Saturday, July 25, 2015

How to Teach Small Children To Swim

It's that time of year againswimming season.  The Doc and I have lived in the same house now for thirty years, and since the pool was here when we bought the house, by now, I am an expert in all things poolish.

Evidently, the pool was added by a former Enema U football coach, wholike all the other football coacheshad a losing season and left town (probably before the pool was filled).  According to the realtor, the team had such a losing season that, during one of the games, some disgruntled fan stole a car, and drove it through the wall of the garage.  When I heard this, I had a John Updike moment:  this house was pre-disastered!  So, we bought the house immediately.

Before we get any further in this story, I should tell you thatif you are smartyou do not want a pool.  Well, you may want one, but don't get one.  If you are not convinced, perform a small experiment.  In the center of the most useful section of your backyard, dig a small, but fairly deep, inconvenient pit.  Put about five pounds of rusty rebar and broken glass in the bottom to make it realistically dangerous. After that, at least twice a week, jog around the pit until you are tired and sweaty, then pay every kid in the neighborhood $5 each to come and piss into the pit.  Danger, inconvenience, work, money and urineyep, that about sums up a pool.  Don't get me wrongI have enjoyed (and still enjoy) my pool, but have paid dearly for the privilege.

When we moved in, The Doc and I already had a toddlerWhat's-His-Nameand a second tricycle motorThe-Other-One was on the way.  The Doc took one look at the backyard and immediately decreed that we had to have a security fence all the way around the pool.  I agreed, I didn't want either one of the rug rats to accidentally drown.

So, I got quotes.  Have you ever priced a metal security fence?  You could build a five strand barbed wire fence around all the good grazing land in Southern New Mexicoboth acresfor less money than it takes to put up a cute little four-foot security fence to enclose less land than it takes to make a good tomato garden. 

I told my wife that  I had a better idea, since no fence in the world would keep our sons out of anything, there was only one secure method of keeping the kids safewe would have to teach the boys to swim just as soon as they could walkanything else was too dangerous!

Now, when I said that, it was all bullshitI was just too cheap to pay for that damn security fence.  But, it turned out that I accidentally stumbled into brilliance.  You really can't protect boys from a damn thing.  (If you are still not convinced, read this.)

So, I taught the boys to swim.  I made tons of mistakes, and during the long, loud, and  profane process, most of the neighbors thought I was torturing the boys with power tools.  From the  screaming of those two small children, they were justified in their beliefs.  In the end, both boys really learned how to swimand by the time The-Other-One was about four, his mother would go into hysterics to find him sitting on the drain in the deep end of the pool calmly using my scuba tanks.  The boys damn near developed gills.

Those boys spent so much time in chlorinated water that their hair first tuned white, then a rather strange shade of light green.  I never did solve that pH problem in the pool water, though even this had an unforeseen benefiteven though I am face blind, I could always locate the boys in a crowded room.  There just aren't that many extremely short, deeply-tanned punk rockers.

But, that was not the correct way to teach small children how to swim.  It worked on my two sons, but it took weeks.  However, after 30 years of practice, I have taught enough children to swim that I can now offer you a simple system for teaching children to swim.

Learning to swim does not involve floaties, padded bathing suits, or any form of flotation device.  Seriously, when your child needs to swim, just how likely are they to have these things on?  Sure, kids have fun in them, but they will never learn to swim looking like the Michelin Man taking a bath.  If you won't let your child in the water without these aquatic crutches, you aren't ready for the child to swim.

There are a couple of conditions to the swimming lessons.  First, you have to teach the child without his/her parents around.  If the mother won't drop off the kid for about two hours and leave you in charge, forget it.  As long as Mom is sitting nervously in the backyard, offering advice at every step, the child will never see you as the Authority Figure, and will never learn to swim.  It's as simple as that.

Second, the child must be able to hold his breath and count to five.  If she can't do that, you are wasting your time.  It really doesn't matter how old he is, he just has to be able to hold his breath for five seconds. 

Assuming you still have an attentive student, take him/her to the shallow end of the pool, as there is no need for water deeper than the child's height.  Spend at least fifteen minutes having the child hold her breath, first above the water, then underwater.  Standing in shallow water (or on the steps for younger children), the child bobs up down in the water like a top.  If you can get the child to do this, you have already mastered the hard part:  the child has relaxed enough in the water to pay attention to what you are telling him to do.

During this whole process, be lavish with you praise when the child does something correct, and firm when the chid does not comply.  By the time the new swimmer is asked to do something difficult, she will already be used to obeying you.

After 15 minutes of this, have the child lie face down on the water for five seconds, then stand back up.  This transition takes a little time and patience, but by now the child is so encouraged by the obvious progress, that he will make the transition, and once he complies, it is very simple to have him lie face down, make a stroke or two with his arms and feet, then stand back up. 

The child will be astounded to see that she has actually moved a few feet in the waterthat she has swum.  From this point, it is simply a matter of distance and speed.  He will quickly learn to lift his head out of the water to breathe, and though the tendency at first is to do this every two to three seconds, he is still swimming.

Taking the average of the students I have taught, after two hours the child will be able learn to swim sideways across the pool without touching the bottom.  This really is a simple system.

