Experts advise baby steps in getting kids used to water, writes Susan Edmunds.

If you are teaching your kids to swim this summer, be prepared for it to take a lot longer than you expect. Water Safety New Zealand general manager Matt Claridge says the biggest mistake parents make is rushing through the process of getting their kids comfortable in the water.

Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death in New Zealand, behind road crashes and falls. The number of drowning deaths has fallen from a record high in 1985 of 215 to a record low of 87 in 2010, and Claridge says that over the past 12 months the number of 12-year-olds capable of swimming 200m rose to 33 per cent.

Water Safety New Zealand studies found that only 15 to 20 per cent of children private lessons, so the responsibility to teach swimming skills mostly falls on parents.

Claridge says his organisation strongly encourages parents to get involved with teaching their kids to swim. They can help children become familiar with the water and build water safety skills. "Take your kids to the pool, jump in with them, have a play, get them comfortable in the water."


There are lots of games you can play that also teach swimming skills. Start by blowing bubbles so kids get used to having their faces in the water and are able to keep water from going up their noses. Get them kicking and splashing, holding their breath under the water, and - as they get more confident - diving for things at the bottom of the pool.

The earlier you get your children into the water the better. Experts say any time from six months is fine for children to be learning to swim. Early lessons should be about gentle fun. Getting friends or siblings involved can help overcome reluctance.

Claridge says that after children become familiar with the water they can move on to submersion, flotation and then propulsion. He does not recommend the "old school" method of throwing kids in and hoping for the best. Don't expect too much, too soon. "It can take a couple of years before there is a tangible outcome. A big thing is that you should have low expectations."

If your children are happily splashing around, you can work on teaching them some basic swim skills, such as floating, kicking and arm strokes. Swimming NZ says the ability to float face-up is particularly important because it's a survival skill. Go through the correct body position with your kids - their eyes should be looking directly up. Focus on relaxing because being tense makes it harder to float. Adding an occasional kick can help.

At the beach or by the pool, parents should be vigilant about supervision, even if there is a lifeguard on duty. Claridge says: "I have kids and I think, 'why would you trust their lives in anyone else's hands?"'

Three things that affect how well supervision works are the proximity of the person doing the supervising, the continuity of that supervision and the extent of vigilance.

Claridge says although aids such as water wings can be helpful, they are not essential. In some cases they can provide a false sense of security and create an unnatural posture in the water. "They can be useful but plenty of Olympic champions have learned to swim without flotation devices."