Final steps for teaching kids to swim independently
Welcome to Level 3 of the Beginner Swimming Lessons for Kids series!
This series is made up of 3 Levels, and it is designed to help parents/instructors teach children ages 3 and up to swim and water safety skills.
Important note: If you are teaching a child to swim, you should be able to swim yourself AND have the ability to rescue a child if he/she were drowning or in trouble in the water. If you cannot do this, please seek help from a certified swim instructor.
We will be building upon the skills your child learned in Level 1 and Level 2, so it is important that they have mastered those swimming skills first.
OK, let’s get started!
Here in Level 3, we will teach kids some arms strokes while swimming; how to do the pop-up breath; how to kick and swim on their back; how to retrieve deeper objects in the pool; how to jump into the pool, turn, and swim back to the edge; and how to tread water.
Below, you’ll find detailed instructions on how to teach each of these swimming skills, including some pictures and videos.
Please feel free to leave comments at the end to let me know how you are progressing and if you have any questions about these swimming lessons!
1. How to Teach Kids to Swim with Arm Circles
Before we begin teaching your child to do arm circles while swimming, they should already be able to kick a short distance to you by themselves with their face in the water.
If not, then have your kid master that skill first before continuing here.
Ok, let’s get started!
First, why are we teaching arm circles and not the front crawl (aka freestyle) arms?
This is because arm circles are the easiest motion for young children to perform with their arms while swimming (particularly for children ages 3-5).
Young kids are MUCH better swimmers when doing arm circles than when doing front crawl arms.
Why? Because young children lack the coordination to properly do the front crawl arms. When they try to do the front crawl, their arms are typically very inefficient and they actually swim WORSE—they’d be better off not even using their arms and instead just kicking to swim. (And that’s perfectly OK! Young kids can actually swim quite well by just kicking when taught properly).
HOWEVER, young children can easily learn arm circles AND are able to actually do the arm circles in a way that IMPROVES their swimming rather than hindering it.
Now, if your child is older (ages 6 and up), they can be taught to do the front crawl arms effectively. However, if your older kid is just learning to swim, it still doesn’t hurt to start with arm circles and then work up to teaching them the front crawl.
If you’re not sure what arm circles look like, watch the video below where I teach a young child to do arm circles.
As you see in this video, you should start by moving your child’s arms in the arm circle motion.
In the starting position, their arms are extended straight out in front of them, and then their arms should remain extended while they move them along the surface of the water to their sides (in one big circular motion).
Kids often have a difficult time remembering to bring their arms back to the starting position after doing an arm circle, so that’s why I like to hold a toy in front of the child to show them where there hands should return to.
This way, they have a target to aim for after they do an arm circle and can easily bring their arms back to the starting position.
Practice the arm circles with your child until they are comfortable, and give lots of praise and high fives!
2. How to Teach a Child the Pop-up Breath
Before we begin, make sure you child can kick a short distance to you by themselves with their face in the water.
Now for the pop-up breath, we’re basically going to teach your child to lift their head up out of the water to take a breath while they kick and do the doggy paddle with their arms. This is called the doggy paddle because it’s exactly the way dogs swim in the water.
After your kid takes a breath, their face should go back into the water, and they should continue kicking with their arms either by their side or doing arm circles (depending on whether your child has mastered the arms circles).
Let’s get started by breaking this skill down into smaller steps, and then we’ll put all the steps together at the end.
First, teach your child to lift their head up from the water
Start by having your child kick from the steps to you with their face in the water. After 3 or 4 seconds, put your hand under their chest and lift them up, telling your child to look up and take a breath.
After your kid takes a breath, lower them back into the water (with their face in the water) and have them continue to kick.
Then, 3 to 4 seconds later, lift them up again so they can take another breath.
Practice this several times or until they get comfortable with this breathing pattern.
This exercise helps your child get comfortable with having to lift their head every 4 seconds or so to take a breath, and then lower back down in the water and continue swimming.
Second, teach your child the doggy paddle
To teach your child the doggy paddle, have them stand at the steps, and show them how to push their hands straight down through the water one after the other over and over.
Next, tell them that they’re going to swim to you, and when you tap them on the head, they need to push their hands down over and over in the water (doggy paddle) and lift their head up out of the water. Don’t worry about telling them to breathe yet. We first want your child to get comfortable doing this drill without breathing, because we don’t want them to accidentally breathe in water. After each attempt, make sure to pick your child up so they can take a breath and rest.
Watch the video below to see how I begin teaching a young child to lift her head out of the water and have her try the doggy paddle.
Keep practicing, and once your child is able to do the doggy paddle and lift their head completely out of the water for 1 to 2 seconds, then tell them to try to take a breath while their head is out of the water.
Keep practicing this exercise with your child over several lessons until they are comfortable.
Watch the video below to see a child that is comfortable doing the pop-up breath.
3. How to Teach Kids to Swim a Modified Elementary Backstroke (Kicking on the Back with Arm Paddles)
First of all, what is the Elementary Backstroke?
