Some children seem to have no fear at all, even when it’s warranted. These are the children who, from babyhood, seem to be climbing ledges, jumping into pools, and chatting away with perfect strangers. Other children, though, are more reserved when it comes to risk-taking. And of the many fears that can appear in childhood—separation, heights, whatever’s hiding under the bed—fear of deep water is fairly common.
Parents understand that fear of the water doesn’t mean that their children will be safe; on the contrary, lack of experience can lead children (and adults) to panic when they find themselves unexpectedly in over their heads. But how can we help children learn to build safer swimming skills without deepening their already-existent fears?
Meet your child where they are.
Most children aren’t afraid of any kind of interaction with water. Puddles, bathing, and splash pads rarely elicit terrified reactions. So it’s important to find out what your child really is afraid of. Are they comfortable in deeper water as long as they can hold onto the wall of the pool? Are they willing to venture out so long as they’re holding both your hands? Is the real issue the idea of putting their face in the water?
Start by interacting with water at whatever level your child finds comfortable and build from there, even if that’s just sitting by the side of the pool together and kicking your legs. This is also where floatation devices can be an incredibly useful tool. Sometimes that extra buoyancy along with your arm’s-reach presence is enough to convince a nervous child to give the “big kid pool” a try.
“Play is the work of the child,” as renowned educator Maria Montessori said. Any early childhood teacher will tell you that children learn best when they learn through play. And just as we wouldn’t want to see preschool children dragged down with math drills for homework, it doesn’t make sense to force children to learn to face down their fears and learn to swim in an unpleasant way.
Storytelling, make-believe, cooperative games, and singing and moving to music are all ways to make the water an enjoyable experience. Do children learn to swim from playing Ring Around the Rosie in the pool? Of course not. But they do become more comfortable with being in the water, which is the skill underlying any stroke taught in a more formal way.
Contrary to what the movies show, most fears aren’t overcome in a single moment of inspiration. Rather, regular opportunities to interact with the water are needed in order to develop a feeling of comfort. Regular swim lessons are obviously an excellent option, especially when combined with regular outings to the pool. (If informal swim lessons do not impact the risk of child drowning, but formal swim lessons do, then it is necessary to make the leap into formal swim lessons at some point.) Getting a seasonal pass to the public pool nearest you means that a swimming outing is always a possibility, and a membership to a nearby recreation center or YMCA means that you can continue playing together in the water throughout the year, no matter what the weather brings.
Visits to natural bodies of water bring opportunities to learn the safety and skills associated with oceans, lakes, and ponds, and boating, tubing, and canoeing all provide new kinds of experiences. While your child may never decide to pick up swimming as a sport, you might just find you have a surfer or a sailor on your hands!
A little bit of fear isn’t a bad thing.
Like the public speaker who uses the jitters to bring energy to their presentation or the hiker who keeps a cautious ear out for bears and other wildlife, knowing that swimming is never 100% safe can make a young swimmer more aware of their surroundings and potentially save a life.
But swimming should also be a joyful experience, one that is fulfilling and fun. Our FUNdamentals classes are about finding this balance: creating confidence and joy while teaching the skills of basic water safety. Have questions? Get in touch to talk with an instructor about how we can help you give the gift of swimming to your child.