Teaching A Toddler To Swim

  • “Jump to Dada!”
  • “No running by the pool.”
  • “Kick, kick, kick!”
  • “Stay away from the deep end.”
  • “You can do it!”
  • “Be careful!”
Lake George 2012
Lake George 2012

All things you say and shout to a toddler at the pool.  Max, my two-year-old, loves going to his grandparent’s house to play in their yard and swim in the pool.  Pool season is back and he is a few months older…and a few months more adventurous.  We’ve been going to the YMCA all winter where they have an indoor pool so he is very familiar with water but it clearly scares him as well.  He loves being in it when it is very shallow but once it is waist-high he’s had his fun and heads for shallow waters.  This is a good thing for safety but counterproductive to teaching him to swim.  How do you teach a toddler to have a healthy fear of water at a young age while teaching him to swim?

Dodge's 1st Swim
Dodge’s 1st Swim

Memorial Day weekend we took the boys swimming and Dodge, our three-month-old, took a dip for the first time and loved it.  Max was a weirdo and only wanted to sit on the stairs with his feet in…which is fine because I don’t want to drag him into the water and make him afraid of it.  He gradually worked up to getting in and with the assistance of a life-vest felt comfortable riding piggyback on me as I paddled around.  Then I continued teaching him how he has to kick his feet to swim and move his arms.  When he started doing it while I was holding him was when I gave him some small distances to swim.  He swam from me to the stairs…about a foot which is really just jumping and coasting.  We did this a number of times till he knew what to expect and then, when he coasted to me, I took step back and there he was floating.  He panicked for a moment and dog-paddled for his life into my arms.  We all cheered and he knew he had done something cool.  So we did this a few more times till he jumped off the stairs and I didn’t catch him at all.  He was just floating next to me, dog-paddling, focused (not scared), and he turned a little and swam right to me!  It was awesome!  My son swam.

© Allison Gates
© Allison Gates

Last weekend we were back at the pool with some friends who have a four-year-old girl who Max is in awe of.  Whenever they play together he learns something new because he wants to be just like her.  She strided into the pool without any flotation device and swam to her dad.  Max thought this was amazing.  While she still needed help and the deep end was off-limits, she was fully capable of maneuvering herself around the pool.  So what did Max do?  What any boy would do around an older girl he likes…he started showing off.  He likes to jump in the pool from the side where I catch him.  I thought this would be an interesting moment to see what would happen if I didn’t catch him.


© Allison Gates
© Allison Gates

Max cannon-balled into the pool, sank to the bottom of the shallow end, bobbed to the surface kicking his feet, and reached out for me.  I grabbed him and looked into his eyes as he cleared the water away to see if I’d spooked him or encouraged fun.  “Again!!!”  He shouted at the top of his lungs.  Ah…fun.  We repeated this numerous times till all the adults were tired and ready to be dry.  Everyone got out of the pool except for me, Max, and his “girlfriend.”  Then it happened.  He let go of me.  He voluntarily let go of me and was floating in the water next to me kicking his feet and moving his arms the way I taught him.  He swam over to his friend with a HUGE smile on his face and showed no sign of coming back to Dada’s arms.  Max was on his own in the pool.  He swam to the deep end and back three times without ever stopping.  He played.  He figured out how to turn.  He splashed with his friend as he swam.  He swam.  He swam!  HE SWAM!

© Allison Gates
© Allison Gates

In the end I had to drag him from the pool.  He’s a fish.  I don’t have any pictures because I was too busy swimming alongside him, cheering him on, and soaking up the moment.  It was one of my proudest days as a papa and there was nothing that was going to take me away from experiencing that moment with my son.  That night Max and I talked endlessly about it at bedtime.  I said, “Did you have fun swimming with Dada?”  Max honestly replied, “No, I swam all by myself.”  I knew what he meant and he was right…he swam all by his self…like a big boy.  My big boy.  So the moral to the story I guess is you teach kids the skills they need and then patiently wait for them to use them when they are ready.  I’ve been teaching Max to swim for over a year and he did it on Saturday.  It was when he was ready.  Patience.  <sigh>  There seems to be a lot of rewards for this “patience” thing…I need to learn to use it more often.  Also, kids learn more from other kids so get them together as often as possible.  Who knows what baby Dodge will learn from his big brother Max as they get older.

"Dodge Shark"...the next swimming Gates.
“Dodge Shark”…the next swimming Gates.

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