Our Position on “Survival Swimming” for Infants and Toddlers

We periodically get questions about whether we teach “survival swimming” to infants and toddlers. The interest is usually driven from watching that viral video of the unattended infant falling into a pool with clothes on rolling to the back, swimming to the wall, and hanging on crying. We don’t teach this type of approach because we feel that physically forcing children to execute a script when the skills are not age-appropriate leads to tension, coughing and tears. It also denies the young child her dignity because she is too small to protest.

We recently got a comment on our Listen360 customer feedback system from a person asking about survival swimming. The parent gave as feedback on our infant-toddler classes:

…more one on one teacher time. Also, more focus on survival swimming skills.

This parent is obviously concerned for the safety and well-being of her child, so I wrote a lengthy response about our philosophy. I thought I would share it here so that parents can understand what we’re all about:

I want to make sure that we are the right fit for you as an infant-toddler swimming program because we do not do “survival swimming” or feel that “one-on-one instruction” is the best learning vehicle for children at this age.

Our program would be best described as a “child-centered, gentle, and play-based learn-to-swim program.” We do teach safety skills in our 3 class progression but they are blended into the activities that we do in the class. More specifically:

INFANT-TODDLER 1 (6 Months and Up)

1) Breath-Holding Skills and Relaxation — The first and most important safety skills is to be able to hold your breath and be relaxed in the water. This skill will give you time to do a reach assist for your child if he falls into a pool

2) Cueing — The child learns to wait until the parent or coach cues a skill and then they do it. This conditions your son not to go “up the river with no chain of command” around a pool

3) Wall Approaches and Climbing Out — The glides into Mr. Duck, grabbing, and (for older kids) climbing out condition the child to reach for a wall when they approach

4) Monkey Walks — Being able to hold on a wall and shimmy over using hands and feet will be key for a child learning to get to a ladder or steps

5) Safe Water Entries — Both the jump station and Mr. Duck teaches a child to enter away from the wall and land in a streamlined position with the face in the water.

6) Parental Involvement — Our class teaches the parent that they are an active participant in the child’s swimming. They need to be close or in contact and vigilant when around water.

INFANT-TODDLER 2 (14 Months and Up)

1) Turning Around — We teach a child how to turn around in the water with the purpose of being able to turn around and return to the wall

2) Safety Sequence (Broken) — We introduce the sequence of enter, turn around, and swim back to the wall. We will do this in 3 sequences as a way of teaching the child to do these three major components in isolation and gradually together

INFANT-TODDLER 3 (2.5 Years and Up)

1) Safety Sequence (Full) — We will rehearse doing the enter, turn around, and return to the wall

2) Getting a Breath — We teach them how to get a breath from the front or rolling onto the back

3) Back Floating and Back Swimming — We will teach the older children how to swim on their backs

We do all of these classes in a group format with a parent/care-giver as a spotter because the play-based format makes it easier for the children to acquire skills and takes the pressure off them for direct teacher-to-student learning. We go at the child’s pace and teach age-appropriate skills when the child is ready. That way they are relaxed, the movements flow, and they retain their skills better. We work one-on-one time in at the pass station and that allows us to tailor the specific pace to the child without the child feeling the pressure to perform.

Survival Swimming as most people know it in the market is a program where the teachers instruct the children to execute a script — enter the water in clothes, roll to the back, cry out or swim to the wall. In such a process-driven approach, children are forced to execute movements that are not age-appropriate (e.g., forced back floating for infants and young toddlers, rolling from front to back). The result is tension, crying, swallowing water, and, in the case of a lot of the last one, vomiting pool water. You can get a child to execute any script with enough repetition and force, but we feel that this denies the child his dignity and leads to dread and tension. The children we’ve gotten from such programs are tense and traumatized by the experience. We spend a lot of time working out that tension in the preschool and child classes before we can teach the strokes.

We find that our approach is better for the child, better for the parent-child relationship, and more effective because it gradually introduces skills to a receptive child. We feel that with the skills we teach, the parent involvement we encourage, and the progression of classes will yield the same result while maintaining the child’s well-being. We are basically the opposite of Survival Swimming programs, so I want to make sure that we’re the right place for you.

As I indicated in the post, we choose a child-centered, gentle, no-tears approach in a play-based setting. While the process might take a little bit more time, the long term benefits to the child’s swimming, love of the water, and self-esteem is immeasurable.

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