As a swim instructor for other companies and now Premier Aquatics for close to 10 years, I have been exposed to all types of first-time swimmers in learn to swim stages; the criers, the screamers, the controllers, the shy guys, the goofy kids, the ones who want to stay underwater (especially when you are giving directions), the ones who don’t want to go underwater even if their life depended on it, the ones who just won’t listen, etc. Amongst all of these personalities, the most challenging to teach is the child who is simply overcome with fear of the water. Whether that child has had a near-drowning experience, or altogether cannot fathom the idea of this big, scary pool of water they are asked to enter, gaining their trust as a complete stranger can prove to be a big obstacle. I want to first share with you one of my own personal stories regarding a fearful child. I will then offer some tips that I have found really helpful in these kinds of situations! These tips are in addition to previous tips from one of our older blogs here: How to Help Children Overcome Fears in the Water
Recently, I had a swim lesson with a first-time swimmer who had a near-drowning experience a few months prior. I knew from the moment him and his mom approached the gate to our facility, that it was going to be an experience. He fought every step of the way from the car to the gate. The first thing I did to prepare for this lesson was take out a bunch of our animal toys and place them all over the steps. I wanted to create the illusion that the water was actually a home to fun and familiar things. Instantly, the child replaced some of his fear with curiosity. Upon entering the water, I made sure that his very first task was to pick a toy to bring into the water with him. I always have timid swimmers pick a toy to bring into the water with them or bring a toy from home. This gives them a sense of security and control that allows them to feel more comfortable in an otherwise scary and overwhelming environment. My next task with this child was to introduce the watering can. This is the best tool to introducing water on the face/head. I started with the shoulders and asked him to pour water on mine, and then I returned the gesture. Then, we moved to the ears, and finally the head. By the time it was my turn to pour water on his head, he was happy and giggly as ever from how funny he thought it was to pour water on MY head! Venturing away from the steps was the final and most terrifying part of this child’s first lesson. Before we left the steps, I pointed out all the animals and fun places we were going to go explore; first, the cave (pool gutters) where we were going to look for some fishies, second, the “donuts” (lane lines) where we were going to take a BIG bite, and finally, the “brown mountain” (the wall) that we were going to climb up and jump in from. On our way to explore each part of the pool, I introduced the concept of kicking and how fun it would be to splash all the animals on the steps as we kicked away from them. With all of these imaginary ideas in place, I was able to create another illusion that the pool was not such a scary place after all! Fast-forward 2 months and this same child is gliding with his face in the water, back floating, and having the time of his life in the pool!
Taking this one special experience into consideration, I want to now recap on some tips that I feel are crucial to getting over fears and making swimming enjoyable.
- Utilize toys at the bottom of the pool surrounding the area you will be swimming. It creates the illusion that the water isn’t as deep as it looks and it makes the water seem inviting and familiar.
- Utilize a special toy for security and comfort. This can be a toy brought from home by the child or one they choose at their lesson. You can also use this as an incentive. For example: “If we can do three back floats, you can dive for your toy.”
- Utilize a watering can to introduce water on/around the face. Kids will think it is hilarious to pour water on your head and won’t be as intimidated when it is their turn for the reciprocation.
- Use your imagination when exploring the pool. Calling a pool gutter a “cave” with “fishies” inside of it is way less intimidating and actually makes the swimmer eager to leave the steps and go explore.
- Use constant affirmations. All swimmers (new swimmers especially) want to hear that they are doing a good job, especially when they have just overcome something they believe to be terrifying.
- Always be empathetic. You may not know if a swimmer has reasoning for being scared, so take things slowly, while always encouraging and uplifting the child.
- Use exaggerated and funny gestures to explain skills, so that the child feels more comfortable with being told what to do.
- Always give numerical options, rather than yes or no options. For example, instead of: “Do you want to do a back float?” you would say “Should we do 4 back floats or 5 back floats?” This way they aren’t given the opportunity to opt out of a skill.
- Sing! Sometimes with the really little ones, singing can help them to relax, especially during a back float.
- Have fun!!! Maintain a positive attitude. Kids will feed off of your attitude and personality. Make sure that you are visibly comfortable, so that the child can feel comfortable too. Be happy, smile, laugh, and enjoy yourself!
With these tips in mind, I hope that you can feel a little more confident in teaching a new, timid, and fearful swimmer. Try to always put yourself in their shoes and most importantly, use your imagination in the way that a child would. We want to transform their experience into a fun and magical one!