Tiny Tots taking swim lessons in El Dorado Hills wear life vests that adjust to their ability.
Swim lessons aren’t what they used to be. They’ve gotten better, a lot better.
A big reason that’s happened is because of innovations in swim teaching developed by James Reiser, known as “the swim professor.” Reiser is the founder and executive director of Swim Lessons University (SLU), a video-based method of training swim teachers, that he created in order to develop a pool of better prepared swim instructors for his South Carolina-based swim school, The Swim Lesson Company.
In El Dorado County, SLU-trained instructors are teaching swim lessons run by the El Dorado Hills Community Service District (CSD) aquatics program.
The SLU approach employs these principles: have non-swimmers wear life vests that provide safety and build confidence while learning the basics of swimming, use fun and engaging activities to teach young children rather than confusing drills, and visibly identify students by swim ability (warm colors – red, maroon and yellow – identify non-swimmers). The plastic wrist bands also are useful in recognizing what a child has learned, when instructors mark achievements by punching stars into the bands.
In contrast, traditional swim lessons focused on the drills needed to for a swimmer to learn specific skills, strokes and how to float. Whereas, SLU’s approach is to build immediate confidence by removing the fear of sinking and make swim lessons playful exercises where kids learn to swim intuitively, rather than intellectually.
El Dorado Hills swim teachers do this by having beginning swimmers don specially designed adjustable life vests called “progressive floatation devices.” They allow buoyant pads to be removed from the vest as the child gains confidence and ability. Eventually, the life vest is replaced by kick boards, swim noodles or floating dumbbells.
In traditional swim lessons, children learn to float first, but Reiser counters, “You’re wasting valuable time teaching floating to true beginners. By using the progressive floatation device, you can get children in a swimming position almost from the first lesson. That translates to being able to get good kick mechanics. Floating is easy to teach once a swimmer relaxes and has confidence.”
“Kids tend to run in the water when not wearing a buoyancy device, because that’s the natural position they know,” He says, “But, when you put buoyancy on a child, he doesn’t have to think about getting air, being horizontal, keeping his face out of the water or not drowning. Instead, the child can focus on what he needs to do to get from point A to point B… the movement pattern of the kick or of the arms.”
Reiser believes a child is more likely to become dependent upon his instructor in a traditional swim lesson, because the instructor is holding the child. Whereas, children more easily give up their dependence on the swim vest, as its buoyancy is reduced and the child’s swim skills improve.
The shift from drill oriented to activity oriented instruction is another aspect of how El Dorado Hills’ approach differs from traditional swim lessons. There, instructors play successive, brief games like “Let’s Go Grocery Shopping,” tossing floating toy vegetables and fruit to encourage young students to swim out and collect them. Other similar games have the kids gathering blocks to help their instructors build a castle, or fishing for floating foam fish, turtles and frogs with handheld nets. Danny the Dolphin and Sammy the Sea Otter plastic toys, held by the instructors, similarly encourage kids to look under water, blow bubbles and otherwise ignore their fears, by interacting with the characters.
Reiser refers to the Pediatrics Journal that reported today’s kids spend 53 hours a week on average using digital devices. “Today’s kids are wired for distraction. So we’ve got to have strategies that keep them engaged with more activities and less wordy instructions,” he explains.
A benefit of swim lessons is that it instills good water safety practices. Teri Gotro, the recreation supervisor responsible for the El Dorado Hills CSD’s aquatics programs says, “Each day we post a safety tip of the day. It could be ‘Look for a Lifeguard,’ or ‘No Running,’ but its point is to remind swimmers of the importance of being safety aware.”
Reiser says a national effort to improve safety at public pools and water parks called “Note & Float,” developed by Tom Griffith of the Aquatic Safety Research Group, aims to reach parents of children who cannot swim and encourage aquatic facilities managers to “note” all non-swimmers who visit an aquatic facility, then “float” those swimmers with appropriately sized lifejackets.
“You wouldn’t put your kids in a car without a seatbelt,” says Reiser, “And, children who can’t swim across a pool should be wearing a life jacket.”
There’s also been a shift in thinking that the overly wordy list of pool rules posted at public pools, obscures fundamental “life and death” concerns. He urges parents to focus on these four guidelines, first: Non-swimmers Wear Life Jackets; Watch Your Children; No Long Breath Holding (as the risk of blacking out under water rises after holding one’s breath over 20 seconds); and No Diving, unless otherwise allowed.
This past week at the EDH CSD pool, while kids 3 to 5 were learning how to take pop-up breaths in the Tiny Tots (Turtle) class, a few lanes away, Dolphins (ages 7 and up) were mastering lifeguarding techniques on their way to becoming Junior Lifeguards or perhaps future instructors.
From June to August, five two-week sessions of swim lessons will be held in El Dorado Hills. Others are ongoing in Cameron Park, Placerville, South Lake Tahoe, and at several private swim schools. Regardless of what approach they use, be it SLU, American Red Cross, YMCA, Swim America, StarFish or another, today’s swim lessons are better than they used to be, and every child should have the life-saving skill of being able to enjoy the water, safely.
For more about swim lessons, visit swimlessonsuniversity.com, eldoradohillscsd.org, cameronpark.org, cityofslt.us, cityofplacerville.org and wallenswim.com.