BOSTON — Learning to swim is a childhood rite that ranks up there with learning how to ride a bike. Both are great fun. But the risks associated with water often put swimming lessons at another level of relevance.
This summer, as parents watch their children learn to float, kick, and breathe at the local pool or watering hole, some may wonder: "What more I can do to help my child progress?"
The Monitor asked several swimming instructors to share some tips with parents.
What can you do?
"Parents will come up to me all serious and ask, 'How can I help my child?' and my advice is simply; 'Take them swimming!," says Dorothy Berning, a Red Cross water-safety instructor at the Evergreen, Colo., Recreation Center. "That sounds simple but just being in the water, they'll practice. Take them where they can touch [the bottom], if they're not used to deep water."
Jacques deBroekert at the American Red Cross national headquarters in Falls Church, Va., says parents should find out what skills are being taught and reinforce them. He tells parents to "ask, 'What did you do today? Show me.' You want that repetition of skills."
Floaties or not?
Are water wings (flotation devices worn on each arm) and bubbles (a flotation aid worn on the back) a help or a hindrance?
Some instructors regard them as training wheels, others view them as a unfortunate crutch. Lori Blasioli, a Red Cross swimming teacher at Springs Brook Park in Bedford, Mass., has worked with and without flotation aids, and she surfaces in the latter camp. "They hold kids back from learning," she says, adding that some students are fearful when they go in the water without an aid.
Why are parents often banished from the lessons?
"It's not because we don't want parental involvement," Ms. Blasioli explains, "it's that kids have a hard time listening to the instructor if the parent is there. For some three- or four-year-olds, it's their first lesson away from their parents."
Group lessons or private?
Group lessons offer a chance for the child to meet other children. Pool time with others can help the transition into the classroom, where the child learns alongside other children. They learn to share equipment and develop social skills. Peer pressure is also a plus: If a child is behind, he or she will see other children, say, putting their faces in the water and be more apt to try it. "Also, the kids encourage each other," says Katie Hancock, who teaches swimming in Union Grove and Racine, Wis.
Private lessons, one-on-one, or in some cases two children to one teacher provides immediate feedback and kids progress much faster. Most teachers find that a half hour is ideal.
At Springs Brook Park, private lessons run about $9 for a half hour. Three weeks of group lessons are $28 for residents; $34 for nonresidents; classes are 45 minutes, Monday through Friday. Blasioli suggests that children enroll in two sessions every summer.
How important are year-round swim lessons?
"They can and should continue through the winter," says Blasioli, "but as a middle-school math teacher, I know there's a lot going on during the school year." If a child passes Level 3, and the next summer season gets put back in Level 3, it's not a big deal. Some parents treat swim levels like grade school. But in swim classes, when a child is put in the same level, he or she is still progressing. "Put your children in the level you believe they should be in.... Never try to force a child into a higher level."
Ms. Berning adds that most instructors try to challenge the children without pushing them to "no." "If you push them they won't do it - they'll just get scared.... Know where the child is emotionally - that's very important when it comes to water."
What if a child is an older beginner, such as eight years old?
It's never too late. This is when private lessons are beneficial, says Blasioli. An eight-year-old won't want to be in a group class with much younger kids; it yanks at their self-esteem.
Ideally, parents should think about swimming early on. When children are in the bathtub, they should encourage them to get their faces wet, "float" on their backs comfortably, and blow bubbles (especially through their noses). (See story above.)
Parental practice: Have fun!
For basic swimmers, parents will want to help with orientation to the water. "Simply floating (on stomach or back) is basic to swimming and easy to work on," says Ms. Hancock. "As instructors, we try to make it more of a game. Instead of saying "do laps" we create races and drills."
Mr. deBroekert says it's like any other learning - positive reinforcement by the parent is key.
* For more information, see the Web site www.redcross.org or contact your local Red Cross chapter.
SAFETY IN AND AROUND WATER
The Red Cross recommends families follow these water safety guidelines:
* Enroll children in a water safety course or swimming lessons. Drowning is the second leading cause of death for one- to 19-year olds. Buy a "Community Water Safety" manual at your local Red Cross.
* Maintain constant supervision. Watch children around all water (pool, stream, lake, tub, toilet, bucket of water), no matter what skills your child has acquired and no matter how shallow the water.
* Don't rely on substitutes. The use of flotation devices and inflatable toys cannot replace parental supervision. Such devices could suddenly shift position, lose air, or slip out from under the child.
* Swim in supervised areas only.
* Take a lifesaving course. Knowing these skills can be important around the water. Contact your local Red Cross for details.