My kids are not natural swimmers. Watching them, you’d never call the older one “a fish” or say that his brother “looks so at home in the water.”
When they were babies, I dutifully signed us up for parent-and-tot swim classes. I sang along about the wipers on the bus going “swish swish swish” and energetically put my “right fin” in and out to do the aquatic hokey-pokey. It was all good-natured fun, until it was time for our nemesis: the Dunk Dunk Song.
To us, the Dunk Dunk Song felt as sinister as the theme from Jaws. Neither of my sons liked getting his face wet, let alone having his entire head submerged unexpectedly. I hated myself for buckling under the pro-dunking peer pressure and subjecting my baby to an ordeal that inevitably led to crying, gurgling and spitting. Week after week, the post-dunk hysterics continued, and all I could do was shush them apologetically and grab the nearest squirty toy as a pathetic distraction.
My kids’ reaction isn’t uncommon, according to Jenn Campbell, Supervisor of Aquatics and Programs for the City of Kitchener. “Some new swimmers, regardless of age, may experience uneasiness with putting their face in the water,” she says. To help encourage toddlers and preschoolers, she suggests practicing this skill at the start of a bath and gently pouring water over the child’s body and head when washing.
My kids’ struggles in the water continued, even as they graduated to group lessons with an instructor. In the latest session, my six-year-old thrashed away in his first attempts at front crawl, but literally got nowhere. My 10-year-old tried his best but seemed to have a permanent lack of buoyancy thanks to his long, lanky limbs. Complicating matters was the fact that some of the other kids in his class were boisterous and uncooperative, resulting in the well-meaning teenaged instructor allocating most of his time and energy to dealing with them. Over the course of the lesson, my son would attempt a five-metre swim a couple of times and spend the other 27 minutes waiting his turn.
I praised my kids’ efforts, but it was clear that neither of them was learning very much or enjoying the experience. After every float or attempt at a stroke, they would stop and wipe their eyes feverishly to clear all the water droplets away. I wanted them to learn the life skill of swimming and be able to keep themselves safe in the water, but the whole thing was tanking fast. What was I going to do?
A major breakthrough came during a winter trip to visit my parents in the southern United States. Their complex had an outdoor pool that was rarely used, so we were frequently the only ones there. My dad offered each of the kids an adult-sized snorkelling mask, much like the one belonging to P. Sherman in Finding Nemo. Admittedly, the masks looked a little ridiculous, but the change in the boys was incredible. We went to the pool every day and they splashed around in the shallow end. Thanks to the masks, they no longer had to worry about water in their eyes, so they were willing to try new things. They blew bubbles. They floated facedown. They tossed a ball and dove to catch it. By the end of the second week, my oldest was throwing objects to the bottom of the pool and eagerly going under to retrieve them. I never thought I’d see the day.
Of course, they were supervised at all times, as I was swimming with them or watching them from the side. As I observed them, I realized that the unstructured play time was allowing them to independently create games that were at their comfort level, and they were unknowingly experimenting with new ways of moving through the water. Best of all, they were having a fun, positive experience.
Now that spring is here, I’m faced with a dilemma about registering for lessons again. My older son (already tall for his age) looks out of place with the younger kids who are at his skill level. I appreciate the instructors’ efforts at the group lessons, but after numerous tries, that setup is just not working for us.
“Private swimming lessons can be an alternative to group lessons,” Jenn Campbell points out. “They provide one-on-one practice for children who need to focus on a particular skill and can be tailored to each swimmer’s unique needs.”
This summer, my boys are going to try private lessons, and we’ll set aside some time to play at public swims or friends’ pools. I’ll be bringing along those diver masks for sure. Who knows, we might even sing the Dunk Dunk Song, since it doesn’t scare us anymore.
Kristi York is a freelance writer and mom of two sports-loving boys. She is a regular contributor to ParentsCanada magazine, Running Room magazine, and the ParticipACTION website. She leads a fairly low-tech life but is on Twitter @KristiYork19.