Teaching Swimming – Beginners

People can die if they don’t know how to swim.  Nobody is going to die due to their inability to solve quadratic equations.  It is perfectly acceptable to let a few subjects slide for a month or two, if that’s what it takes to find time to go to a pool and teach kids how to swim (provided you still fulfill all your state’s laws regarding home education).

Teaching swimming is every bit as wonderful as teaching reading.   It’s fun to see kids quickly gain a new skill.  The ability to swim means kids are much less likely to drown if they ever find themselves unexpectedly in the water.  It also means they can go to pool parties, head to the lake with friends, or float the river in an inner tube.  What a privilege to teach such a fun, useful skill.

Swimming skill is taught step-by-step, just like music, math, and basketball.  It’s quite effective to break strokes down into their individual components, teach one piece at a time, then put it all together.  Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, is a secular book that does not mention swimming specifically but provides excellent tips on how to teach any skill.  A look at the Suzuki violin method will provide additional philosophy about how to teach skills well.  Everything you know about educational theory is applicable to swimming lessons.

It is important for teachers to position themselves so that they can always see all the children in their class.


Brand new kids can start by sitting on the edge of the pool and splashing.  They can make a cup with their hands and blow bubbles in the water that they scoop up (something that I encourage people to have their kids do at home in the bathtub).

A beginning swimming class/individual should:

  • learn to bob up and down in the water,
  • perform a good flutter kick,
  • maintain a good streamline position,
  • tread water, and
  • float

After beginners learn to do these things well, the basic swimming strokes will be much easier.

Bobs – This teaches two things.  First, the swimmer learns to put his face in water.  Second, when done properly, this skill will help kids later when they learn to do rhythmic breathing.

Proper technique is for the swimmer to hold on to the edge of the pool and blow bubbles out the nose while the head is submerged.  When I teach bobs, I submerge my own head so that I can check to see that bubbles are coming out of the child’s nose, not the mouth.  First-time beginning swimmers can learn this in one or two lessons.  Children who have practiced doing this skill wrong might take longer to master blowing bubbles out the nose.  I usually tell parents that this is something kids should practice at home in the bathtub.

After a child can do one bob properly, we move on to two bobs done smoothly with no pause in between.  The head comes up briefly for a quick breath, then submerges again.  Shoulders should remain in the water.  Sometimes kids will make the mistake of thrusting themselves high out of the water and gasping for air before going back down.  Make a clear distinction between doing one bob two times, and doing two smooth, consecutive bobs.  Once kids do two well, we move on to three.  Only when they can do three bobs well do we progress to four consecutive bobs.  Next would be five and we remain at five, paying attention to technique, for about a month to develop proficiency.  After kids have begun to swim and have become quite proficient at five bobs, they can move directly to ten without the need to gradually increase, but that would be an advanced beginner skill.

Flutter Kick – Good form is extremely important.  Some kids who haven’t been taught a proper flutter kick look like they’re thrashing in the water; others look like they’re riding a bike.  Teach correct technique early so that kids don’t develop bad habits that are difficult to unlearn.  Thighs should be together, toes should be pointed, and legs should be mostly straight (relaxed, flexible knees, not rigid knees) with the kick originating in the hip.  Kick pushes down then lifts up; there is little splash.  The thighs should remain mostly parallel to the pool floor, and should never be perpendicular to the floor of the pool.

Secret Tip Legs – Propulsion

Secret Tip Legs – Inertia

Freestyle Kick in Water

Four Common Kicking Mistakes

Streamline Position –  Also called glide, arrows, or rockets, this step helps swimmers learn proper body position in the water.  Swimmers lock hands together overhead, hug their ears with their arms, and gently push-off the side of the pool.  The face must be in the water (kids who are doing bobs properly know how to blow bubbles out their nose while their face is in the water).  With the face in the water, eyes should be looking down at the bottom of pool (not forward at the wall or the teacher).  Standing in front of the swimmer, you should not be able to see the forehead, only the top of the head.  The head, hips, knees, and feet should all be in a straight line.

First, swimmers simply push-off the edge and glide while holding their ankles together. Later, a good kick can be added. Adding the kick is a new skill, and you might be surprised at the number of kids who can do both the glide and the kick components well, but have difficulty combining the two. Persevere and it will all come together.

Simple Streamline

Streamline Position for Freestyle Stroke

Treading Water – There are many different ways to tread water.  The most efficient kick is the eggbeater, and I begin teaching this kick in the very first class so that students can spend the entire session practicing.  This is the kick used by lifeguards and synchronized swimmers, so although there are less effective ways to tread water, when teaching, you might as well teach kids the best method possible.

Kids can practice this leg motion at home, sitting either in an office chair (center stand, no legs) or on the toilet.

We begin sitting on the edge of the pool with knees spread wide, and the soles of the feet on the pool wall.  Kids begin with one leg, making a circle by taking the foot toward the outside, then forward and in to the middle, then back to rest on the wall.  When they are proficient at circling one leg the correct way, we switch and work on circles with the other leg.  Only after each leg can make circles well do we combine both legs together.  The next teaching stage would have kids in the water with backs against the edge of the pool, arms supporting themselves on the edge of the pool.  Check that kids are still bent at the waist (as if still seated), and that the foot is flexed (no pointed toes for this).  Often it will be necessary to correct the direction they are moving their legs.  Some people suggest having them think about riding a bike backwards, but I find that makes them circle their legs the wrong direction.  Do what works for you.  When good form is demonstrated, kids can move away from the wall – perhaps holding a kickboard or noodle.  Only after a good kick is mastered do I have kids add a sculling arm motion.

Beginners demonstrate mastery by treading water for at least ten seconds.

How to do an Eggbeater Kick

Eggbeater Kick for Synchronized Swimming

Eggbeater Kick (underwater camera, no instruction, just demo from different angles)

How to Teach a Child to Tread Water

Floating – beginners should learn to float both on their face (face in the water) and on their back.  It can be fun to have kids sit on the side of the pool deck and see how long they can hold their breath.  It’s simple to remind kids who don’t think they can front-float for ten seconds that they already demonstrated that they can hold their breath for twenty seconds 🙂

How to Teach a Child to Float in Water

How To Float in Water


Once beginners have mastered these five skills, they are ready to swim.



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