Simple Steps For Children

Or maybe I should title this, “Simple Steps For Teaching Children In Groups”

For the last 3 summers I have been giving group lessons to children at a private international school. It may be of interest to some of you to read what I do with them.

This summer I will have the students for 3 weeks, 2 sessions per week, with about 25 minutes for drills and then 10 minutes or so for games. That’s a total of 2.5 hours to make an impact on their swimming skill.

This year I have 4 groups, ages approximately 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 10, and 11 to 13. The group sizes are around 8 to 18. This year finally I have another sports teacher for the school, with a swim instruction background, assisting me. He’s very receptive to what I am doing and agrees that it is a more effective path than the traditional approach he has learned.

Over these 3 years of group lessons, and with hundreds of individual lessons, I’ve broken down my childrens program into some basic steps, and I’ve been able to get some results that please me, make the kids feel confident, and make the school director fairly impressed.

In my approach I use the same TI principles and pathway: Balance, Streamline, and then Propulsion.

I recognize that children develop their gross-motor skills before their fine-motor skills. Not-so-coincidentally, this is how the B-S-P pathway works. This means that working on skills that are closer to the spine, involving larger muscles and more whole body control is the priority for their developmental stage. Then we work out toward the extremities with finer and finer details. With adults we can talk more directly about this and use finely accentuated focus points. With kids I need to give them simpler, gross-motor ideas, using effective word-pictures to describe the effect we want, and demonstrate it, so they have a way to immediately tell if they are ‘doing it right’ or not.

I break the skills down into essential, gross-motor focus points. Since I work cross-culturally with children who often speak 2,3 or more languages, English not being the first one, I change my descriptions and terminology to fit the particular group.

I like to call our lesson time “Fish School” because the children get the picture immediately of what they will be imitating, they know fish are the best swimmers and believe me when I tell them I will share the secrets of being like a fish. Something about being transformed into an animal with special powers really appeals to kids.

Here are my objectives:

1) Get the head down in the water, in order to get the body parallel to the surface. Eyes looking straight down, not forward.

2) Make the body long, first with both arms, and then by learning to hold one arm in front, hand at a depth below the head.

3) Roll to breathe on the spine (I use words like “Shish-kabob” since we are in Turkey after all!), keeping the head in the water. I show them to keep that Shish (or Laser) pointing where they want to go.

4) Hold a patient arm in front- they must learn to move each arm independent of the other- one holds the cutting edge in front while the other recovers. This works for both crawl and backstroke.

5) Using less and less kicking and arms learn to float with body long and relaxed. Let the water hold you up. Learn to Slide and Glide.

I should note that we do short repeats across the 10 meter width of the pool. This seems to be just the right distance for those under 9. When I work with children 13 and above I get more interest in wanting to swim the whole length (at least for part of the lesson).

I do floating last with the older children because they are hard to keep still! But I want them to learn to trust the water and let it work for them- just like fish do! You can immediately tell the children who have a feel for the water by how they move ‘fluidly’ in it. This is the kind of instinct I am aiming to build in them through all these drills.

Some of the younger ones need time to trust putting their head and holding breath underwater, so I will do a lot of assisted floating on front and back. I am very patient with my fearful ones because I realize their neuro-muscular and emotional systems need a lot of positive experience and stimulation to over come that fear and re-gain that child-like trust in water that is they are entitled to.

Once Trust, Balance, and Streamline are in place Propulsion is easy to add. This is exactly the opposite of traditional swim lessons. They try to build trust and feel for the water through propulsion first, which is going against what the neuro-muscular system needs in order to get that feel for the water. For this reason (among a few) I think I get better results with children and adult-onset-swimmers- mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Ultimately, if I have enough time, I will show them how to relax in the water- being balanced, long, and straight- and then propel themselves with the easiest of arm and feet motion. I am most pleased to see the swimmer who will lay down and move with the most minimal movements, clearly flowing with the water and through it, like they were born there.

With these basics I can get children (who are already comfortable treading water on their own) doing crawl-stroke and backstroke in a couple hours- really!. There are some differences in the age groups so I adjust my expectations and my drill sequence to fit the age of the group- but there are always a few higher or lower than average. Generally, I take everyone 6 and above through the general sequence.  The older they are, the better their motivation and attention, the finer the details I will give them.

That’s the basic outline. A volume could be written on this and I am sure there would be many in the TI community who would value it. Let me know if you have your own questions and I will share what I have experienced with you.


2 responses to “Simple Steps For Children

  1. My first born, now 6, went to baby swim, but the other two, 1 & 3 yo, we’ve taught according to the instructions we learned at the baby swim. However, baby swim is mostly about being comfortable in the water, not that much swimming. The oldest one participated a swim school last year where the emphasis was mostly on play, or teaching children to swim disguised as play. My daughter learned to swim very well under water but only as long as she can hold her breath. I’ve been working on learning to breath out under water with her.

    I’ve been also doing a bit of training with a friend’s 6 yo son. He is a wild one, and all “lessons” need to be really entertaining. With him, I noticed that swimming under water on his side, and then lifting his hand on his hip creating a “shark fin” with his elbow was exciting. I figured that would be the step before moving that hand from the hips in front of him (spear) while turning the body so that the other elbow would now form the shark fin.

    Do you have any good tips on how to make lessons play?

    I’ve noticed that a good set of tools is necessary as all kids are individuals and different games and exercises interest them more than others. No ‘one-size-fits-all’ here!

    • What I didn’t describe is how I turn the childrens drill work into play. Every child and every group is different so I am constantly adapting to the situation. If I am in the sea I have to do things different than if in the pool. The younger they are the shorter the attention span. After the first year I quit agreeing to hour lessons for children under 9 (approx), since I found it better for them and for me if we just focused and moved quickly from activity to activity for 30 minutes, then release them to go play.

      I find that it helps to tell the child what our goal is for the time, maybe explain the ‘super skill’ we will learn today and the reason for it.

      And we do short segments. I should have noted in the article that I line the groups up along the wall so they swim short repeats- 10 meters. This is enough for most of them. When I get children above 13 then I have more who want to swim farther for the challenge. (I should add this note…)

      Games- I have invented various games or activities that turn neuromuscular training into play. Too many to list here, but for every skill we are working on I try to make a few activities for it so we can try it from different angles, with different forms of challenge.

      I have a laundry basket I carry with me with my swim tools- a floating ‘noodle’, colorful big flat glass ‘rocks’ for diving and underwater markers (in a plastic jar with holes drilled into it so I can sink it and use it as an anchor for a small buoy), a couple kick boards, 20m of rope, a plastic ball, extra goggles, short fins (I have a whole basket with a variety of sizes), 2 meter section of hose, a bungy cord.

      The key to learning is the same we use for adults- with individuals or with groups I test them out at first to look for the edge of their skill and then use the steps and the tools for play to take the tiniest steps up to that line and over it, challenging them just enough to make it fun, but not too much to trigger fear or exhaustion by making them step too far, too soon. In this way I find that we can make much faster progress with far more trust and enthusiasm preserved than when they just through kids in with a kick board and make them go hard. Once fear is proven a phantom they will start pushing me to give them more.

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