Teaching a child to swim is not always easy but the best way to ease the process is helping new swimmers develop a strong flutter kick. A flutter kick is the most common kick used where the legs move up and down alternately to propel a swimmer forward. Although the definition sounds very technical, the actual execution tends to be pretty easy as well as very instinctual. Doing a flutter kick may be a simple movement, but that does not mean it comes without its own complications. As a swim teacher you will need to have several tools at your disposal to help perfect a swimmers flutter kick.
This article will focus on first teaching a flutter kick, how to build up strength and kicking endurance, and finally how to problem shoot issues that can occur with new and seasoned swimmers.
Teaching the Kick
There are many methods to teach a flutter kick to kids, but here are four of my favorite ways that you can expand on for your situation.
Baking a Cake
Most children respond very well to games, songs and analogy to help them understand their form and technique. The first method begins by talking to your class about how they are going to help you bake a cake, pizza or other item.
I have a deep dish pan that I use for them to bake their creation. Before we begin “adding ingredients,” I explain that their legs are knifes that they will be using to chop up ingredients to bake with. I explain that like when they cut things with their parents, they will need to make sure their knives stay straight because a knife that breaks (or bends at the knee) wouldn’t be very useful.
I also ask the swimmers if it is better to have a dull knife that will not cut anything or a sharp knife that will make it easier to cut things. I show the kids, who inevitably choose that they want sharp knives, how to point their toes. I then have them practice chopping with their knives. Some kids will treat their legs as a unit so you may need to explain that each child has two knives.
Once you are getting pretty good practice chops for your class, you then ask what kind of pizza, cake or other item they want to bake. If they choose a cake, you start giving them ingredients that need to be chopped smaller before being added to the mixture. An example of this is having the kids chop wheat to turn it into flour, or sugar cubes into granular sugar. I also have them chop eggs open, milk containers or any other items. I have never had a student point out or be troubled that it is really rare to chop an egg or container of oil open. They enjoy the game, and as long as they are kicking properly, I am a happy teacher.
After the kids chop an ingredient, I scoop some water into the baking pan. If you want to expand on this exercise you can practice going underwater by having the child go underwater to put the cake, pizza or whatever into the oven, which happens to reside on the bottom of the pool. For water shy kids, I will have them blow bubbles or as much of their face as possible. While the food bakes, I will have the kids practice kicking using a noodle, kickboard or in a supported carry position.
When all the kids finish practicing their kicks, I have a student help me retrieve the item from the oven and then we all pretend to eat. Most classes request to bake every day and it has yielded great results.
If you are pressed for time you can utilize the crayon method for teaching kicking. Like the baking method, you want to explain that their legs are crayons and they are going to color a beautiful picture. Explain how no one enjoys coloring with a broken crayon so you do not want to bend your knees because it will break your crayon. You will also want to point your toes to make sure your crayons have pointed tips and color more easily. After your explanation, have each child select what colors each of their crayons are and have them color a picture by “scribbling” into the water. Once they have completed their picture you can ask them what they colored.
If you have a class where the kids are dancers at heart, you can explain they are going to use the same leg movements as ballet dancers. I like to have the kids start out of the water for this and explain that ballet dancers often dance on their tip toes using straight legs and tiny steps. I like to ballet dance around the pool doing silly arm movements (because I am NOT a ballet dancer).
When we get back into the water we will sit on the side and adapt the ballet legs into our kicks, practicing straight legs, pointed toes and tiny kicks. If you have a rowdy class, this is a great activity because it gets the kids out of the water for a minute and lets them be silly and funny in an appropriate fashion while learning the skill.
Explaining the Kick
For older classes, you may not be excited about playing make believe with crayons, ballet moves or a baking dish. For these classes, I like to get a little more technical and let them experiment with the different kicks to understand why we use the flutter kick instead of others.
To accomplish this, I explain the flutter kick (small kicks, straight legs and pointed toes). I explain that the reason we kick is to displace water and this kick displaces the most water with the least amount of effort, but because it is not as difficult as some other kicks people often figure out other kicks that they think work better such as a bicycle kick, flat footed kick or kicks that stay under the body instead of on top of the water.
I very briefly explain what each of these kicks looks like. Using a kickboard, I have the kids kick across the pool using a flutter kick. On the way back I have them attempt to do a bicycle kick. When they reach me I ask them which kick was easier, which kick was faster, and which kick had the best success rate. I continue having them do flutter kick across the pool and then a less effective kick on the return trip asking them which was easier, faster and the most simple.
The kids love this activity because it helps them understands the mechanics of what they are learning, as well as experimenting with movement and giving them a chance to do something silly in the water.
It always seems to happen that one student will always say the less effective kick is better than the flutter kick. This child is often trying to get a little extra attention or can even have an extremely effective bicycle kick that works well for them. As a younger teacher I would get flustered by this, but the longer I have taught, the less attention I give these comments, answering “oh, that is very interesting” or “I don’t meet many people who feel that way but sounds good.” This placates the student enough to not distract from the exercise and often their words do not match their actions.
How to Strengthen a Flutter Kick
Once your swim students understand the basic movement and motion of the flutter kick, it is time to put it into action. Understanding the basic motion of a flutter kick and being able to effectively use it are often more different than teachers anticipate, but because it is second nature to many swimmers, strengthening a child’s flutter kick is usually not given enough time or attention. Here are four activities that will help you strengthen a flutter kick for actual use in the pool.
Using a Kickboard
The most obvious way to strengthen a flutter kick is to have the student practice it… a lot. A kickboard is designed to provide stability to swimmers who are only planning to use their kick so that they can focus on the kick rather than staying above water or coordinating what their arms are doing. A kickboard is a particularly useful tool because there are many different holds a child can do depending on what level they are on.
