Helping your Child Thrive at the Pool

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Helping your Child Thrive at the Pool

By: Dora Gosselin, PT, DPT, PCS, C/NDT, Choosy Kids Contributor
We are now a few weeks into fall. The leaves are changing, the temperatures are cooling and our family activities may change as we spend less time outdoors and more time indoors. Many health professionals encourage us to remain equally as active during winter months as we were in summer. During the month of October the American Physical Therapy Association recognizes the impact that physical therapists and physical therapist assistants make in restoring and improving motion in people's lives.

With these two “events” happening, I have been reflecting on what we did outdoors as a family this summer. We typically spend as much time as possible at the pool. As parents, pool safety is critically important, but there is another very significant part of pool culture – the play and social interaction that happens between children when they are in the water.
Now you may be asking “why are we talking about the pool in October? It basically does not exist in our life until mid-to-late May.” Here’s the answer: in the spirit of physical therapy month, let’s use the “off-season” to develop our children’s movement skills so they can get to the next section of the pool with their friends next summer!
For children to fully participate in the pool environment they must have the movement skills that allow them to be safe while keeping up with their age-matched peers. For children with sensorimotor or other disabilities, the pool may not be a refuge for endless play but rather a scary and isolating experience.

Our pool, like many others, is divided into sections. There is a shallow section that is lined with parents ready to leap into the water to save their precocious toddler; a deeper part, about five feet deep, that hosts the most diverse group of swimmers from very new swimmers keeping their head above water just enough to prevent a lifeguard from jumping in for the save to very skilled swim team members flipping and diving about; and lastly there is the diving well – the home of the diving boards – a spot that is reserved for the most highly skilled swimmers.

Many of you can relate to this description of a community pool. You can likely recall the swimming (movement) skills of children in each section of the pool. What I would like to call your attention to is the play and social interactions that happen in each section of the pool. The shallow end is generally filled with toddlers and kindergarten-aged children doing what they do – playing with plastic toys and dunking their face under to show their parent for the umpteenth time. Interactions between children in the shallow end are less; many children are very fulfilled with experiencing their own movement and there is less peer play here. In the deeper sections of the pool the social interaction and play is more variable and is a much more significant component of the pool experience. Children interact with one another with swimming races, using goggles to retrieve dive toys thrown by one another and of course the jumping and diving activities. They also just carry on conversation as they tread water or wait in line to go down the slide or off of the diving board. If children live in an area that has seasons, the skills they learn and practice during three months of the year may not carryover between seasons. For children who have a disability and need more practice swimming, seasons and lack of access to an outdoor pool are exponentially troublesome for skill carryover.

The most obvious solution here is to find a pool that your family can utilize all year round so that your child can practice and continue to develop skills over the “off-season.” If this resource is not available in your community or is cost prohibitive, here is a list of suggestions to get your little fish ready to swim and play next year:
  • Get in the water as early as you can in the spring. Even swimming just a few times before pool season will give your child an advantage and a level of comfort when your community pool does open.
  • Demonstrate for your child some strategies for peer play they can do in the pool. For example, for a rising kindergartner, the “hot skill” may be jumping in the pool in tandem with a friend or doing a handstand. Take on these skills outside of the pool to help your children develop the movement and play skills they need to participate with their peers.When you do finally get into the water for the first time in the spring, follow these tips to get your children acquainted with the water again:
  • ​​Swimming requires integration of the right and left sides of the body. This requires coordination as well as strength and endurance. Putting this all together is difficult. A great tool for lessening the task demands on your children is to use a simple kickboard. With the kickboard, children can practice using their legs symmetrically or they can hold the kickboard with one arm and practice coordinating three extremities.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Motor learning theory tells us that internal feedback is the most valuable tool for learning a skill. If your children are frustrated and scared as they practice swimming, it is impossible for them to learn from their own bodies what movements they need to do to attain and sustain swimming skills. You will be most helpful by identifying the components of movement your children do well by proposing something that they should practice. For example, “I love the way that you are kicking your feet fast. This time can you also try to ​​​​​​​keep your bottom up while you kick?”Growth in one area of pool proficiency (movement or social) may spur growth in the other. If your child continues to be resistant to practice or is having difficulty attaining better skills, you can always focus on the social opportunities. Many pools have rules banning most flotation devices; however, some pool managers may be amendable to your child using a U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation device. Having the safety of a flotation device may provide your children with the confidence that they need to cross the lane line and explore the games and interactions that happen in the deep end.
In conclusion, the challenge of swimming demands integration of both sides of the brain and body in a coordinated and sustained way. Hopefully this blog has reminded you that swimming has two parts – movement and social – and that both of these parts need to be practiced so that your children can thrive and participate safely at the pool. I also hope that it has allowed you to consider what your strategy will be for ensuring a positive pool season. Start thinking about your game plan now, not on May 1st!