Alice, Age 4, is sweet, timid and shy. The pool at Wave House Athletic Club is HUGE, so I could see why she was intimidated, especially since she hadn’t taken lessons since she was 15 months old. She didn’t say a peep and didn’t even crack a smile when I told my usual silly jokes and sang my usual cheesy songs. I have to admit I wasn’t quite sure how the lesson would go and doubted I would get her face in the water in just an hour. Fortunately, my guest mermaid photographer, Elizabeth, Age 8, took Alice under her wing.
I was very gentle with Alice, knowing the importance of a positive initial pool experience. We slowly cruised around the pool, as I kept a tight, comforting grip under her arms and Elizabeth took photos, both above and below the water. I calmly (not a word often associated with me!) moved her body back and forth with her legs horizontal, then poured water over her head using the cue, “One, Two, Ready, Swim.” Then Alice floated on her back while I held her tight, assuring her that I wouldn’t let go. I knew I had to keep her relaxed, safe and secure, and let her know that I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.
There are many different theories about the best way to teach someone how to swim. I have been very fortunate in that I’ve spent my career attending United States Swim School Association conferences. I’ve been trained and certified by the best and have learned to be an extremely patient, gentle, effective teacher (Hence my complete lack of patience outside the workplace- sorry, friends and family). Here’s the advice I give those that are teaching a somewhat skeptical non-swimmer like Alice- Relax. Be patient! There’s no hurry.
The worst thing I could have done for Alice was to push her beyond her comfort zone as an aggressive, authoritative figure. Sometimes just getting a non-swimmer into the pool safely is a challenge itself. So, be sure to set realistic expectations when teaching anyone a new skill. Start out slowly and easily, assess the individual student’s level of comfort and security, then go from there. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Repeat what she is successful at to build her confidence. Oftentimes, pushing a student with too much-too soon, will set her back even further.
So, we took our time. About half way through the lesson, I told Alice to pretend that the whole pool was made out of ice cream, as I showed her how to make ice cream scoopers with her hands to scoop it all up. This is when Elizabeth and I finally heard Alice’s wee voice tell us what kind of ice cream she likes. She was starting to trust us!
Elizabeth began to actively participate, still taking photos, but pausing to gracefully demonstrate swim skills. It was fascinating to watch, as Elizabeth is a sociable fish, comfortable and confident in the water. She was so nurturing and kind with Alice, carefully helping and encouraging her. I was so proud of her as she softly clapped, high-fived Alice and praised her with, “Good job!”
By the end, everyone was having a great time. Alice was putting her face in the water independently, blowing bubbles and getting sink toys off the step (with Elizabeth’s direction). She didn’t want to get out. She persuaded her dad to come in the pool with her a bit longer and Alice was on fire- She was throwing her face into the water herself!
With every participant, I learn so much about my project and purpose. Through my nephew, Cameron and now Elizabeth, I’ve found that when I’m working with children it’s best to have another child photograph for me. Not only do they know how to use a digital camera better than most adults, but she ends up being the teacher’s assistant. Thanks, E!
*Note: Both children were compensated for their time. Cameron received an In ‘n Out #1 combo and Elizabeth took her first ride on the Big Dipper Roller Coaster in Belmont Park (front row!) and got an ice cream cone as big as her head. The perks of hanging with Auntie!