Top Kickboard Hold
The first hold is to have the student hold the kick board at the top with their arms laying flat over the length of the kickboard. This will help support their upper body and allow them to focus solely on what their legs are doing.
From here, you are able to ask the student to kick around the pool, kick lengths or to retrieve an object while using their straight legs and pointed toes.
There are two major disadvantages to this hold. First, smaller children consistently have a hard time keeping their arms straight over the kickboard and instead bend their arms pulling the kickboard underneath them and therefore sinking the board and themselves at the same time.
The second disadvantage is that having the upper body supported pulls the student from laying perfectly flat in the water and therefore slightly distorts the child’s kick. These disadvantages are not deals breakers for using this hold on a kickboard, but are something to watch out for if the student is struggling in one of those areas.
Bottom Kickboard Hold
Instead of holding the kickboard at the top of the board a second option is to hold the board at the bottom with the arms extended with the head submerged in the after. This method helps address the two major advantages of the top hold because with the head underwater the body is able to remain in a more natural swimming position and even if the students arms bend they are still less likely to pull the kickboard underneath them, which further distorts the body. I particularly like this method because it is building up to a crawl stroke where the child’s head will be under while they are coordinating other tasks. The disadvantage to this hold is that for a new swimmer putting your head underwater while focusing on your kick is too much to do and therefore both tasks do not get the attention they need to be done well. Once again, this disadvantage does not meant that this hold shouldn’t be used but rather seen as a warning if something isn’t working during the lessons.
Back Kickboard Hold
A completely different hold for the kickboard is to have your student lay on their back and hold the kick board firmly to their stomach, holding the sides of the kickboard to keep it in place. With this hold the students head is not submerged and the body stays in a proper swimming position. This allows the student a lot of practice in a fairly safe environment.
The disadvantage to this hold is that kicking on your back does not always translate to having a strong flutter kick on your stomach. Many children will have perfect kicks on their backs, but then really struggle once they flip over to do crawl stroke.
I like to do this first to help the child acclimate to using the kickboard and learning how to take my verbal directions and make changes, then switch to their stomach and continue to build their endurance as well as their form.
Kicking Across the Pool
Kickboards are an amazing tool, but one of my main concerns with using them to exclusively strengthen a kick is that using one takes the body out of a streamlined position. When the head is lifted out of the water it means the body is more prone to sink and therefore a child can alter their kick to stay on top of the water.
That is why I like to move away from the kickboard as soon as the student is ready to kick on their own. Removing the kickboard allows them to keep their body in a streamlined position as well as practice kicking while their head is underwater. Strengthening a kick using a front glide or a back glide is a much more natural way for strong swimmers to improve their kick, their strength and their general swimming capabilities.
Trouble-Shooting a Flutter Kick
The most common issue kids have when learning how to kick is that they develop a bicycle kick where their legs move in a circular motion rather than up and down.
The reason this is an ineffective kick is because this kick pushes the water away primarily with the bottom on the foot rather than displacing water with the entirety of the leg.
The best way to visualize this is if you were standing next to a wall that you wanted to make contact with. You could stand with your back to the wall and kick it with your feet but if you hung onto the wall you would be able to touch the wall using your entire leg. An effective kick displaces the most water possible with the least amount of work so you will want to “make contact with as much of the wall as possible.” A bicycle kick feels effective because it take a lot of work to do especially in comparison to a true flutter kick.
There are several methods that will help you correct the bicycle kicks. The first method to correct it is to place a noodle underneath the ankles so that the kick cannot do the circular motion without displacing the noodle.
Another method is by placing a large elastic band around the legs just below the knee so they are unable to separate the legs more than necessary for a flutter kick. These bands are common in the exercise world and are an easy something to have around when needed.
The final suggestion I will give is to re-teach the kick altogether. If their kick is not naturally progressing, then take it back to one of the basic methods so that they are thinking of only their kick, they are able to see it and correct it before they need to perform it in the water.
Some students struggle with kicking below their body (meaning they are bent at a 90 degree angle) instead of kicking in a streamlined position. The biggest problem this presents is that it propels the swimmer upwards out of the water instead of forward through the water.
There are two methods I use to work through this issue. First, I have the student focus on kicking the top of the water to create splashes. I usually do this as a game where they are trying to get me wet as they kick holding onto the wall. If I am already soaked, I will sometimes pull in a towel or a toy that isn’t wet and float it on a kickboard until it is soaked through.
If that isn’t enough incentive to get their kick on top of the water I do hold my arm (or a noodle) underneath their thighs and make it impossible for their legs to sink to the bottom of the pool.
Finally, if you are noticing that your swimmer seems to be doing everything right but still seems to have an unproductive kick, there is a good chance they are flexing their feet rather than pointing their toes.
This is actually one of the most difficult kick issues to solve because there isn’t a way to manipulate the swimmer into pointing their toes. Even though it is difficult, it is not impossible.
The first method I try is by taking the student out of the water and having them ballet walk (on their tip-toes) around the pool so they become incredibly comfortable with the feel of pointed toes. Then I take them back in the water and have them work on their ballet kicks on the wall so they can see their toes and move it through the water from there.
If you are still not seeing any improvement it would benefit the student to try a pair of fins. Fins will exaggerate the effects of a flat footed or a pointed-toe kick. It is the quickest way to have the student feel the effects of not having good foot positioning.
Teaching a student to kick is one of the most polarizing skills in swimming. Some will have a naturally strong and technical kick while others will struggle regardless of the techniques and time you dedicate to the skill. Although you will never be quite sure of the struggles a student may have, you are now prepared to work through most of anything you will encounter.
If you have other concerns write in and I’ll share any insight I have!