Getting Children Into the Swim of Things

A few summertime tips can help kids become strong - and safe - swimmers

For many families, summertime signals the switch from the playground to the pool. Or the lake. Or the beach.

Bring on the cannonball splashes, the weekend races, and the sunset picnics.

But along with that fun come some serious responsibilities. Riding the wave of summer wisdom are swim instructors talking up the importance of swimming lessons and water safety.

"This is the time of year parents need to be thinking about this," says Steve Lynch, an aquatics-education specialist with the American Red Cross, based in Falls Church, Va. Red Cross instructors taught 4.1 million Americans water skills last year.

Experts urge parents to stress the positive in teaching children water safety and avoid treating swimming as a negative or a fearful thing.

"Parents should say, 'This is fun. This is what we do in the summer, as a family, with friends,' " says Cindie Fitzenreiter, an instructor for 16 years in Columbia, Md. "Not only is learning how to swim a safety issue, it's also a lifetime sport. It's a good investment for your child's future."

But for children and parents alike, instructors say attention to a few key concerns will make summertime swimming more enjoyable.

"If there is one thing we can't stress enough, it's to supervise your kids - even when a lifeguard is on duty," says Mr. Lynch, adding that flotation devices are no substitute for a keen eye on the kids.

That message seems to be getting through. While the number of swim clubs, water parks, and waterside-recreation areas has expanded over the past decade in the US, drownings have decreased.

Meanwhile, with the increasing popularity of swimming, the number of ever-younger children learning how to navigate in the water has grown.

"We encourage parents to look into an IPAP - Infant-Preschool Aquatic Program," says Heather McMurtrie, a spokeswoman for Red Cross water safety.

"The IPAP is beneficial for two reasons," says Cheryl Juergens, who has taught swimming for 19 years. "It gets parents and toddlers acquainted with the water, readying children for swimming lessons. And it shows the parent how to hold the child properly to help them progress, as well as set positive reinforcement."

But learning to swim properly is only half the equation, says Ms. Fitzenreiter. "Not all swimming-lesson programs include water safety in their curriculum." Fitzenreiter, who has two young children, produced her own home-grown video, "Safe and Ready to Swim," to help teach parents and children basic swimming and water safety.

"I hear over and over again: 'My child is fearless in the water,' " says Fitzenreiter. "That's great to be that comfortable, to love the water. But you need to make sure you tell your child, or enroll them in a program that tells them, more about the dos and don'ts."

One of the don'ts, for example, is never go in after somebody who's in trouble. Try to get help from nearby adults. Ideally, only trained lifeguards should try to assist distressed swimmers.

Here are some questions parents commonly ask:

*How early do you start? Most instructors say it's never too early. "Aqua-tot" classes have children as young as 6 months in the pool with a parent. Getting the face and head wet is encouraged, but "throwing" the child in the water (a short-lived trend years ago) is never recommended. For formal lessons, 3 is a good age.

*What about arm floats? Some instructors are vehemently against these inflatable "floaties" worn on the upper arms, because kids and parents sometimes use them as a crutch. Others say they're acceptable, but only when the parent is an arm's length away. All agree: Don't rely on water wings or any other "substitutes," such as bubbles and plastic tubes.

*Private versus group lessons. Some kids like the water but dislike swimming lessons. Kate Matison, of Southborough, Mass., decided to forgo group lessons after her two sons resisted. Instead, she hired an instructor to come to their backyard pool. "Individual attention works really well," Ms. Matison says, adding that it ended up being a cost-effective solution as the boys progressed quickly. This summer, two friends will join her sons in the lessons.

*How can I help my child progress? Parental attitude has a lot to do with what the child's attitude will be. Still, some children are more receptive than others. "What I say over and over again is get Johnny to the pool as much as possible and reinforce what you see in swimming lessons," Fitzenreiter says.

*What should I look for in an instructor? Make sure the instructor is Red Cross certified in water safety or the equivalent. Some instructors may be great swimmers but not particularly skilled teachers.

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