We ask children to do a lot during swim lessons, but going underwater for the first time might be the worst of all! There are a lot of intimidating things that come with learning how to swim: being in a large pool, not being able to touch the ground, and being unsure of how to function in a new environment are just a few. Some kids take these challenges in stride and make learning how to swim look easy. If your child or student is struggling to even enter the water, don’t fear they are not alone. Many kids struggle with jumping over this first hurdle, but once it is conquered, learning how to swim becomes a much smoother process.
How do you teach a kid to go underwater? This is where I would love to impart a special secret way to teach your child that going underwater is safe but there really isn’t a secret to going underwater. Instead there are a lot of different methods you can use to help your student/child move past any fears they may have of going under water. It is important to keep in mind that for some children this can be a longer process than you might hope for but if you commit to taking steps you will see results.
You should start small when teaching a kid to go underwater
If your child is struggling in the big pool, a good place to start is to have them start going under in a more controlled area, such as a bathtub.
When a child is put into a smaller space where they feel comfortable, they are more willing to take a few chances, especially when it involves going under the water. If your child is even hesitant to take the plunge in the bath tub, it might be time to be a little less gentle when you are washing their hair.
Along with teaching them to go underwater, you want to be really encouraging. If you feel yourself getting upset or annoyed, take a break. Children can often dig their heels in deeper if they feel too much pressure. You want to encourage the belief that the water is safe and fun when we are responsible.
You should adjust the child’s outlook on the water to teach them to go underwater
If you feel like you have done everything you can do in smaller spaces, then it is time to brave the actual pool. Please note that you do not have to have a happy bath time to take on the pool.
Time in the pool should be a positive experience for any child, and if your child or student is struggling to go underwater when asked, it is a good idea to take a step back and reapproach the water with a fun new attitude.
There are a million games and activities that will help your child develop a safe and positive understanding of the water. Here are a few that will help
Games and activities to help change a kid’s outlook in the water
These are some of my favorite games.
Use a straw
Kids love using tools in the water, and a great beginner tool is a straw. If you have a child who is to terrified to even get close to the water, give them a straw and teach them how to blow bubbles with it.
Usually children will do this in the pool, but for kids who are scared of that grab a cup and let them begin there before moving to the “large” size (which is the pool).
As they become confident in blowing bubbles in the pool through a straw, have them push the straw lower to blow bubbles deeper and therefore getting their face closer to the water. Eventually you ditch the straw and move on.
“I’m a little tea pot”
Once your child is in the water, songs and games should be your best friend. One amazing song is “I’m a little tea pot.”
To use this game, give each child a cup while you hold a large one. Sing the song as the fill your cup using pool water. At the end of the song pour this full cup over their heads. For new swimmers it is a good idea to pour the water over the back of the head so it does not get too much in their eyes.
As you play this game, you will move the water cup so the water will be poured over their eyes and face. If the child does not enjoy this, quickly offer to play again and let them dump the water over your head. The idea of soaking their teacher or parent is usually too good to pass up.
Talk to the fishes
This game can be played using an imaginary fish or a fish swim toy. Either way, you want to have the child pretend to carry on a conversation with a fish in the water (or a mermaid, shark, dolphin… whatever gets them in the water fastest!)
Instruct the child that a sea creature wants to get to know them better and they will need to turn their head to the side to hear what they are saying. After the child has “listened,” have them answer back by blowing bubbles with their head submerged.
If they do not want to go all the way under water, you can teach them to speak fish by just putting their mouth under, then their nose and eventually their full face.
One of my favorite games is called motor boat. It is a simple rhyme: “Motor boat, motor boat go so slow. Motor boat, motor boat go so fast. Motor boat, motor boat step on the gas. Motor boat, motor boat run out of gas.”
The parent or instructor would be holding the child during this rhyme, and essentially follow the prompts in the song, going faster or slower while moving the child through the water.
It is the last two lines where you can really make progress with submerging skills. When the child is “stepping on the gas” you can make more sporadic moves which will bring them closer to going under water, but the child will be distracted by the fun they are having of being pulled through the water.
When the child “runs out of gas” you can either fully submerge the child or partially submerge them depending on what you feel most comfortable with.
With this game, be mindful of dunking the child. Dunking a child can be fairly controversial (discussed in more detail below). If you have a child who is terrified of the water, this game may not be a good idea because it could further ingrain negative associations. A child who is simply hesitant of the water could use the experience of going under unexpectantly as a way to realize the water is a safe place to be before they are able to over think it.
Addressing other skills while teaching a kid to go underwater
Games, activities and songs are amazing tools to help motivate and guide young children through new skills, but they do not always make difficult tasks simple. If you are feeling frustrated that you have been playing games and singing songs, but progress seems slow, fear not, moving on to other skills will help in conquering fears of going under water.
Work on floating
As you are playing games, it is important to begin mixing in other skills for your younger learner. One of these skills is floating. By introducing and working on back and front floats, it will help build the child’s confidence.
Back floats will help your child see that the water is a safe place, that you are a safe person to be trusted, and feel how they have control over the water.
Back floats will also have the child’s ears submerged in the water. This can be very disorienting for most children so the sooner they become comfortable doing that, the more comfortable they will become with going underwater.
Front floats are great to introduce, not only because it requires them to full go under, but because they will begin to feel how putting your face in the water will help you have more control over your body in the water.
Work with a kickboard
Most children love working with a kickboard because it feels like a grown up pool tool. The kickboard is helpful in getting a kid to go underwater because it puts your face very close to the water.