Traditionally, Elementary Backstroke is a swimming stroke that is swum on the back with simple arm paddles and the breaststroke kick. It is often taught as a rescue stroke because you can breathe while doing this stroke and it doesn’t use much energy.
However, we’ll be teaching a modified version of the Elementary Backstroke for now since we haven’t taught your child the breaststroke kick yet.
This modified version uses the flutter kick and not the breaststroke kick. I really like this modified version because it will prepare your child for learning the regular Backstroke.
We’ll begin by breaking this stroke down into several steps, and then we’ll combine all the steps at the end.
3.1 How to teach kids to kick on their back
First, lets start by teaching your child to kick on their back.
At this point, your child should already know how to float on their back.
So now, we’re simply going to add kicking to the back floating skill that they already know.
Start by having your kid float on their back, and then use your hands to support their head while they kick their legs up and down (which is called the flutter kick). Their legs should stay relatively straight, but not rigid.
Make sure your child does not lock their knees while back kicking. The knees should bend slightly while the legs stay relatively straight (as shown in the video demonstration below).
When kids first learn to back kick, it can take some time for them to learn how to balance in the water while they kick. This is why we start by supporting their head, so their head doesn’t go under water while they kick.
Once your child finds their balance while kicking on their back with your support, try letting go of their head to see if they can stay afloat while kicking on their back.
Sometimes, kids will squeeze their stomachs really tight while they back kick, which can sometimes lead to them sinking. If you notice this happening to your child, tell them to relax their belly while they back kick.
Watch the video below for a demonstration of how to teach kids to kick on their back.
3.2 How to swim the Elementary Backstroke with the flutter kick
Once your child is comfortable back kicking on their own, let’s teach your kid how to swim a modified Elementary Backstroke.
I call this a modified Elementary Backstroke, because we will be learning it here with the flutter kick instead of the breaststroke kick.
This modified version is usually an easier way for kids to start learning the Backstroke.
For this modified Elementary Backstroke, we will simply add arm paddles to the back kick that we just learned.
For the arm paddles, your child will start with their arms by their sides while they flutter kick (kick their legs up and down) on their back.
Then, your child will bend their elbows and slide their hands up their side to their armpits.
Next, your kid will extend their arms out into a T shape, and then they’ll keep their arms extended as they bring their arms back down to their side. (This last movement is what will push the water down and propel your child through the water).
Watch the video below to see a child demonstrating this modified Elementary Backstroke.
4. Learning to Pick Up Deeper Objects in the Pool
All the kids I’ve taught to swim LOVE going under water to retrieve toys from the bottom of the pool once they learn how.
However, sometimes kids can be scared or nervous to try this when they’re first learning, which is totally normal!
Don’t worry though, I’m going to show you a nice, easy progression to help your child become more confident at swimming deeper under water.
We began teaching your child the basics of submerging their head under water in Level 2, so make sure you review that before starting here.
Now, depending on the age and height of your child, we’ll start this lesson either on the steps or at the shallow end (~3.5 ft depth) of the pool.
Wherever you start, you want your child to be able to stand comfortably with their head out of the water to begin.
Next, place a diving toy either on the steps or at the bottom of the shallow end of the pool.
Now, tell your child that in order to get the toy, they have to dive their head down toward the bottom of the pool and stick their feet high up into the sky (i.e., head down and feet up).
Help them at first by pushing their upper back (and thus their head) down and lifting their legs up to guide them down to get the toy. Also, help them come back up to the surface at first.
If this seems a bit too scary to your child at first, you can start by holding them under their arms or around their chest and guide them down to get the toy and then lift them back to the surface.
Whichever of the above methods you use to start just depends on how comfortable your child is. The idea is to ease your child into this so they are not too afraid and to keep swim lessons fun.
Once your child is comfortable with you helping them get to the bottom, have them try once either by themselves or with very minimal help from you.
I like to have the child start trying to retrieve the toy by themselves, but if I see they aren’t able to get their head down towards the bottom, I’ll give them a gentle push down on their upper back. Then, if I see they are struggling a bit to get back to the surface, I will help guide them up to the surface.
Also, if your child is trying this exercise on their own and having trouble getting their head down and you see their legs are laying flat on the water, you can simply lift their legs up into the sky and that will automatically push their head and body down.
Again, make sure to watch your child and help them back to the surface if they need it.
Keep instructing your child that they should put their head down and feet up into the sky, and have fun while practicing this skill until they can retrieve the toy by themselves.
As your kid gets better at getting into this upside down vertical position, have them kick their legs and do arm circles to propel themselves down to the bottom faster.
Also, as your child gets comfortable with this exercise, you can move the toy a little bit deeper to ease your child into retrieving objects from deeper depths.
Watch the video below to see a child dive down from the surface to retrieve an object from the bottom of the pool.
Notice how he dives his head down and then lifts his legs up toward the sky. And he even does a few kicks and arm circles to help himself reach the bottom.
5. Jump into Pool, Turn, and Kick Back to the Wall Independently
Now, let’s teach your child this ultimate safety skill! If your child were to accidentally fall into a pool, it is important for him or her to be able to get themselves to safety by turning themselves around in the water and kicking back to the edge of the pool.
