Teaching toddlers to tread water has come a long way since the storied method of "toss them in, and let them sink or swim."
"(Our approach is) very slowly introducing them to the water, games, different types of activities, using toys, singing," says Melissa Maddox, aquatics director at Ashland Family YMCA.
Pingpong balls, little squeezy water toys, animal-shaped floaties and circling up to sing the hokeypokey are all techniques used at the Ashland Y to promote fun in the water.
Swimming at the tot — and even infant — stage is primarily about preventing aquaphobia.
"At that age, they're learning to put the faces in the water, to blow bubbles, learning respect for the water. They're learning rules," says Maddox. "With a 2-year-old, you can't give too much structure because they're not getting the purpose of that structure."
In YMCA classes, each child is accompanied by a parent. The instructor circulates to help demonstrate and fine-tune the instructions. This method increases the comfort levels of both child and parent and allows such small children to learn safely in a group setting with a single instructor.
Safety concerns — reinforced by a long-standing statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics — have kept many parents from introducing their young children to swimming. Last May, however, the AAP decided swimming lessons for 1- to 3-year-old children are not harmful after all and that learning to swim at such a young age can actually reduce the number of drowning deaths in young children.
Drowning was the second-leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 14 in the United States in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of all injury-related deaths, nearly 30 percent were from drowning.
Safety also is a central part of the curriculum at Kasey's Kids Swim School in Grants Pass.
"Before they get in the pool, they (must) get a count from the parents — 1-2-3 — then a clap-clap," explains Kasey Clelland. "That gives the child permission to come into the pool. When that's instilled into the child's brain, they're not just running into the pool."
Clelland offers classes for infants in the 6- to 18-months range and for toddlers from 18 months to 3 years old. Individual lessons are available for older kids.
Once children reach the critical age of 2, they're able to perform more independently and need skills that could save their lives should the unexpected occur.
"I have them practice jumping off from the side unassisted, swim up to the surface, roll over to the top, onto their back and float," says Clelland.
To learn these skills, Clelland uses what she calls the "roll-over" method. These developing "guppies" learn to count to three facedown in the water, then roll onto their backs.
We teach kids that if they fall into a big pool or a big lake, if they're able to roll over onto their back, it could save their life, says Clelland. "That's a huge learning ability."
Grants Pass mom Holly Perkins has been part of Clelland's program for two years. Her daughter, Peyton, started at 7 months. Her son, Zane, is now 8 months old and a swimming veteran of almost five months.
"It's something a whole family can do," explains Perkins. "There aren't a lot of 'daddy-and-me' activities for kids at this age, but in this class, there are lots of dads."
Her infant son has already learned to hold his breath on cue when he's submerged and how to float. This proved useful, recently, when he came up sputtering.
"My heart was racing, but he turned over on his back and floated, all on his own," recalls Perkins.
For neighboring Grants Pass mom Jenni Woodworth, the class format has been the key to swimming success for her two small children.
"The older children learn to swim through a submerged hula hoop; they also practice kicking with a kickboard," says Woodworth. "It's a nice combination of play and structure."
The benefits of swimming at a young age go far beyond safety and fun.
"It's great for the children's coordination and development," says Clelland. "What they've found during research is that the rolling over develops cross-patterning of the brain, so it's great for their nerves and their brain patterning because they're working both the right and left brain. It's also great for their cardiovascular development and breath control."
Sometimes, learning to swim happens suddenly.
"One day, it just clicks," says Perkins. "You see your child swim out to you all by herself. It's cool to watch."