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In addition to being a great form of fun and exercise that boosts your child's self-confidence, learning to swim is a vital survival skill. A good program teaches much more than how to get across the pool – it teaches your child how to be safe in and around water, whether at a pool, lake, beach, or water park. That's why it's so important to do a little research before enrolling him in a swim program.
It's also important to understand that kids don't learn to swim in just a few lessons – it takes lots of time and plenty of practice. If your child hasn't been around water much or is extremely fearful of water, it's a good idea to sign up for a parent-child swim class first, or at least take a few recreational dips together in the shallow end of your local pool.
You can find a good class by asking your child's doctor, preschool teacher, or other parents you trust for recommendations. From there, it's a good idea to observe the class before you join (any reputable swim center will welcome you). If you can't sit in on the class, at least speak to the program supervisor and ask her to describe the focus of the program and the class activities.
Classes for toddlers and preschoolers
A child younger than 5 is too young to be in a swim class by herself. You can, however, take classes that focus on getting comfortable and having fun in the water together. Rather than teaching true swimming skills, these classes are about having fun and learning to be safe and comfortable in the water.
Just be aware that instruction in these classes is aimed at the adults, not the kids. The instructor will teach you how to handle your child in the water, how you both can get in and out of the water safely, and how to recognize unsafe swimming environments and other water dangers. The instructor will also teach you games you can play in the pool with your child.
The instructors should run a well-organized class with a consistent schedule that includes skill time, play time, and information time. They should clearly demonstrate what they're asking parents to do (how to hold a child in the water, for example) and explain why they're doing it that way. There should also be a lifeguard on duty at all times.
Other things to look for: A warm pool makes getting in much less traumatic for your child (and much more comfortable for you). A relatively small class size, say no more than ten parent-and-child pairs, is important so you can hear the teacher and have plenty of room in the pool.
Equally important, a good class should give you the sense that your child won't be afraid to take swimming lessons on her own when she's older. But you should not be given the impression that your child is now a swimmer – it takes months or even years of formal instruction before kids become strong swimmers. Any decent water-orientation class will teach both you and your child that kids should never be near water without an adult.
Classes for older children
If you think your child is ready for swim lessons, here are some things to consider:
- Class placement: Find out how children are placed in various levels and exactly what will be expected of your child in class. Children should be grouped with others in their age range and skill level, and there should be specific skills to master before advancing into each new level. If this is your child's first class, for instance, he should be grouped with other beginners who are roughly the same age.
- Class size: If your child has special needs, has trouble learning in groups, or is especially anxious around water, consider signing him up for private or semiprivate lessons. But in general, it's a good idea to have your child at least try group lessons. Not only are private lessons expensive, but your child will miss out on the valuable social skills (working with others, taking turns) that group classes provide.
- Staff: In a group class, there should be at least one instructor for every six preschoolers or eight school-age children. No matter what the class size, the ratio of staff to students should be small enough so that teachers can give each child individual instruction in addition to the group activities. There should also be a lifeguard on duty at all times.
- Teacher credentials: Ask what training the instructors received and what certifications they hold. The YMCA, for instance, requires that instructors have a current YMCA lifeguard or aquatic safety assistant certification as well as a specialized instructor certification for the age group they're teaching. Other programs may require that teachers be certified water safety instructors through the American Red Cross.
- Class organization: Kids learn best when they know what to expect, so each class should have a consistent schedule that strikes a balance between skill time and play time. The class should follow a logical progression of swimming skills. (For example, children should master breath-holding before they're asked to dunk their heads underwater).
- Instruction style: The teacher should clearly demonstrate what she's asking the kids to do. She needs to know what children are capable of at various ages but allow each child to master new skills at his own rate. She should assess the children's skill level and ask them to do only the things that they're able to – a good program builds on children's successes. Make sure that the teacher's tone is always supportive and positive. If the kids seem unhappy, frustrated, or unable to do what they're being asked, that's a huge red flag.
- Downtime and swim time: Notice how much time each child has to wait for a turn with the instructor. Even in group classes, there should be more "doing" than waiting. While the teacher is spending individual instruction time with one child, the others should be busily (and safely) practicing their new skills.
- Class management: Take note of how well the instructor manages her class and handles misbehavior. The kids shouldn't be allowed to splash or dunk each other or run around the pool.
Once you've found a good class that you think your child will enjoy, you may be surprised to find her crying and clinging to you when it's time to hop in the pool. Understand that tears and anxiety are pretty common at the beginning of swim lessons. What's important is how quickly your child gets over it – or doesn't.
Ask the instructor to help you figure out exactly what's causing your child's distress and go from there. Another child may have told her that there are snakes in the water as a joke, for instance, or she may be terrified of getting water in her eyes (a common fear that a pair of swim goggles will quickly remedy). If your child is still fearful after a few sessions in the pool, consider taking a break and trying again when she's older.