Note that this is a continuation of the skill we learned in Level 2 of teaching your child to turn in the water and kick to the wall.
Be sure to check that lesson out first if you haven’t already.
The main thing we’re going to add onto the skill that we taught in Level 2 is to have your child jump by themselves into the water, then turn and kick back to the wall.
So, let’s get started!
Sometimes, kids are afraid to jump into the water from the edge of the pool (which is totally understandable).
So, to ease them into this, you can have your child start from either a seated or standing position at the edge of the pool, and then lift them into the water.
Then, have your child turn and kick back to the edge on their own (because they should already know this skill from Level 2). If not, work on Level 2 first, and then come back to this lesson.
Next, once your child is comfortable with you lifting them into the pool from a standing position, hold one of their hands with your hand, and have your other hand behind them and tell your child to try jumping into the water.
It’s important to have one of your hands behind your child while they jump in case they are not able to jump far enough away from the wall. This way, you can push them away from the wall if needed so they don’t hit the wall.
Once your child is comfortable jumping into the pool while you hold their hand, and they are able to consistently jump far enough away from the wall to avoid any injury, have them try to jump into the pool without holding their hand.
Important: While your child is jumping into the pool, still keep your hand behind your child just in case they do not jump far enough away from the wall and you need to give them a push toward the water. Safety first!
Lastly, when your child is comfortable jumping into the pool by themselves (with your hand behind them for safety), have them turn around in the water to face the wall after they jump in, and have them kick to the wall and grab it.
Watch the video below for a demonstration of a child completing this skill.
Now, we have 1 skill left to learn here in Level 3, and that’s treading water!
6. How to Teach Kids to Tread Water
Treading water involves arm and leg movements that keep the body in a vertical position with the head above water.
Treading water is a good safety skill for kids to know, although the BEST safety skill for kids to know is how to float on the back. This is because kids can get tired after treading water for a while, so it’s good for them to know how to float on their back to rest in case they were ever in the water (unable to touch the bottom) and couldn’t rescue themselves.
However, treading water is still an important skill to know, and it helps build confidence in the water. Also, as your child gets older and stronger, they will be able to tread water longer and longer.
So, lets get started!
Ok, I’m actually going to write two different instructions for children of different ages, because I usually teach beginners how to tread water a bit differently depending on age.
Start here for children ages 3-5
First, start by having your child straddle a pool noodle as if it was a horse. (I like to call this the seahorse.) See the image below for a demonstration.
Next, have your child kick their legs forward and back while they “ride the seahorse” and keep their body in a vertical position. This allows your kid to practice kicking vertically, which they will need to know to tread water.
Then, have your child push the water down with their hands over and over while they kick vertically and ride the seahorse. They’ll push the water down with their hands similar to the way they did when they learned the doggy paddle.
I find this method easier for young children to learn rather than sculling the water, which is how older children or adults would learn to move their hands while treading water (and I’ll teach the sculling method below for the older children).
Once your kid is comfortable doing these movements on the pool noodle, have them try without the noodle.
Start by having your child hold onto the side of the pool and kick their legs forward and backward while keeping their body in a vertical position. Then, tell your kid to let go of the wall for just a couple seconds and kick their legs forward and backward. See if they can do this and keep their head above water.
Next, have them let go of the pool edge while kicking their legs, and have them push the water down with their hands over and over (like the doggy paddle).
Start having them practice this version of treading water for a couple seconds at a time, and slowly increase the amount of time they tread water as your child gets stronger and more comfortable with the movements.
Start here for children ages 6 and up
Begin by having your child hold onto the edge of the pool (with their legs under them in a vertical position).
Then, have your kid practice kicking their legs forward and backward while keeping their body vertical in the water.
For the arm movements, have your child practice moving their hands in a sweeping motion first towards their body and then away from their body over and over. Their fingers should be together with their hands in a cup shape.
Now, have your child try to combine both movements and see if they can keep their head above water. Their legs should be kicking forward and backward (vertical flutter kick), and both their arms/hands should be moving in a sweeping motion first toward their body and then away from their body over and over.
Start by having your child tread water for just a few seconds, and as your child improves, increase the time until they can tread water for 10-20 seconds.
Congratulations!! You and your child have now completed Level 3, AND you both have finished the Beginner Swimming Lessons for Kids series!!
Give your kid a big high five for everything they’ve accomplished! AND give yourself a big pat on the back too—you should feel proud of your dedication to teach your child to swim! Swimming is a life skill that will always stay with your child, AND they will always remember that YOU taught them!
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Below, you’ll find a summary of all the skills we covered here in Level 3.
Summary of Level 3 Skills
Teaching Kids to Swim with Arm Circles
Learning the Pop-up Breath
- Teach your child how to lift their head up out of the water
- Teach your kid the doggy paddle
Teach a Modified Elementary Backstroke
- Kick on the back
- Swim the Elementary Backstroke with the flutter kick
Pick Up Deeper Objects in the Pool
Jump into Pool, Turn, and Kick Back to the Wall Independently
Teach Your Child to Tread Water