As the child becomes a better kicker, you can challenge them to blow bubbles or hold the kickboard at arm’s length while blowing bubbles.
Work on bobs
Bobbing is simply going underwater quickly in succession. I usually use this as a tool to have a child practice pushing themselves fully out of the water to assist them in getting out of a pool independently, but this is a skill that requires going underwater.
For children who are still not ready to take the plunge, you can have them practice pushing themselves out of the water and then dropping down to put their chin in the water, then blow bubbles, then blow bubbles out of their nose and so on until they are going all the way under.
Another way you can help a child going under water is by having them bob in water that is shallower so they will not go underwater before they reach the bottom. As they become more confident you move them deeper in the pool until they are able to fully submerge before their feet touch the bottom.
Additional tips and tools to help a kid go underwater
Many kids will hop in the water and be going underwater before you slide in the water yourself, but others take a lot of time and reassurance before they feel comfortable enough to put their face in the water. For those who take more time, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Tips for helping a kid go underwater
Exposure is important. The more time a child spend in the water the more comfortable they will be and the more willing they will be to take chances. If you are struggling with a child crying in the water, take a step back and spend some time just being in the water without teaching them a skill if necessary. For younger students, I have actually suggested to parents that they put off lessons for a month and hit the pool as a family a few times a week until the child is sure of themselves in the water.
Peer pressure is not always a bad thing. Kids who see friends and family members going underwater will be more willing to try it for themselves. If you are having a hard time in private lessons, it might be beneficial to add another, more confident friend to help show them the ropes. I know when I swim with my kids, I do not always want to go under water because washing and drying my hair is a pain, but for kids who are struggling, a parent going underwater is a huge confidence boost in their ability.
If you spend an entire hour in the pool coaxing a child to go underwater, you may be wasting your time and energy because they have dug their heels in and will not be swayed. If you feel yourself become frustrated with the subject matter, take a step back and work on something else for a while. Instead of developing a tense relationship with your student, you want them to know they can trust you and that you are most concerned with their success, not simply their obedience. This can be hard, but keep in mind that going underwater for some children is terrifying and working through it is a process that may take one lesson or ten.
Tools for helping a kid go underwater
There are a lot of tools that you can use as an instructor to help your student be successful while going underwater.
For many kids, the idea of getting water in their eyes is scary. Luckily, there is an easy fix to this, which is goggles. Goggles are a great tool for new students, but they are not a fix all.
Children can develop a dependency on goggles quickly. To help rectify this issue, make sure that you mix up how often you allow the student to wear goggles.
As soon as they feel confident going underwater, have them learn skills that do not require putting your face in, but are still likely to go under briefly such as kicking with a kickboard, back glides and back floats. The slow exposure to water without goggles will help them be more open to the idea of a whole lesson without goggles before saying “I can’t.”
For children who are really scared of going underwater, put them in a lifejacket and let them play independently for a few days. A lifejacket will help them develop an understanding of moving in the water and, for most children, they will soon be experimenting with going under all by themselves.
Please do not use a nose plug! It is incredibly difficult to break the habit of using a nose plug once you have become accustomed to it. There is very little reason to use one as well because swimming requires you to blow bubbles out of your nose. Plugging your nose sets this process back and adds another layer of difficulty for new swimmers to thrive.
A word on dunking a child
Dunking typically yields one of two responses: 1. It is cruel; or 2. It is the only way to just get it done.
The scary thing is both these responses can be correct. Putting a child under the water can be really beneficial or it can traumatize a child because it really depends on the child.
Some children appreciate the attention, begging and groveling they recieve when they refuse to go under water so putting them under ends the power play and lets you both move on with the lesson while other kids are truly terrified to their core about the idea and dunking will not fix anything.
Unfortunately, there is no real check list of which one and specific child is so it is more a gut call. If you are planning to dunk a child here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Let the parent know. Most parents I have worked with have asked me to just dunk their kid before I offer it as an option, where other parents would be mortified to know that it ever happens. In short, parents know their kids best. If you think dunking a child is best, make sure to have a conversation with the parent about it. They should know what you are thinking, why you think it is best and express any concerns they may have.
- Be clear with the child. There is no reason to ambush a child by putting them under. Going underwater is simple and quick so don’t lie to the child. Be compassionate, clear and honest with what is going to happen. Set a standard, review what they should do (shut eyes, close mouth, etc.) and then do it. Don’t build up extra anxiety by dragging the process out.
- Do it together. If you plan to help a child go underwater, then plan to go with them. It is important they see you as a participant in the process so they understand this is not something you yourself are afraid to do.
- Be Quick to Praise. Make sure you have a big smile and a lot of great things to say about them. If that was their first time going under, make sure they know how proud you are and how exciting it was.
- Debrief their experience. After going underwater, take a moment to talk about it. Let them say how it was horrible, but help them realize it really wasn’t that difficult and because they are brave they can do it again and again.
- Expect to do it again. Going underwater is not a one time thing so make sure you plan on doing it several times. With one student, we began by going underwater together three times at the beginning of class and three at the end. First it was in my arms, then I held her at arms length, then we held hands on the wall and finally I was able to watch her bob by herself. Going underwater once is not going to make anyone feel comfortable, so if dunking is the option you choose be prepared to give it time
New things are difficult to try, especially when you are in a new place that does not seem to obey the same natural laws that you are used to. Going underwater is something most children are hesitant with at first, but a little time and a lot of persistence will yield wonderful results! Feel free to comment if you have additional questions and want help.