How to Teach a Kid to Doggy Paddle

how to teach a kid to doggy paddle

Teaching a kid to doggy paddle is one of the first big steps in swimming lessons. Most parents of young swimmers are nervous when their little one begins swimming and that nervousness only increases when they are ready to shed life jackets or other flotation’s and go it alone.  Developing a strong doggy paddle can be major step any parent or swim teacher can make to help ease some of that nervousness and help the child become a confident swimmer.

Doggy paddle, for those who are not familiar, is a simplified stroke that allows a swimmer to swiftly move through the water without submerging their heads. This stroke is very adaptable to personal preferences, which make it easy to teach.  Although the concepts involved in doggy paddle are easy to understand and teach it does require time and practice to build up the endurance to swim independently for long periods of time.

Before we dive into the actual process of teaching the doggy paddle, there are some basic mechanics of swimming that are important to understand.  These mechanics are fairly simple but keeping them in mind will help you understand and explain why proper form is important.  They will also shed light into corrections that need to be made to help your swimmer thrive. 

Basic Swimming Mechanics

  1. Swimming is basically using your body to push water away from you to propel you in the opposite direction.  This means that if you want to move forward in the water, you will want to push the water backwards.  If you want to move backwards you will need to push the water forward.
  2. You will push more water with a larger surface space than with a smaller one.  This means that you will propel yourself further in the water with a flat hand rather than a sideways hand that slices through the water.
  3. Moving your body faster will not always make you move faster through the water. It is much easier and faster to use your hands to “slice” through the water but using this method does not push as much water and therefore will not propel you as far. Swimming is not about speed, but is more about power. 

Teaching the Doggy Paddle

There are two basic motions that need to be developed when teaching the doggy paddle.  The first of these motions is a strong flutter kick, and the second is developing a powerful arm movement.

Developing a Strong Flutter Kick

Helping your swimmer develop a strong kick is the best way to help your child become a confident swimmer.  Since the legs are such a large muscle group, they carry a lot of the load for movement through the water and keeping your face out of the water. Your leg muscles are also used to being in constant use because of all the walking we do and so they tend to not tire as quickly as your arms do. 

Many people assume that kicking is a natural skill because our legs are used so frequently, but this is often not the case. Teaching a child how to properly perform a flutter kick is not always an easy process. Often times, it is consuming and a little tedious, but taking the time to teach it properly will yield you a much stronger swimmer!

 A proper flutter kick is performed by using straight legs and pointed toes to rapidly kick vertically at the waters’ surface. Initially you may want to ask your child to hold onto a kickboard, noodle or even hold them under the arm pits and see how they kick.  Some kids already have the natural inclination to kick properly, but most kids will start with a bicycle kick (a kick that has a round movement as if they are pedaling a bicycle).

doggy paddle

If you find yourself looking at a kick that is not straight with pointed toes, you will want to teach them this skill.  It is best to begin by sitting on the wall and showing the swimmer what proper form looks like, have them replicate the form and practice kicking. 

After they have successfully demonstrated the kick on the side of the pool bring them into the water and have them kick on their backs.  Beginning on their back makes it easier for the child to keep their legs straight and toes pointed because the body is able to lie horizontally in the water. 

After they have kicked on their back, have them flip over in the water and practice kicking with their head out the water. Do not fret if your swimmer struggles to keep straight legs and pointed toes once they are swimming on their stomachs. Since their head is out of the water it is more difficult to keep their body horizontal in the water and so many students will regress to a bicycle kick.  To help rectify this you can have your student hold their kickboard with outstretched arms and keep their chin in the water. This will help them lay horizontal more easily and therefore make it easier to use proper form.

 The above is the general process to teaching a flutter kick, but there is still a lot of imagination and inventiveness that will make the process fun.  Below are a couple of my favorites.

Making a Pizza

Begin by sitting on the side of the pool with your student and explain that to kick correctly you will want to pretend your legs are knives.  Most kids enjoy this because they do not get to use a lot of knives so if feels a little exciting. 

Just like a knife your kick should have a sharp end (pointed toes).  If their toes are not pointed then they will not be able to cut anything and the knife would be useless. 

Next, explain that knives are made of metal and metal does not bend so their legs cannot bend.  After they understand this, then explain how professional chefs are so talented that they chop things with their knives very quickly and have them practice using their “knives” to kick. 

Once they have the basic movement, I have a pan that I use to help them make a pizza.   First, I hold my hands underneath their pointed toes and explain that we are making a pizza and first need to chop up tomatoes to make a sauce.  I have them chop my pretend tomatoes and then we scoop them into the pizza pan and spread them out.  Then we “chop” up cheese and spread it out. Then I have them name whatever toppings they like and we add it to the pizza. 

After all the ingredients are added, you have them put the pizza in the oven by sinking the pan under the water.  As the pizza cooks you can practice kicking through the water.  When their practice has yielded consistent improvement have them retrieve their pizza from the oven and enjoy pretending to eat it!

Coloring Book

Compare your swimmers kick to a crayon with a sharp tip (pointed toes) that you don’t want to break (straight legs).  You can help your swimmer understand this by asking them if they like when their crayon is dull or what happens when they break. 

