- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2000

Cannonball," yells Nathan Meier as he hurls himself off the side of the pool at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA.
Once in the water, the Bethesda 4-year-old, buoyed by a flotation device strapped to his waist, practices kicking and breathing with the other members of his pre-Pike class.
Nathan is learning to swim, and experts say he is doing it at the perfect age.
"He's not afraid of anything," says Nathan's mother, Lisa. "He was not at all afraid of the water when he first started swimming. At first, he needed the arm floaties. Now he is getting more confident. He is going to start private lessons to learn more."
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that formal swimming instruction for children not begin until they are 4. Before that, most children are not developmentally ready to master swimming, says Dr. Steven Anderson, a Seattle pediatrician and chairman of the AAP's Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Most children younger than 4 have neither the motor skills to master real swimming movements nor the cognitive understanding about the dangers inherent in the water, Dr. Anderson says.
"Programs for infants and toddlers that are called swimming lessons are often promoted to diminish the risk of drowning," he says. "The intentions of those programs are good, but any kind of program for that age is not going to make a child 'drown-proof.' Regardless of the program design or focus, infant and toddler programs are unable to ensure that children will understand water hazards, use avoidance strategies or attain program safety goals."
Programs for infants and toddlers that are "water play" a chance for a child, along with a parent, to play games and get comfortable in the water are fine.
The YMCA and the American Red Cross, two of the biggest programs for the estimated 10 million children who participate in learn-to-swim lessons, agree with the AAP. Both of those organizations have nationally standardized programs that are age appropriate.
"We would like children to be accustomed to the water and not be afraid," says Harold Houston, manager of health and safety programs for the National Capital Chapter of the American Red Cross. "But actual swimming lessons before age 4 are not beneficial."
Parents should be especially wary of programs that claim infants, recalling their recent days in the womb, have an innate ability to swim, Dr. Anderson says.
"We get complaints about some of those programs that are sink-or-swim," he says. "My feeling is, why traumatize them to accomplish something you really can't anyway? There seems to be this theory that children under 4 months old will know how to swim, but thus far there is only anecdotal evidence on that. There is no hard science because it is hard to study. Who is going to volunteer their baby to be the human test subject for that?"

Learning and swimming

When choosing a swim class, look for small teacher-student ratio, says Doug McHale, director of aquatics at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA. That facility holds 207 swimming classes of varying levels each week.
"The ideal size is about four to eight children," he says. "Private lessons may be better for a child who is not that comfortable in a group or who is not that comfortable with the noise factor of a group class. Sometimes the pool can get pretty noisy when we have three or four classes going on in one pool."
Water temperature the warm-er the better seems to play a big part in how comfortable children are going to be in the water, Mr. McHale says.
Mr. McHale also advises parents, even if they are good swimmers, not to be a beginning swimmer's sole teacher. Parents can be good supplementary coaches, but it also is a good idea to have children learn basic skills from a patient and knowledgeable instructor.
"It is part of the Little League mentality," he says. "You don't want to be too tough on your kids. You may have an idea what they should do, but they might not be ready."
Some classes allow personal floatation devices (PFDs), either strapped to the body or a kickboard or "barbell" held by the child, to increase water confidence. Those devices are fine as learning tools, Dr. Anderson says, but shouldn't be relied upon to prevent drowning.
Last year, 375 children younger than 4 drowned, and 2,900 nearly drowned in residential swimming pools, according to the National Safe Kids Campaign.
"Devices such as PFDs and fences around pools are meant to decrease drownings, but kids always seem to outwit them," Dr. Anderson says. "The only time kids are safe is when a parent or other adult is watching them an arm's length away."
Props also can be a great aid to a child learning to swim. Seeing how a rubber doll kicks its legs or looking up at the indoor pool ceiling to view painted fish might show him how to properly position his body.
"This generation now is a much more visual group of learners," Mr. McHale says.
Back at the pre-Pike class (one of the many levels of standardized YMCA instruction), the students are listening to instructor Ashley Fields put swimming in terms they can understand.
"We're blowing bubbles," she explains to the preschoolers. "Re-member, if you get water up your nose, we're going to hum to make it feel better… . Now we're kicking. Keep your legs straight. It's like we are walking on water."
The class is nearly over, and the children are shivering, but motivated by visions of the summer when they can paddle from wall to wall in the deep end, they are listening.

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