small of their back and the other underneath where the head meets the neck. This is to develop the habit of putting their head back instead of looking at their toes. Once they are comfortable here, slowly remove the hand under their back.
Once they’ve mastered the one-handed back float, remove the second hand to allow them to float independently! Give them lots and lots of praise- this is a huge feat!
Developing your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons is no easy task.
But with these basics, you can get them started and move them toward their future swimming skills! I applaud you for taking charge of this part of their education and giving them this essential life skill. Teaching your kid how to swim is so important!
I hope you enjoyed learning how to develop your child’s swimming skills without swim lessons! Comment below and tell us how you’ve managed learning swimming skills when swim lessons weren’t an option!
About the Author of How to Teach Your Kid to Swim:
I’m an Jesus-loving, introverted, somewhat crunchy, and highly practical mom of 2 precious, sleep-hating kiddos. I’ve been married for almost a decade to my wonderful husband. Creating order out of chaos is my jam and I am passionate about reducing the mental load of motherhood! I am bringing my experience as an entrepreneur/career swim instructor and my passion to make things easier for Mamas together into a practical how-to blog. The blog’s goal is reducing the mental load of Mamas and helping them live healthier, happier, and easier lives.
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