YMCA advice, classes to teach kids to swim

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Small, inflatable 'water wings' they're often called, are often used to help children float while playing in a swimming pool or even learning how to swim.

For safety reason, First Coast YMCA swim instructor Lynne Zeller says ditch them.

If you child is trying to learn how to swim, Zeller says the small flotation devices that hug your child's biceps, also pushes their body into an improper position.

"The person wearing the floaties is now vertical in the water; it's like they're sitting up, riding a bike," Zeller explains. "When you swim, you swim horizontally."

Another reason Zeller discourages the use of the floaties, is she believes they give kids and parents a false sense of security.

"The child can walk into deeper water than they should," Zeller says, describing a possible scenario. "those floaties can deflate, they can slip off, and then that's a real risk to the child."

"Children need to be under the direct supervision of an adult," Zeller insists. "That means eyes on that kid at all times."

Fearing the water

First Coast YMCA statistics show drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related death in children between the ages of 5 and 14, with 88-percent of youth drowning while under adult supervision.

Even more concerning; 40 percent of youth drowning incidents happen within 3½ feet of safety.

"Certainly you want children to think about potential dangers as they're playing by the pool or at the beach so they do keep themselves safe and they don't go past their limit of skills," explains Baptist behavioral health psychologist Karla Repper. "If they're that afraid of the water, they probably have other fears too that might require a professional who can help the family figure out what to do with all the fears that they have."

Repper agrees it is important, especially living in a part of the country where bodies of water abound, for children to learn swimming skills.

Repper suggests offering incentives for kids if they take swimming lessons, like a new toy, a sweet treat after dinner, or an extra story before bedtime.

"There are different ways to motivate children when they're reluctant," Repper said.

"I do think it's important to learn the skills of swimming, though it doesn't waterproof them," Repper added. "They still need adult supervision and lots of conversations about potential risks in the water, but try to make it as fun as possible."

Helping kids prepare for swim lessons

There are some fun activities parents can complete with their children to get them ready for swim lessons.

Zeller tells parents of young children they can, "practice blowing bubbles in the water in their bathtub," or parents can, "hold your child on their back in the bathtub so they can understand and get use to the feeling before swim lessons."

"Sometimes I also ask children to bring a favorite toy when they come to swim with me," Zeller said, "If they're really scared, when they see that favorite doll sitting on the chair there; anything to make them feel comfortable."

"Come to the pool, walk around, check it out," she suggests. "Let them feel familiar with the area so that on the first day of swim lessons, which can be very overwhelming, they feel a little more comfortable and confident."

If you take your child to their first swim lessons and they freak out, causing an embarrassing scene, Repper warns parents to keep their own emotions in check.

"Definitely don't get angry, or fuss with them, or tell them how much money you spent on the swim lessons," she advises, "because your child is already clearly upset and you don't want to add anything to that."

Instead, Repper says a measured and calm approach on the parents' part will quickly diffuse the situation.

"You want to be supportive and comforting, and let them know we'll try again," she said. "Just really keep your emotion low around the situation."

"Children are still developing their sense of self and confidence, their understanding of the world, what's safe and what's not," Repper explained.

"Truly it's adaptive to not want to plunge into a body of water with a stranger, so you have to be patient with the kids who are just afraid."

Go for green

Then there are the children who were swimming well enough to be on their school's swim team last year, but seem to have forgotten everything they've learned about swimming now that they're just getting back into the water now, with the warmer temperatures.

You can't underestimate your child's ability to swim," says First Coast YMCA aquatic resource manager Alex Cramer.

Cramer told us about the Y's "Go For Green!" Camp Swim Initiative, in which young swimmers strive to wear a green band, which means they've reached the highest swim requirements.

A yellow band means swimmers have met the minimum swim requirements and are listed as 'beginning swimmers'. A red band alerts life guards the child is a non-swimmer, but working on their skills.

"If campers are at a red or yellow level, we provide them with water safety classes to help build up their endurance to get them to that green level," said Cramer.

The swim test involves a person swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool on their own, then treading water for 60 seconds, before swimming unassisted back to their starting point, again the length of the pool.

"We are helping them build that endurance," Cramer said, "so if they get scared, they fall in, they can't touch the bottom, that they do have the endurance to go the distance and reach a safe place."

Cramer tells us the YMCA of Florida's First Coast also offers free swim lessons for anyone in the community regardless of age or membership status.

Lessons start with a "mommy and me" class for kids beginning at age 6 months, and continue through adulthood.

To learn how to qualify for your local Y's free swim lessons this summer for children beginning around age 3, visit FirstCoastYMCA.org.

About the Author:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.