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My son is five years old and simply does not want to learn to swim. We've had him in swimming lessons, but he won't go in the water and if put in the water will not make any effort to swim. He is afraid of the water and afraid that the instructor is going to let him sink, and when he gets upset he simply closes up and refuses to engage, which is very frustating, especially for adults who don't know him well. So swimming lessons have been a bit traumatic.

But he needs to know how to swim, it's a matter of basic health. What can I do to get him back in the pool and learning?

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How well do you swim? Could you teach him? Are you strong enough to take him into the water yourself? Could you tread water with him holding on to your neck? – mmr May 30 '12 at 21:44
I'm probably strong enough, but I'm not a great swimmer... More of a I can survive in the water swimmer. – philosodad Jun 1 '12 at 3:17
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I currently take my 4 year old to swimming classes. When he started (at 3.5yo), I would go into the toddler pool with him. I had to continue this with him even when he started formal swimming lessons. I now get to sit on the side-lines with the other parents.

I think getting into the pool with the child makes a great difference.

I did the same with my daughter when she was a similar age. With her, the big issue was getting her to go underwater. It took a bit of one-on-one time with me, then she was fine.

Our school (like most in Australia) has mandatory swimming classes starting at prep. It was important to have some degree of confidence before they started.

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If he has no issue with taking baths, maybe you can desensitize him by practicing there.

He could wear his swimming trunks in the bath (filled to the usual level), and he could have a fun new toy to play with to entice him in. Make it seem as exciting as possible, like a special treat to get to do your bath this way. I would not make him put his face in the water or anything like that, just sit there and play with the toy. Then gradually increase the level of water in the bathtub over a number of nights to 6" or so, and while he is playing talk about how learning to swim is kind of like playing in a big bathtub. Then proceed to a small backyard child's pool (again with fun toys or one of his friends). Then when you are ready to transition to the real pool it seems like it would work best to find as small as one as possible and shallow where he can actually stand by himself. Take similar toys to the real pool (or a new one) to help distract. It may still take a lot of work from this point but it seems like right now the issue is comfort just getting into the water.

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You might ask if there are any instructors with experience in beginning and fearful children or adults. If so, perhaps ask if he or she is willing to do a private session or two. Your child probsbly just needs extra time which just isn't available in a regular class.

Another possible aid is a friend or a relative who likes to swim. Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. B-)

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I was terrified of the water until I was six or seven. My parents would take me to swim lessons, and I would cling white-knuckled to the wall and cry and scream the whole time. Then, one day, a swim instructor who was very old school and very no-nonsense literally picked me up and threw me into the shallow end of the pool. Within a few minutes I sort of figured out for myself that I could indeed swim well enough to keep my head above water, I was tall enough to stand up in the shallow end, and by the end of the day I was jumping off the diving board into 9 feet of water.

Now, I certainly don't recommend that you try this with your 5-year-old, but I think for whatever reason, your son has developed this fear and before you can really address the swimming issue, you need to address the fear of the water itself. I think this means ensuring he's comfortable in the water and helping him build his self-confidence in the water. This means that, for now, when he goes in the water, you or your spouse need to go with him. It means lots of encouragement when he does something right. But right now his fear is over-riding any desire to learn to swim. Once he starts seeing the water as a less-scary and more fun, then teaching him to swim will be a lot easier--and that may be a realization he has to come to on his own. Once I became more comfortable in the water, I mastered the basic swimming strokes and skills in no time, and by the time I was in high school I was a lifeguard and a swim instructor in the summer.

As long as there is no immediate danger to your child (ie. you own a pool or live near open water), I would focus my energies on making your son more comfortable in the water, stress that he never goes near the water without mommy or daddy, and always take a life jacket with you when you go near water.

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If you child is not keen on swimming lessons, especially the head under the water thing, ditch the classes for a while. The thing is to keep the regular swimming going by either playing with them yourself. I worked hard to get my four year old to enjoy a small dunking or two, mostly I did this by play.

With a kid who is going to school or has friends, it can be really good going to swim as a group. Kids are sensitive to the social group and will learn that thier friends expect them to be able to do the same things they do.

Once he has shown an interest in playing outside the class, you can then approach him about taking lesson so he can get better.

In summary, put him in a position where he is keen to be in the water and play. You can let the formal lesson slide for a while.

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Is there any "waterworld" type of attractions you could take him to ? Something like this with slides, fountains, structures etc; a kind of adventure playground in water. It could perhaps be a good idea to get him comfortable with being in the water in a very play-orientated setting.

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Start at home with the bathtub, first with backfloating, then blowing air bubbles in the water.

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