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Early Swimming Skills

Updated on June 28, 2017

Help Your Child Become a Smiling Dolphin!

There are many reasons for children to learn to swim. First and foremost is safety in and around the water. Here in sunny So Cal, parents anticipate all sorts of aquatic outings, such as trips to the beach, water parks and backyard pools. But beyond safety, parents need to realize that, later on, their children may want to swim or dive competitively, play water polo or try synchronized swimming. Parents should also consider the fact that water sports are just plain fun...Why else are dolphins always smiling? There is nothing like body surfing in the waves of the ocean! Other water sports include, boogie boarding, surfing, wind surfing, jet skiing, water skiing, sailboating, canoeing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Ever consider white-water rafting, or just using an inflated inner tube to float down a lazy stream... wearing cut-offs?

Early Water Exposure

The best time to teach children to swim is before they are 6 years old. The skills they acquire during this period become second nature. Children who learn to swim early are more fluid and graceful than those who learn later. This article provides introductory aquatic activities for preschoolers.

Introduction to Swimming

All that is required is a pool, (which is generally and preferably heated.) If you, yourself, do not know how to swim, there is no time like the present to learn! Your experiences will help you guide your child. Preparing yourself and your child today, for swimming abilities tomorrow, takes time, patience and dedication, but is totally worth the effort.

It is important to have your child wear a special bathing suit which he knows is to be worn in the pool. Don't let him wear this suit for anything other than swimming. He needs to know he must not enter any pool or body of water unless you are with him and he is wearing his swim suit.

Once you are in the water with your child, stay with him at all times. It is very important to establish a relationship in which you, the adult, is in charge. If you have slacked off in this department, regain your authority. He needs to understand that you are in charge.

Locating a Pool

Don't have access to a pool? Finding one is easier than you might think. Most neighborhoods have recreational pools. Check for local high school pools, recreational city pools, YMCA's, YWCA's or aquatic centers. These facilities usually have inexpensive open swim times. Make it your mission to get to a pool as often as possible during the preschool years. You and your child should swim at least three times a week during the summer months and whenever possible during the year.


Parents can help their children adjust to water by letting them play in the tub with bath toys. Outside, they can play with squirt guns, a hose, a wading pool and/or a "slip and slide". In backyard pools, parents can provide floating devices such as inner-tubes, noodles, floating rings, arm-floaties, buoyant vests, floating islands, kick boards and boogie boards, etc. (Watch them carefully. It is best to be in the pool with them, since they can slip off or out of one of these devices.)

Adjusting To The Pool

Provide cups, buckets, spoons and sponges for your child. Include objects that sink (rocks and coins,) and float (small balls and soft blocks.) While sitting on the steps, have him sort the floating and sinking toys into separate containers. He can also transfer water from one container to another using spoons or cups. (These activities will not only help your child adapt to the water but also develop his ability to concentrate. Note how long each type of activity holds your child's attention.)

Activating the Hands

First, play patty cake with your child. Splash your hands on the water and encourage him to copy you. Then, hold him around his waist with his back right against your tummy. Have him push the water with his hands as you gently turn side to side. Then, do half turns and finally full circles by stepping around carefully with your feet. He will enjoy feeling the water with his hands as you turn. Help him identify whether his right or left hand is pushing the water. He can tell you which direction to turn by saying, 'Right!"/ "Left!". He can also command, "Stop!" / "Go!" or "Fast"/ "Slow"

Activating the Ams

Show your child how to reach and pull (dog paddle) as he sits on the steps, facing you. Then hold him upright with his back against your stomach and encourage him to reach and pull as you walk or jog in the shallow end.

Activating the Legs

Hold your child above the water and encourage him to kick the surface with his feet. (The indians taught their children to kick this way in rivers or lakes.) Then, have him splash the water with his feet as he sits on the steps. Next, jog your child around the shallow-end and encourage him to kick any way he can. (Hold him in an upright position with a snug hold.) Next, extend your arms and hold him at arm's length with your hands under his armpits and your thumbs on his shoulders, (He is still facing away from you.) Walk backwards and encourage him to kick. He will gradually adjust to the back prone position. Eventually, he will be able to put his ears all the way back into the water as he kicks his feet. (Another good place to practice the back float and kick is in the bath tub.)

Exercises For Arms and Legs.

Grasp your child under his armpits with your thumbs on his shoulders and walk backwards. Gently pull him side to side through the water. Then, have him get into the back float position with his ears back into the water. Encourage arm and leg movements by asking, "Can you bend your legs and then straighten them out again?" "Can you open and close your legs while holding them straight?" "Can you bring your arms overhead and back to your sides through the water?" "Can you move your arms and legs at the same time to make a "water angel?"

Front Kick

Support your child with both hands on his stomach as he holds onto to your shoulders. Walk backwards and encourage him to lift the top of each foot and then drop it to make a splash. After he is able to move his legs rhythmically in this fashion, support him under his armpits with your arms outstretched, thumbs up on his collar bone. Have him reach out and put his hands on your forearms to continue kicking.

(Note: Contrary to common thought, kicking with bent legs is fine at this stage. Actually, the flutter kick is done with slightly bent legs. Watch underwater videos of olympic swimmers, This long fluid leg action takes time to develop.)

