Ensuring your children can swim could be a lifesaver, writes Marchelle Abrahams.
Nine years ago a video went viral on YouTube showing a toddler falling into a swimming pool, flipping over and keeping himself afloat. It caused shock and awe among many people who watched it. But it also highlighted the fact that the number one cause of death for children under five is drowning.
How your child reacts can be the deciding factor between life and death when it comes to pool safety.
Teaching your child the basic skills could not only avoid a tragedy but it could also set them up for sporting greatness; they could even be a Chad le Clos in the making.
We asked a few experts for some basic swimming techniques that could prevent your child from becoming another statistic.
Start them off small
It is important for children to be introduced to the aquatic environment from a young age, advises Joanne Vreenegoor from MySwim in Randburg, Johannesburg. “Children as young as six months old are able to start learning to swim,” she says.
Nikki Britz, an instructor with Flippers Swim School in Observatory, Cape Town, agrees. She teachers babies from six months about water awareness, and then from the age of three or four years, “children learn more quickly and are able to pick up on techniques”.
It’s good for bonding as well
Attending swimming lessons with your little one gives you a chance to get in the pool with them and is great for bonding for both parent and child.
Vreenegoor says learning to swim at a very young age has been linked to improved speech, language, motor and physical development.
Not only is swimming an excellent non weight-bearing exercise but so many tragic drownings could be prevented if everyone learnt to swim, says Swim4Life’s Ross Johnston.
The three primary programmes available in South Africa are the Professional Baby Swim Teachers Association (PBSTA) programme, Todswim and Aquatots. These programmes introduce children to the aquatic environment and start to teach the basic skills of swimming from an early age.
What to look out for
Vreenegoor advises looking for the following: experience, area of speciality, qualification, personality fit, facility hygiene, pool temperatures and cleanliness. The number of children attending lessons is also an important factor to consider.
Is your child a good fit with their instructor? Are they comfortable with them? Do they trust the instructor or coach? Britz says these are important questions to ask when choosing a coach or teacher.
Just keep swimming
First, children need to be comfortable in the water, says Britz. Basic techniques include teaching them to float and relax.
“We teach them to float and kick first of all, and then freestyle.”
Also, learning to float on their backs is one of the building blocks to creating good, strong swimmers.
Vreenegoor says that reinforcing the skills learnt at lessons in your own home or outside lesson times assists with and can speed up the learning process.
Strong swimmers aren’t created overnight. Qualified swimming instructor Yvonne Strydom of Durban North believes the mistake many parents make is to purchase arm bands for their kids.
“Arm bands hinder them from using their arms and legs, which they need full use of to make them stronger,” she adds.
Strydom’s tips to get kids to become good swimmers include starting them off one step at a time.
“Parents make the mistake of dunking kids in the water for the first time”, thinking that their fighting instincts will kick in.
Here are her tips:
* Make sure they are comfortable with the water depth. The size of the pool also matters, so start in something small.
* Play games to encourage them to go under water. For instance, start them off diving in the shallow side to retrieve coins or swimming from one side of the pool to the other.
* Instead of using armbands, use a pool noodle to encourage floating. This also leaves their arms and legs free for kicking and splashing.
* When their arms and legs are strong enough to keep themselves afloat, start teaching them basic swimming techniques like butterfly, breaststroke and freestyle.
How to alleviate anxiety
“Fear is a very real emotion and needs to be respected,” says Vreenegoor. Being given the skills and opportunity to explore the environment safely under the guidance of a parent or instructor will assist in alleviating their fears.
When it comes to baby lessons, Vreenegoor and Britz encourage parents to enter the pool with their little ones.
But Britz adds that after the age of two, children should be getting into the pool by themselves while their parents look on because sometimes kids become preoccupied with having them there instead of concentrating on the lesson.
Safety first, always
Children should never enter a swimming pool environment without adult supervision, warns Vreenegoor. If a child find themselves in an environment without an adult, they should be taught not to approach the water’s edge.
They should maintain a safe distance from the water and if necessary, sit down rather than stand when they're near water.
Johnston says never assume someone else is watching a child in the pool area. “Chances are you will not hear a child drowning as it is a silent death with hardly any splashing or calls for help,” he says. “Teach your child the rules of the pool: No running, no pushing, no pulling and no swimming without adult supervision. Ever!”
Ross warns against dunking children: “Younger children can swallow large amounts of water and this could lead to drowning or secondary drowning. This experience will increase your child’s fear of swimming.”
Learning through fun is key for little swimmers. Be patient and encourage confidence in your children. The bottom line: If the activity of swimming is fun for children, they will be eager to learn.
Different strokes for different folks:
The four strokes are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly, which is the most difficult to learn, so it is easier to start with freestyle or breaststroke.
One of the advantages of breaststroke is that at a basic level, the head can always stay above water. This gives excellent visibility while swimming and avoids breathing issues. The basics are that your arms pull, you breathe, you kick (arms alternate with the kick), and you glide. It is not an easy stroke to learn even though your arms and legs make the same movement and many people struggle with it. Apart from which it is the slowest stroke. If you are happy to put your face in the water rather learn to swim freestyle first.
Freestyle or crawl
As the name implies you use a windmill motion with your arms and "flutter kick" with your legs. This is the most popular stroke and the easiest for beginners to learn. The most difficult part is co-ordinating the breathing since your face is in the water most of the time.
This stroke is easier than butterfly or breaststroke and similar to the crawl in that you use an alternate windmill arm stroke and flutter kick. Two key issues to a proper backstroke are that your arms move with equal strength otherwise you will swim off to one side, and that your body rolls from side to side so that your arms catch enough water to propel you forward.
Even though the advantage for beginners is that you swim on your back and there are fewer issues with breathing as your head is mostly out of the water, it can be uncomfortable for beginners not seeing where they are going. If you are not in the right position water can go up your nose which is not pleasant. It is best to find the stroke that you prefer and then learn the other strokes later.
There is nothing quite like watching a good butterfly swimmer. It is the most beautiful and fluid stroke as the body moves in a similar way to a dolphin through the water. The dolphin kick involves both legs and hips moving in a wave-like motion starting from the arms and head and travelling down the body.
When you see a good butterfly swimmer it appears effortless, but it is one of the most difficult strokes and the most energetic. Some take to it easily while some swimmers never quite manage butterfly. Don’t worry if you find this stroke too difficult - rather focus on the ones you can do.
* Supplied by Ross Johnstone, Swim4Life
Cape Town: http://www.flippersswimschool.co.za/
Durban: Yvonne Strydom 076 650 8605