Once your swimmer has a proper form, ask them to choose a color for their crayons and then have them scribble a picture with rapid small kicks.

When they are ready to swim through the water explain that they are going to color a large picture.  Ask them what picture they would like to color and, as they kick, ask them about the colors they are using while reminding them to keep their crayons sharp and not to break them. 

If their legs keep bending you can make them switch their crayon color every time it happens so they become used to thinking about their form.

Developing a Powerful Arm Stroke

After establishing a strong kick, you will be ready to introduce the stroke to doggy paddle. When teaching the stroke you will want to begin out of the water so your student can see how the stroke is meant to look without the distortion of the water. 

Once you are out of the water, have your swimmer raise their arms above their head, when in the water this would be their arms fully outstretched in front of them. 

Then, with a cupped hand, have the swimmer  move one hand in front of their body creating a half circle in front of them, beginning above their head all the way down to their stomach.  Then their hand will become flat and slice up the middle of their body until their hand is once again above their head. 

The reason their hand becomes flat and slices through the water is because it creates less resistance and helps the swimmer move further in the water faster than continuing with a cupped hand. 

Then, have your swimmer practice using alternating hands.  They will want to move quickly which will shorten their stroke, but slowing them down and reminding them to take a nice long stroke will pay dividends in the end.  A longer stroke will propel them much further using less energy than shorter faster strokes.

teaching kids to doggy paddle

There are a several games to play that will help make this stroke easier to learn. These games are best introduced outside of the water where the student can fully visualize what they are supposed to be doing.  When you begin teaching outside of the water you give the swimmer an opportunity to learn without the pressure, distortion or concern that being in the water presents. 

That being said, it should take less than 5 minutes outside of the water before a swimmer is ready to begin practicing in the water.  As soon as they show an understanding of what you are explaining, it is time to hop back in the pool.

Scooping Ice Cream

Tell your swimmer that they are going to gather as much ice cream as they can with their ice cream scoops (hands).  Have the entire pull motion, where the hand makes a semi circle with cupped hands, be a scoop of ice cream.  When they reach the end of the pull, you have them drop their scoop and slice to the top of the ice cream bowl to get another scoop quickly. 

This game will help them get as much use out of every stroke as possible alternating arms to get as many scoops as possible. The shorter the initial pull, the less distance they will cover with exerting similar amounts of energy.  You want your swimmer to have a long stroke because they will go further using similar amounts of energy as a shorter, less effective stroke

Throwing a Ball

Pretend that your swimmer is catching a ball in the water.  When she catches the ball her hand becomes cupped and she moves her hand through the water to throw the imaginary ball towards her feet.

Once she has done that, she will make a flat hand that will cut up her body to catch the next ball.  Make sure that the child is alternating arm strokes.

Putting it All Together

After teaching the initial steps, it is time to put them together and practice.  You can do this by having the swimmer hold onto a kick board, noodle or even your forearm and practice kicking while alternating strokes.  As they become more confident, remove the flotation or only offer your hands, and then fingers as a security, before removing them all.

Can you Skip Doggy Paddle and Start with Crawl Stroke?

As a competitive swimmer and long time swim teacher, I do have to admit that I do not teach doggy paddle because it is not as efficient as crawl stroke. 

The difference between the two is in the motion of the strokes during swim. A doggy paddle stroke never leaves the water, meaning your hands are always submerged, whereas the stroke for crawl stroke requires your arms to leave the water to return to the starting position.  This is much more effective in movement through the water. 

Crawl stroke also requires the swimmers head to go underwater, which creates a more streamlined position and therefore makes it easier to move through the water faster.

Crawl stroke is by far the more efficient stroke, but I do understand that it is not always needed when playing in the pool for young children.  The reason I do not teach doggy paddle is that kids will naturally adapt crawl stroke to use in less formal situations, therefore teaching themselves doggy paddle.

By teaching a crawl stroke, I am able to instill the benefits of a superior stroke while giving the child the tools to adapt that stroke for everyday use in the water.  What I have noticed in my own experience is that kids will adapt their crawl stroke to a doggy paddle while playing, but as soon as they want to race or get somewhere fast, they will begin using a full crawl stroke instead.


Teaching your child to doggy paddle will provide your child the ability to move through the water, allow them some freedom in the water and give you a little peace of mind during swim times. Once you have taught the concepts and your swimmer seems to understand, it is best to practice, practice, practice offering encouragement and praise as well as correction when needed.

Related Questions

What should you teach during the first swim lesson? The first swim lessons should be an assessment of the following basic skills:

  • blowing bubbles,
  • submerging underwater,
  • kicking,
  • floating, and
  • gliding.

Check out this guide for all the details!

What should you take to your child’s first swim lesson?  Bring proper swim attire, a warm towel, sunscreen, any applicable paperwork and a positive attitude.  For more information, see this guide.

One thought on “How to Teach a Kid to Doggy Paddle

  1. Much like with learning to kick, the next step is to hold the child’s hands out in front of them while their body floats at the surface. Let go of one hand at a time as they practice circling their arm underwater to their hip and then back through the air into your hand. As the child gets comfortable with this motion, encourage them to multitask by kicking while they move their arms.

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