By the way, if you want kids to really be safe around the pool, you will have to make them practice occasionally with their clothes on, and if the pool is filled during the winter, they will have to swim at least a couple of times when the water is way too cold.  The child should swim at least far enough in cold water to get back to the side of the pool if they accidentally fall in.  This is when the screaming part of the lessons comes back.  (My sons erroneously believe this occurred in January, and The Doc correctly believes I enjoyed chucking them into the cold October water.)

And last of all, listen to The Doc, and build that fence anyway.  


  1. I was a swimming teacher and waterfront director at an East Texas summer camp for several summers. I had the good fortune to be trained as a water safety instructor and water safety instructor trainer by Bud Bradley, semi-legendary Texas Red Cross water safety instructor trainer trainer who trained under the fully legendary Commodore Wilfred Longfellow - founder of the Red Cross's Water safety program.

    Bud told me to wait till my kids were 4 or 5 before I taught them to swim. He believed a healthy fear of the water was a good thing with young skulls full of mush who are not smart enough to make decisions about how far it really is to try and swim across that lake yet. All this goes out the window, however, if you have a pool.

    I learned all about getting them to bob, float on their face. hold their breath, and all that. I soon learned that in the real world, kids don't want to do all that. They want to play in the water. Now children can be totally uncooperative when it comes to teaching them anything (which you discovered with all the screaming and cursing). Being also a trained recreation therapist, I learned the value of using things kids want to do to motivate them to learn things.

  2. One of the things kids love to do is cause their grownup parents and teachers to do something ridiculous or embarrassing. So I create the human torpedo game. The way the game works is, you get yourself an innertube large enough to comfortably accommodate your own portly behind, but easy enough to flip over. Then you sit the kids on the side in the shallow end and float out into the middle of the shallow end. I always wear a hat and carry a plastic champagne glass and possibly a small canoe paddle (one of those souvenir ones from Six Flags works nicely).

    I then explain the rules of the game. One kid is the firing officer who gives the command for the other kids to launch. I usually use a kid who can swim or do it myself.

    Next I demonstrate how to do a prone glide, face down in the water, body extended and pushing off hard from the side so you glide as far as you can. I wow the kids by gliding easily across the pool in one push. I let them practice a few times before the game starts.

    Object of the game is to glide across the pool, hit me on the tube, upon which I shriek, spill my drink, lose my hat and flip over. This is the payoff for a good prone glide. I explain that the second they touch bottom, they become a dud and have to go back to the side and be reloaded by the firing officer.

    The kids take a few passes at me. I make it easy at first and remain still. Sinking the grownup makes for a great deal of inspiration. The little things hold their breath for all they are worth to glide far enough to "hit" the fat man in the tube. Eventually they open their eyes underwater all the better to see me. Trying to glide far enough to hit me, they quickly learn to keep their legs straight and their body straight and their heads down and in line with their bodies.

    Then I make it hard for them. I take my ridiculously tiny paddle and noisily try to escape my doom when they fire the "torpedoes". It doesn't take but a couple of passes before they begin paddling with their feet trying to "cheat" the little darlings.

    At that point I explain about keeping their legs straight when kicking. By now they understand that bent knees just kill their glide, so they straighten their legs and pretty soon they've got the kick down perfectly.

    Next I introduce the "homing" torpedo concept which adds hand over hand arm movements. Me, the whole time I'm paddling frantically around the shallow water trying to avoid being blown up.

    By the time the game is over, the kids are doing a passable American crawl. All you have to do is teach them to breathe while stroking. Then you let them go to the deep end and "pass the test" that allows them to jump off the diving board.

  3. You are absolutely right about not allowing floaties and such. Until my kids were able to swim the only floats the could wear were huge over-sized life-jackets that floated them on their backs like big useless orange corks or they had to stay in the shallow end. Then I'd smuggle in some swimmers to do swan dives and cannonballs off the diving board in the deep end to incite massive jealousy.

    When the kids asked me to teach them to swim, that's when we'd spend an afternoon playing human torpedo. Not one of my kids took more than a couple of hours of playing the game to become, not just a passable swimmer, but a quite good swimmer. They are like fish around water and most of what they learned was picked up on that first afternoon. I taught them other strokes later on whenever we were around the water and they blew through swim classes at camp.

    Later I taught swimming to abused and mentally ill kids, some of whom had never been in a pool in their lives. The human torpedo game worked every time. Never had a kid we couldn't teach.

    The only person I ever failed to teach how to swim was an ex-cornerback form the Kansas City Chiefs. Black athletes have negative buoyancy, so they don't naturally float. I also have negative buoyancy, so that is no barrier to swimming, but this finely developed muscular young man had never been swimming voluntarily in his life. He was so panic stricken that it took a week to get him to dog paddle across the narrow part of the pool. He had to pass. It was a Red Cross Aquatic School and he was going to be the Safety Services Director of a large city Red Cross. One could not hire someone in that position who could not swim. Though he passed, I'm not sure he ever went into the water voluntarily again.

    Moral of the story: Train early. Make it fun.

    Congratulations on your success with What's-His-Name and The-Other-One.