A version of this story was originally published on December 16, 2016. It has been updated.
I've spent years working with kids who suffer from fear of water. This anxiety manifests in myriad ways: crying, screaming, refusal to try, clinging to Mom or Dad, or ignoring me entirely. As a practiced swimming instructor, parents often ask me if they can work with their fearful child at home to avoid these issues during class time and boost their water confidence.
The answer is yes. In fact, I recommend parents start working with their children as early as possible, even before taking lessons, to establish happy memories with the water.
If your child is water-shy, try these tips for building water confidence and maximizing productive swim lesson time.
1. Incorporate water toys to make it fun
In all my time teaching kids to swim, I've come to learn that the most difficult fear for children to overcome is putting their eyes in the water. Most kids have no problem blowing bubbles from their mouth and nose, but when it comes to immersing their eyes, nearly every child experiences some hesitation. Getting past this is essential for learning to swim, because holding the head up makes swimming an immensely tiresome effort. Thankfully, working through this is simple with the help of toys.
Sinking toys provide the perfect solution for eyes-in practice. Start with easy-to-grab toys like dive sticks or rings. Not only do they have a large gripping surface, but they also stand up in the water so your child won't have to reach down as far to snag them.
Once your child feels comfortable with these, move on to toys that sit lower to the bottom and items that are more difficult to pick up such as coins. These sinkers require your child to submerge farther and longer, allowing them to practice a steady, slow exhale.
Floating toys are equally as beneficial for building water confidence. Whether or not your child can swim on their own, reaching for toys that sit on top of the water provides essential arm extension practice. My floating toy of choice is a Ping-Pong ball because it has to be grabbed from overhead with arm out of the water. This is the exact movement kids will need to perform the front crawl when they're ready. But don't feel like you need to buy specialized toys for reaching/retrieval games. You can simply toss a couple pieces of fruit into the water.
If you have access to a local pool or water park, take your child there to check out their wave pools, slides, and wading areas. These non-threatening play-zones are the perfect introduction to water as a fun place, and there's really no “swimming" required.
2. Give them their own swim gear
Aside from purely recreational toys, I find that kids are inspired by having their own equipment. Giving your child their own swim gear allows them a sense of ownership over the water, making swimming easier to conquer. Luckily, kids' swim gear is fairly cheap. Think about investing in a set of fins or a pair of goggles.
Fins are a wonderful confidence-building tool because they amp up propulsion and make kids feel more than human. Fins also correct poor habits like bicycle kicking and flailing the legs high out of the water. They work better when used in the right position and provide less propulsion when used in the wrong position. Your kids will figure this out fairly quickly.
Goggles allow kids to feel more comfortable putting their face in the water. A student of mine, Piper, had some intense anxiety about putting her eyes in the water, as many kids do. She spent two summers blowing bubbles from the mouth and nose, but refused to lower her eyes into the pool and often broke into tears when she was asked to. I suggested that her mom try goggles, so she let Piper pick out an inexpensive pair adorned with Finding Nemo characters. During her next lesson, Piper put her face right in the water without a second thought.
3. Involve family and friends to boost water confidence
Pool time spent with family and friends is an excellent way to spark your child's swimming spirit. Even if they're frightened, I've found that lessons which include a sibling, cousin or other close friend or relative help spur new swimmers onward. Sibling rivalries can actually be beneficial in a learning environment, motivating kids to try harder, despite their anxieties.
While private lessons may be essential for children who have difficulty focusing, most kids are inspired by other students learning the same skills. Seeing another child perform these skills makes it easier for them to visualize themselves doing it.
Kids who suffer from fear of water need to have more positive experiences to motivate them to try new skills. A child who thinks of water as a scary place has no incentive to put their face in, push away from the side, or try to locomote on their own. A child who thinks of the pool as fun and exciting wants to try new things and explore the underwater environment, making learning to swim that much easier.