Back Kick

While supporting your child on his back, have him kick any way he can. He may start marching or bicycling. Next, encourage him to bring each leg, bent at the knee, high enough so that the back of each calf splashes down onto the water. This is an exaggerated bicycle motion. (Bicycling at this stage is as vital to flutter kicking, as crawling is to walking.)

Activating the Whole Body

Ding Dongs: Grasp your child under his arm pits with your thumbs up. Pull him directly toward you and then gently push him away. Sing "ding" when he is swishing away from you and "dong" when swishing back again. Repeat about ten times. Two children facing each other, enjoy this activity very much. It just cracks them up as they swing toward and then away from each other.

Nose, Eyes and Ears

In time, your child will enjoy water on his head and face, but in the beginning, proceed cautiously. As you sit together on the steps, start by pouring water on his shoulders, then the back of his head and finally, the top of his head. Gently wipe water over his cheeks, forehead and ears with your wet hands. A wet wash rag placed on the top of his head will allow water to flow onto his face and eyes. When your child seems ready, pour water onto his head and hair with your hands or a small cup. Encourage him to wipe his own face with his hands or a washcloth. In time, he will be ready to pour water over his own face and head ... and yours.

Face Submersion

Demonstrate face submersion by dipping your chin in the water, then your mouth, nose, eyebrows and finally your forehead. Show him how to blow bubbles. He might copy you or just observe you. He will eventually try it himself. Your job is to encourage and inspire these activities. They will lead to skill development later. Never force your child to do anything he is not willing to do. There is always next time.

Breath Control

To introduce your child to his air-tank, (lungs,) hold him with his back against your chest. Expand and collapse your chest as you inhale and exhale so that he can feel what you are doing. Have him copy you. Next, have your child sit on the steps, facing you. Take a breath and go underwater. As you hold your breath, wave to your child from underwater. Then, show him how to exhale as you come up. Encourage him to put his face in the water and hold his breath. Often, they are willing to try a quick dunk with their whole face … and next time a bit longer. They love to blow bubbles. This skill however, is just for fun. A true exhale does not involve the purposeful blowing of bubbles, but rather a releasing of air into the water before coming up.


Have your child push off the steps and come to you. Catch him under his armpits, (thumbs up.) Then, turn him around so that he can push off your upper thighs, (one foot on each leg.) Have him reach with his arms outstretched so that he can protect his face as he approaches the steps. You can give him a small boost with your legs. After he masters pushing off the steps and your legs, he will enjoy going back and forth from the steps to you.

At first, he will not put his face in, but one day he will do it accidentally. On that day he will realize how much fun it is to propel off your legs with his face in the water and do it purposefully ... and you will be catching him and turning him around until exhausted!

Note: Stay a consistent distance from the steps and resist the urge to have him go farther and farther. After all, he is not actually swimming yet. In order to swim, he must be able to float back and forth from you to the steps and back again. After floating, gliding is next and finally stroking and kicking actions are added.

Safety First

Now, it is more important than ever to watch your child in and around water.

A. He must never go in a pool without you.

B. His special bathing suit must be on.

C. You must keep ever vigilant eyes on him by continuing to go INTO the pool WITH him, (or another TRUSTED adult.)

Tips for Parents

Be patient, don't rush your child's progress. Realize that swimming abilities take time, play and practice. Allow freedom of exploration on the steps and in the shallow end with floatation devices such as vests and kick boards.

Whenever you demonstrate a skill, perform it slowly so that your child can clearly see how it is done. Encourage your child's progress by saying, "Yes, you are doing it just right!" or, "That's how to do it!" If you praise him too much, he will do things to please you rather than for the sake of accomplishing something new and fun.


When your child is able to go from the steps to you with his face in, kicking with his feet and reaching and pulling with his hands, he is ready for beginning swim lessons. He will learn proper strokes and breathing techniques.

Remember, it is important for children have free time in the pool for enjoyment and for practicing what they have learned. Keep them swimming and enjoying the water … and someday you will you will have your own smiling dolphins.


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    • Kathryn L Hill profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn L Hill 

      13 months ago from LA

      Thank You So Much!

      You taught yourself ... so cool.

      See my other swimming article. Adults can also develop swimming skills if they work on them ...

      by teaching themselves. :-)

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      13 months ago from Beautiful South

      Kathryn, I stumbled onto this article of yours, and I agree with you. I taught my children to swim when they were 5 and 2 years old because the 2 year old fell into the apartment pool while his father and I were splashing around in deep water. He was waiting on the side for us to come play with him. It scared the daylights out of his dad, but my boy recovered from his fright and became a good swimmer.

      You see, at age 10, I had gotten into deep water at a church camp, and a friend pulled me out. I went home and learned to swim at the public pool all by myself. I got a job at that pool starting at age 14. Opportunities arose, and I got my Red Cross life saving certificates, and when I was old enough (18) I got my Water Safety Instructor Certificate. I think it is very important to teach small children to swim, and the younger the better. I just wish that more people had read your fine article and paid some attention.

    • Kathryn L Hill profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn L Hill 

      7 years ago from LA

      I appreciate your visit!

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 

      7 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      Kathryn L Hill voted up and more this truly is a good hub for everybody. I will share it.


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