A few weeks ago, Sam decided to jump off a high diving board. For the first time.
She saw her cousins, all very good swimmers, going up and taking the leap and decided she wanted to do it too. The lifeguard said that it was a 10-ft drop into the water (the depth of the water was about 10 feet too). They had her remove her floaties because it would counter the natural gravity of her drop and it was safer. And they told us to do this even if she didn’t know how to swim.
I was at the other end of the pool with Jamie (at the 1-ft area) when they had all made this decision without me. I heard my name; my husband told me to get a video of it since he was jumping into the pool to help Sam. I was too stunned I just complied. Can you imagine how it sounded to me?! My precious 4-yr old little girl was going to jump from a diving board I was only brave enough to climb ONCE in my life – when I was 15 maybe – and she didn’t know how to swim.
Did I mention she didn’t know how to swim?! My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t move either — I just stood there, iPhone in hand. My mind went to computing for gravity, acceleration, velocity and force (how I wish I paid more attention in school!). I like to think of myself as a calm, level-headed person — but with Sam standing at a level thrice her entire height, I don’t know where that part of me went.
In a matter of seconds she jumped and was swallowed up by 10 feet of water. I think I held my breath for longer than she was under because I saw her head bob up and it took a while before I told myself it was okay to exhale.
Watching the video playback later on (when I had pulled myself together) I realized my biggest fear was she’d panic under so much water, she wouldn’t know what to do. Isn’t that how people drown in the first place? And swimming is all about confidence and presence of mind, right?
It was at that moment I decided it was definitely time for swimming lessons. I’d been quite hesitant to add another activity to (what I consider) Sam’s busy schedule. I still wanted her to have a lot of free time to play. Lately though, we’ve been doing a lot of that at the pool due to the heat. Every morning when the girls wake up it’s the first activity that they ask to do. So I started teaching Sam on my own (from the little I’ve experienced with swim teachers in Chapel Hill), but it was difficult because I had Jamie who wanted to copy everything her sister did.
Coincidentally a swim coach teaches several of the children at our pool and she spotted our adhoc sessions. She gave me tips as to what to do for each at their current skill level (or lack of it).
Eventually I had Sam do a trial session with her, and after gentle persuasion (ok ok – I bribed her with a Lalaloopsy), here we are six sessions later and Sam can touch the pool floor, blow bubbles through her nose and tread water sans floaties! Last week they started teaching on the arm work for freestyle, but Sam seems hesitant for now (and I don’t feel like bribing anymore). My husband feels that she should learn it because it’s harder to undo bad habits later on (doesn’t that go for everything in life though?), so I’m negotiating for a few more sessions this summer.
Personally though, I’m happy with “drown-proof”. I feel better knowing that in case she jumped into the pool before I could get my shorts off (It happens often), then I wouldn’t have to jump in after her with my shorts on. Now, Sam doesn’t panic if she swallows water, and I feel a little bit better letting her swim short distances on her own. If in case she gets pushed or falls into the pool by accident, then she can make it to a side and get herself out. At the very least, she can keep her head above water long enough for someone to get her.
Since then, some of our parent friends have since seen Sam and Jamie in the pool and have asked me how we got them to do what they do in the water (Jamie loves submerging her head and can hold her breath for a bit). So in the spirit of helping, I will share a few of the tips Sam’s swim coach gave (I will not divulge her name because we don’t need any more competition for slots in her busy schedule!). I’ve mixed this in with some lessons I picked up from teachers in Chapel Hill too.
- Confidence, patience and persistence are qualities we parents must possess in the pool. Oftentimes we’re already scared for them, and it plays off the fears they already have. I know I was doing this because as I was teaching Sam to swim independently, I would automatically push her back upward if I saw her dipping, afraid she’d swallow water. Coach said to allow it to happen because she’ll have to learn how much effort she has to put in to do this on her own. Of course she’ll swallow water and occasionally will inhale it; it’s all part of learning how to swim. But we’re the best people to reassure them they’re ok and coax them to try it again. It really takes time and we have to take them back to the pool over and over again for them to get the hang of it.
- Make it fun. Jamie learned to dunk her head in the water because we started by sitting her on the ledges and swaying her back and forth to the tune of Humpty Dumpty. When we got to “great fall,” I’d pull her into the water. At first we stopped when the water got to her chest, but once she got the pattern, I’d dip her deeper and deeper. Then I just dunked her in altogether. We also count, so she has a cue as to when she’ll hold her breath. Some swim teachers are very serious and it’s a turn-off for kids. As for floating on their back, put their head on your shoulder and have them make images on the clouds with their fingers, or read a (water-proof) book “lying down”. Sam’s swim coach brings toys and gives her time to play after she tries out a new skill; an incentive to learn quickly.
The right “swim tools” help. I like Sam’s floaties because it’s “progressive”. We remove one “block” at a time so that her arms and legs get stronger without her feeling like she’s sinking. It’s wrapped around her body, so that she’s free to use her arms and legs (the arm floatation devices aren’t recommended by swim teachers because the child doesn’t learn to rely on their own strength). I also found some of those toys that sink, and that’s what we used to teach Sam (in two feet of water), to stick her face in, hold her breath and pull them out. The coach also encourages the use of a swim cap and goggles so that children aren’t afraid to open their eyes under water.
- Let them develop their survival instincts. If their head dips below the water, it’s okay. Instinctively, they will swim upward. When they’re at the wall, push their hands down so that they know they need to grip more firmly. Floating is a survival skill because if they get tired of paddling and kicking, they can rest and roll on their back. Teach them they can shout for help with their head above water.
It definitely takes time and a lot of practice. You can just imagine how tanned we are by being in the pool almost everyday, despite the amount of sunscreen we’ve consumed. It is also fun and thrilling to see them slowly build their confidence and develop these skills. It makes my sunburn all worth it in the end.
Do you have drown-proofing tips you can share? I’d love to hear them!