Why Teaching Your Kids to Tread Water Matters More Than Teaching Them to Float

Lots of swimming lessons teach kids the back float early on, but that’s counterproductive. Why?

Why Teaching Kids to Tread Water Should Come Before Teaching Them to Float

Treading water is important for water safety. While many swimming programs emphasize floating, floating is actually a more advanced skill. Although it helps kids to learn the idea of how their body should be positioned in the water—horizontally—their body composition and shape make it very tough for kids to learn to float without moving.

Treading water, on the other hand, is an easy, natural motion for your child. It will give him confidence in the water and help to develop his feel for how his body moves in the water.

While it’s a good thing to learn to float eventually, focusing on floating when your kids are just starting their swimming lessons can leave them demoralized and ready to give up. If they can tread water effectively, they can start to gain the confidence that will help them move on to more advanced swimming skills quickly and easily.

How to Motivate Your Kids to Learn to Swim

You have to teach your kids to swim for safety reasons, but what are their reasons for learning to swim? Put yourself in your child’s place. Why learn to do this? For some kids, watching older kids and seeing the potential fun is strong motivation. Kids who don’t have an example like that might be harder to motivate. If you can have a great time running around on land, what’s the point of working hard to learn to swim? What’s in it for them?

Drawbacks of Learning to Swim

The drawbacks of learning to swim are apparent from the beginning. The water’s cold and uncomfortable. Sometimes it smells like chlorine. There may be strangers swimming in the pool. Your kid knows he wouldn’t know what to do if he got in too deep, and that’s legitimately scary. There’s a sense of not having control or feeling in charge of the next moment. There are potentially uncomfortable sensations. Being in the water doesn’t feel like being on land. There’s the possibility of swallowing water—which probably doesn’t taste very good—or getting water in his nose. That possibility quickly becomes uncomfortable and possibly scary reality, because it’s hard to learn to swim without ever swallowing water or getting water in your nose.

Why Learn to Swim?

Kids spend countless hours practicing new skills. They’re relentless. They learn to roll over, sit up, crawl—sometimes backwards, it’s true—walk, and run. These are all driven by another motive. Your child doesn’t want to crawl for crawling’s own sake. He wants to get somewhere. He wants to walk so he can get there faster. Run? Get there faster!

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Benefits

Other forms of movement require different motivation. Some kids (who may be great walkers or runners) may be lousy at skipping or climbing. Why? Where’s the benefit in the movement for them? Swimming is like this. There’s got to be either benefit that comes from the movement or pleasure in the movement itself.

Intrinsic Benefits

You can help your child enjoy the movement itself by pointing out the pleasurable sensations of being in the water and doing what you can to minimize the negative sensations. Make sure to help your child notice the way the water feels against his skin and the weightlessness of buoyancy. Make sure to keep him as warm as possible and to help him drain his ears. These small aspects of enjoying the movement and the water will help to motivate your child to keep getting back into the pool.

Extrinsic Benefits

Swimming isn’t enough by itself? When you’re teaching your kids to swim, you can highlight and set up benefits from the movement. If a game that relies on mastery of a skill is fun enough, your child will work at mastering that skill. If other kids your child admires are doing something, your child will work to do what it takes to join them or be like them. Go to the pool when other, older kids are there. Play games as a family. Show your child the possibilities that are waiting for him once he’s able to swim.

Feeling successful will also help your kids stay motivated when they’re learning to swim. Remember that kids define success differently than adults.


If all else fails, you can use external motivation as a teaching tool, depending on what’s important to your child. Will he work for ribbons? How about for a special activity together? Cold, hard cash? External motivation can help get your child over any bumps in the learning road when the experience of swimming isn’t enough to motivate him on its own. Sure it’s bribery, but it’s for a good cause, and your kids will thank you later.

The Top 3 Reasons to Teach Your Own Kids to Swim

Why did I teach my kid to swim instead of outsourcing the job? You’re probably thinking the answer’s obvious: I’m a masochist. I’m really not.

I decided to teach him myself for three top reasons.

My Top 3 Reasons

Reason #1: He had to learn.

There are lots of reasons to learn to swim. It’s fun. It helps prevent childhood obesity. You need it to do all sorts of amazing sports and activities. While I entertained visions of my son yachting and kayaking and surfing in his future, I have to confess that my main motivation was fear that he’d drown.

Drowning kills more than 2000 kids under five a year in the US. Drowning is the cause of 30% of all deaths of kids between one and four, and more than 75% of the kids who drown were seen by a parent less than five minutes before they were found.

(These statistics and many more are available from the CDC and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Perfect for those times when you find you’re just not worrying about your kids enough.)

Reason #2: I wasn’t happy with the effects and results of swimming lessons.

I love swimming, and I wanted my son to have that same joy. Swimming lessons were not giving it to him. (They also weren’t teaching him to swim.)

Here were the problems:

  • He was afraid. He didn’t know the teachers. The clock was ticking and they just wanted him to get into the pool. I hated that he cried and clung to my leg. I agonized over whether to force him to leave me, which I did. It was painful for both of us.
  • He was miserable. The pool was cold, and even though he was wearing a wetsuit, he spent so much of his time waiting for other kids to practice that he was blue—not his normal color—by the end of each lesson.
  • He wasn’t learning. The teachers didn’t adjust their teaching plans to fit his needs. The college kids who were teaching swimming as a summer job had a boilerplate swimming lesson structure, and if what they were trying didn’t work, they kept hammering away at it anyway. Week after week, I watched my son practice the same skills without getting better or learning anything new.

There are definitely great swimming lessons and great swimming teachers out there. If I could have had my son take three private lessons a week from the owner of his swimming school, the results might have been great. The reality, though, is that nobody cared as much about helping my son learn to swim, fast, and about making sure he was having fun doing it, as I did.

Reason #3: I thought I could do it, and it turned out I was right.

I knew my son better than anybody else. I knew how to swim. Beyond that, I figured I could learn.

Here’s where the masochism comes in. I’m a little bit obsessive, so I went into major research mode. I read dozens of books. I interviewed experts. I took CPR and lifeguarding classes. I spent a lot of time in the pool with my son and other kids, teaching them to swim. (We all had a good time doing that.) I used my experience as a former assistant preschool teacher to expand on my research and develop new and better techniques.

Now my son knows how to swim. The hard part is over. It turned out that it wasn’t hard at all. It was so much easier than watching him suffer in swimming lessons. It ended up being fun. It makes me smile just thinking about him jumping into my arms in the pool or getting a piggyback ride. The moment when he first realized that he was moving himself through the water? I got to see his face close up.

Teaching kids to swim

I did a lot of research and practice, and I’d hate to see that go to waste, so I’m going to share tips and tricks for teaching kids to swim here. If I can do it, so can you.

Any swimming lesson horror stories out there?