In the swim: What parents need to know about swimming lessons

Monday, May 7, 2012
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That call and return is an enduring sound of summer. While kids' clothing choices change with each new trend and their options for updating their personal technology ever increase, old-fashioned swimming has not lost any popularity. Just add water for instant good times.

It is this desire for summer fun, and safety, that prompts many parents to first look into swimming lessons for their children.

"I wanted my kids to know how to swim so I would know they were safe when they were invited to swimming parties," says Danna Bruns, Jackson High School librarian and mother of 12-year-old Tyler and 9-year-old Emily.

Doug Gannon, assistant manager of Fitness Plus, acknowledges that concern is not uncommon. "Water is a very popular form of recreation in our society," he says. "Many families spend time at lakes and pools swimming, boating or fishing. It is extremely important to teach children to be safe in and around the water as well as give them the opportunity to learn skills to enjoy the water and the many benefits it has to offer."

If you are ready to take the plunge with your child, here are some tips for determining and encouraging swimming lesson readiness, choosing between group and private lessons, as well as managing your expectations about what the lessons will help your child accomplish.

First, there are varying ages of readiness. According to American Red Cross guidelines, children can begin taking swimming lessons as young as 6 months old, with assistance from a parent or guardian. Children can begin lessons at 3 years old without a parent or guardian in the water with them. However, this does not mean every child is ready to jump in after his third birthday. "If your child looks forward to bath time, is comfortable getting water on his or her face, or will let you pour water over his or her head, they are showing definite signs of being ready for swim lessons," Gannon says. "A sure sign your child is ready for lessons is if your child appears fearless around the water. If a child wants to be independent of the parent in the water or wants to jump in the pool, he or she is ready for swimming lessons."

However, if your child seems fearful of the water, you might look at bath time as a chance to make water fun. Gannon suggests playing games and praising your children when they are in the water. Bruns recalls being told by the Water Babies teacher at the Cape Girardeau City Pool "not to react or get scared if they fall down and then the kids wouldn't get scared either. Five minutes later, Tyler fell in the toddler pool and came up smiling at us. He's still fearless around water."

A child's level of fear or skill can also be a good determinate for whether they should take group or private lessons.

Gannon describes the goal of group swim lessons as "teaching children skills they will need to become better swimmers. Swimming levels are based on skill progressions that include introducing new skills as children become proficient at particular skills."

Kelsey Bierman, a Southeast Missouri State University education student who worked for four years as Kimbeland Country Club's pool manager and lifeguard, has taught private lessons and group lessons. She says the advantage to private lessons is "the one-on-one time. In a group lesson children are all at a little different skill level and with a private lesson one can focus on the individual child's needs."

Sometimes that means helping a child overcome a fear of the water and other times it can mean moving on to more advanced skills for a child who is ahead of his peers.

Indeed, Bruns' children progressed from group lessons to semi-private lessons and are now members of the Gator Swim Team. But, Bierman cautions, even with private lessons, parents need to remember that, "the most important expectation is that the child will become more comfortable with the water. There are no guarantees he or she will be able to swim after swimming lessons."

So, what if you were hoping your kid would be the next Olympic freestyle gold medalist?

Gannon urges parents to have reasonable expectations.

"Becoming a good swimmer is based on a building block of skills that begin when a child learns to put his or her face in the water," he says. "Children learn at different rates. Parents need to be patient and understand that swimming is a life skill that is a journey for children."

In fact, if swimming doesn't come easily to your child at first, there may be a bigger lesson in store. Bruns feels swimming has taught her children that "hard work and perseverance pays off and that you have to work hard to earn the things you want."

So, whether you sign your kids up for lessons -- be it at the city pool, a country club, Healthpoint Fitness, Fitness Plus or with a private instructor -- or decide to just let them splash around with you this summer, have fun and remember that the most important thing is safety.

As Gannon put it: "The biggest benefit children get from taking swim lessons is the ability to help themselves and others around them in case of an emergency. Where water is concerned, self-help skills are priceless."