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Swimming as a Pastime

Introduce Swimming for Year-round, Lifetime Fitness

If they weren't filled with water, you'd swear swimming pools were magnets. Kids are drawn to them like artwork to a refrigerator. That's why Eryn Grill of North Palm Beach, Fla., signed up her sons Collin and Trevor for swim lessons shortly after they learned to walk. "We have a pool in our backyard, and we were concerned about safety," she says.

The boys, now 9 and 6, are strong enough swimmers that they have jumped off their family's boat to snorkel in the Bahamas with their mom and dad, Don. "They even swam with nurse sharks," Grill says.

Most of the 368 million people who swim this year will not do so with sharks. But many first took up swimming to avoid a very real danger. Drowning is a leading cause of injury-related death for children.

Swim Lessons

With such sobering statistics, it's little wonder that parents are getting their kids into the swim of things at an early age. Carol How-Kentner, aquatics director at the Ambler YMCA in Pennsylvania, plans to enroll her son Logan in Mommy & Me classes before his 2nd birthday. "Starting young is paramount," says How-Kentner, who started at the Y as a volunteer when one of her friend's children drowned in a backyard pool.

Mommy & Me type classes introduce babies under 2 to splashing and bobbing, with the emphasis on play and bonding. Preschoolers in first-level classes learn to move their arms, kick their legs and float with adult support. Soon, they're blowing bubbles and learning not to swallow water as they do so.

"Our main goal is drowning prevention," says Kay Smiley, who oversees the national aquatic program for YMCA. She recommends beginning lessons at 6 months, with a parent. "But we want this to be more long-term for kids than just a two-week class," she says. "We want swimming to be a lifelong sport."

Jayme Kreitman of Charlotte, N.C., was a newspaper reporter and new mom when she researched Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) for a news story. She was so inspired that she quit journalism and became a swim instructor.

ISR follows a behavioral psychology and childhood development model that teaches infants what to expect in the water and how to respond to save themselves. Repetition of skills every day for 10 minutes over a six-week period is the standard. By the end of the course, 6- to 11-month-olds are able to roll onto their backs to float from a face down-position. Babies of walking age are taught to swim head down and then roll onto their backs for a breath, in a swim-float-swim sequence.

Even kids who are competent swimmers, however, must be watched carefully. "There is no such thing as a drown-proof child," Kreitman says. "No matter how well they can swim, it's not carte blanche to sit by the pool and read a book."

Fitness and Fun

Who would want to sit next to the pool when diving in is such a kick? The fitness benefits of swimming are abundant. It is a no-impact cardiovascular workout, which means swimmers reap all the rewards of, say, runners (heart, lungs and muscles shape up) without the pounding of the road, so joints, tendons and bones are spared injury. A 150-pound swimmer burns up to 600 calories an hour, making it an excellent sport for weight control.

Kevin Mackinnon's book A Healthy Guide to Sport: How to Make Your Kids Healthy, Happy, And Ready to Go (Meyer & Meyer, 2005) offers 3 tips for better swimming at any age:

  • Kick from your hips, not your knees (which can generate more of a backward motion).
  • Breathe out while looking at the bottom of the pool, not as your head turns to catch an inward breath.
  • Use a kick board to improve your leg skills before adding arm strokes.

Learning to swim well as a family also opens up a variety of new sporting options. After all, you can't surf, scuba, snorkel, raft, boat, high-dive, canoe, kayak, water ski, boogie board or scream through the tunnel of terror at the local water park without excellent swimming skills.

Getting Serious

If your child has taken to swimming like a fish to water, competitive swimming might be the next logical step. Linda Serkiz's twin 7-year-olds, Max and Jack, have been swimming since they were 7 months old and could swim the length of the pool at 3. By 5, they could out swim their mom, doing flip turns at the wall and competing on their local swim team in Aiken, S.C. "At Jack's first swim meet, he crawled the rope the whole length of the pool," Serkiz says. "But everyone was cheering for him, and it was such a positive experience that he couldn't wait to do it again."

There are hundreds of swim teams across the country for the littlest swimmers up to masters. The YMCA has more than 1,000 facilities offering its competitive swimming and diving program, with 50,000 kids participating. USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, sponsors competitions for kid athletes through Olympians. Their Web site (www.usaswimming.org) provides links to swim teams throughout the country.

"Kids can start at age 5 in the Y program," How-Kentner says. "It's a great introduction to competition, teamwork and good sportsmanship." To join, kids must be able to swim one length of the pool both freestyle and backstroke (kids may not make the cut in other programs if they haven't mastered all of the strokes). "No matter what age they start, they can learn to swim competitively," she says. "But the focus should always be on fun."

*To learn more about how you can become trained in CPR, visit cprweek.org.
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