Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Helping your Child Thrive at the Pool: It’s a Year-Round Event!

By: Dora Gosselin, PT, DPT, PCS, C/NDT

We are now a few weeks into fall. The leaves are changing, the temperatures are cooling and our family activities may change as we spend less time outdoors and more time indoors. Many health professionals encourage us to remain equally as active during winter months as we were in summer. During the month of October the American Physical Therapy Association recognizes the impact that physical therapists and physical therapist assistants make in restoring and improving motion in people's lives.

With these two “events” happening, I have been reflecting on what we did outdoors as a family this summer. We typically spend as much time as possible at the pool. As parents, pool safety is critically important, but there is another very significant part of pool culture – the play and social interaction that happens between children when they are in the water.

Now you may be asking “why are we talking about the pool in October? It basically does not exist in our life until mid-to-late May.” Here’s the answer: in the spirit of physical therapy month and summer 2016, let’s use the “off-season” to develop our children’s movement skills so they can get to the next section of the pool with their friends next summer!
For children to fully participate in the pool environment they must have the movement skills that allow them to be safe while keeping up with their age-matched peers. For children with sensorimotor or other disabilities, the pool may not be a refuge for endless play but rather a scary and isolating experience.

Our pool, like many others, is divided into sections. There is a shallow section that is lined with parents ready to leap into the water to save their precocious toddler; a deeper part, about five feet deep, that hosts the most diverse group of swimmers from very new swimmers keeping their head above water just enough to prevent a lifeguard from jumping in for the save to very skilled swim team members flipping and diving about; and lastly there is the diving well – the home of the diving boards – a spot that is reserved for the most highly skilled swimmers.

Many of you can relate to this description of a community pool. You can likely recall the swimming (movement) skills of children in each section of the pool. What I would like to call your attention to is the play and social interactions that happen in each section of the pool. The shallow end is generally filled with toddlers and kindergarten-aged children doing what they do – playing with plastic toys and dunking their face under to show their parent for the umpteenth time. Interactions between children in the shallow end are less; many children are very fulfilled with experiencing their own movement and there is less peer play here. In the deeper sections of the pool the social interaction and play is more variable and is a much more significant component of the pool experience. Children interact with one another with swimming races, using goggles to retrieve dive toys thrown by one another and of course the jumping and diving activities. They also just carry on conversation as they tread water or wait in line to go down the slide or off of the diving board. If children live in an area that has seasons, the skills they learn and practice during three months of the year may not carryover between seasons. For children who have a disability and need more practice swimming, seasons and lack of access to an outdoor pool are exponentially troublesome for skill carryover.

The most obvious solution here is to find a pool that your family can utilize all year round so that your child can practice and continue to develop skills over the “off-season.” If this resource is not available in your community or is cost prohibitive, here is a list of suggestions to get your little fish ready to swim and play next year:
  • Get in the water as early as you can in the spring. Even swimming just a few times before pool season 2016 will give your child an advantage and a level of comfort when your community pool does open.
  • Demonstrate for your child some strategies for peer play they can do in the pool. For example, for a rising kindergartner, the “hot skill” may be jumping in the pool in tandem with a friend or doing a handstand. Take on these skills outside of the pool to help your children develop the movement and play skills they need  to participate with their peers.
When you do finally get into the water for the first time in the spring, follow these tips to get your children acquainted with the water again:
  • Swimming requires integration of the right and left sides of the body. This requires coordination as well as strength and endurance. Putting this all together is difficult. A great tool for lessening the task demands on your children is to use a simple kickboard. With the kickboard, children can practice using their legs symmetrically or they can hold the kickboard with one arm and practice coordinating three extremities. 
  • Practice, practice, practice! Motor learning theory tells us that internal feedback is the most valuable tool for learning a skill. If your children are frustrated and scared as they practice swimming, it is impossible for them to learn from their own bodies what movements they need to do to attain and sustain swimming skills. You will be most helpful by identifying the components of movement your children do well by proposing something that they should practice. For example, “I love the way that you are kicking your feet fast. This time can you also try to keep your bottom up while you kick?” 
Growth in one area of pool proficiency (movement or social) may spur growth in the other. If your child continues to be resistant to practice or is having difficulty attaining better skills, you can always focus on the social opportunities. Many pools have rules banning most flotation devices; however, some pool managers may be amendable to your child using a U.S. Coast Guard approved flotation device. Having the safety of a flotation device may provide your children with the confidence that they need to cross the lane line and explore the games and interactions that happen in the deep end.

In conclusion, the challenge of swimming demands integration of both sides of the brain and body in a coordinated and sustained way.. Hopefully this blog has reminded you that swimming has two parts – movement and social – and that both of these parts need to be practiced so that your children can thrive and participate safely at the pool. I also hope that it has allowed you to consider what your strategy will be for ensuring a positive 2016 pool season. Start thinking about your game plan now, not on May 1st!

About the Author: Dora Gosselin, PT, DPT, PCS, C/NDT enjoys her combined clinical and academic roles at Duke University. She is board certified in pediatrics and certified in Pediatric Neurodevelopmental Treatment. She has also completed her Advanced Baby training through the Neurodevelopmental Treatment Association. Dora's most meaningful professional accomplishments always occur when a family and child share joy when a new skill is acquired and when physical therapy students, in the clinic or the classroom, grow their passion and skills. Outside of physical therapy, Dora (and her husband, Ben) can usually be found watching their seven-year-old do some sort of performance in the living room.

22 comments :

  1. Passing this on to my daughter for her two boys. I like the tip about starting early in the Spring.

    Great info here! Thank you Dora!

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  2. These are great suggestions. I have been thinking about how to get our kids back in the pool after the summer. Thank you!

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    1. It is an awesome cold season indoor family activity!

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  3. Wonderful tips...Thanks for sharing them.

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  4. I have always said that swimming is one of the best forms of physical fitness there is.
    Excellent way to gain strength - especially if there is any form of joint pain present.
    It's also a lifesaving activity. All kids would benefit from knowing how to swim with confidence.
    Great post :)

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    1. Dana- you are very right. All kids should be provided the opportunity to learn to swim.

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  5. Great tips! We took swimming over the summer and the boys loved it. We will be taking it again next summer, but will be using your tips and getting ready ahead of time. Thanks!

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    1. Wonderful! Do you have a local indoor pool you could continue your lessons in?

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  6. So true! My niece and nephew LOVE going to the pool, so these will come in handy next spring!

    -Kelsie
    Design Life Diaries 

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  7. I've just passed this along to a friend of mine who has little kiddos- great post! :)

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  8. It's been a long time since we went swimming! It's already rainy season out here and not many indoor pool around. The only time we go swimming is during summer. :)

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    1. How big is your bathtub? Just kidding! Even if you keep swimming top of mind for next season that is better than nothing!

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  9. These are some great tips! My daughter is water obsessed! Would love in a pool or tub if we let her. I've learned that most kids her age are the opposite over the summer since we never had swimming buddies lol

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  10. I live in FL, so being near water all the time this information comes in handy. My kids, especially my 9 year old are obsessed...if they see a pool, they want to be in it.

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  11. These are some great tips! I have my oldest in swimming lessons year round and will start with my youngest in January!

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  12. Ughhh makes me miss summer!!! We have a pool
    And my daughter loves to swim so I always assumed all kids did... Learned this past summer that's not the case! All kids besides my daughter seem to hate swimming :-/

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