Teaching your Toddler to Swim the Montessori Way

Sowing the Seeds of Swimming

As of today, our daughter is not yet “swimming”. She’s 22 months old, so I don’t expect her to be (though there are certainly plenty of blogs that give you advice on how to teach a toddler to swim). At this age, and younger, the most important thing you can do is teach your toddler to love the water. The best way to do this is to provide plenty of varied, positive experiences. In Montessori, we refer to these as “sowing seeds”; we don’t know exactly when they’ll germinate, but we trust that they are growing.

Teaching Your Toddler To Swim In Pool
Teaching Your Toddler To Swim In Pool 2

Swimming has played a huge role in my life; I was a swimmer in high school and have competed in triathlons. I’ve even delved into swim coaching and teaching. As a certified lifeguard and swim instructor for infants through adults, I’ve trained people in stroke improvement, and coached both recreational swim teams and high school interscholastic teams. Despite this formal experience, my husband and I knew what approach we wanted to take when it came to Daecklyn, and we decided to be a little more relaxed about the swimming thing and just do things naturally.

As a Montessori parent I also know that guidance from the adult is not about the end result but instead about planting many seeds and providing an environment that lets children flourish. Here are some of the seeds of swimming we’ve been planting, the environments we’ve set up, and the sprouts of our daughter’s hard work.

Reorient Your Own Understanding and Expectations

(preparing the adult)

When we watch Olympic swimmers, and get into the pool ourselves, we often think that what propels those super-fast athletes through the water are all their enormous bulging muscles, right? Wait…have you ever seen enormous bulging muscles on a swimmer? Not typically…

Swimming is about floating and gliding, not muscles. If you look at swimmer’s bodies, a common thread amongst the best are their length and leanness. This is because long, thin objects glide through the water with less resistance than wide short objects. What a great swimmer has learned to do is float as horizontally as possible, as “thinly” as possible (i.e. on their side), and gauge the maximum glide between strokes.

This means that rather than first teaching a child to kick his legs, or move her arms, we can instead focus on floating and the way our bodies MOVE in the water (particularly deep water).

Deep Water Baths

So, in a world of safety it makes perfect sense to only fill your bathtub with 2 inches of water. Just enough to play in, but not enough to be dangerous. But, no matter how little water we put in the tub, we can’t leave the child unattended. So, consider this:

Fill your tub or outdoor pool as full as possible. Deep water experiences begin to teach the child the principles of floating and their greatest center of buoyancy. Remember how I said swimming is about floating and gliding? Floating can be practiced in the tub with enough water.

Seeds to Plant in Deep Water:

  • Make sure to pour water over your child’s face while washing them rather than always carefully avoiding their face. They have a natural instinct to hold their breath and this will show them that getting their face wet is okay.

  • If you can take a bath with your child, do, and then lay down and show them you can put your ears in the water. Hopefully they will emulate you at a later date (or right then) and practice getting their own ears wet.

  • Create circular currents in the bathtub for your child to feel by moving your arm in a large fast circle. Let them be moved by the current even if they appear wobbly.

Zero Entry Pools

Zero Entry Pools are A M A Z I N G! These are the pools where one side gradually slopes up until it reaches the surface. So, the water gets deeper very slowly as you enter the pool, rather than requiring stairs. They emulate a beach sloping into the ocean or lake—minus any waves. This is a fabulous way for your child to practice walking in varying depths of water and push the limits of where they can touch down with their feet.

  • Let your child explore the very edge of a zero-entry pool where they can no longer touch down. This might mean that they temporarily go under water until you pull them right up again. However, it will teach them that there IS a point they can no longer reach, and gives them the invaluable experience of trying to walk forward when the water is as high as their chest.
  • Place some objects under the water either in the tub or in the pool, just at a depth where they can reach but they may have to put their chin, ears, or even mouth into the water. This teaches them to close their mouth when it’s covered with water, in preparation for holding their breath, while being submerged.

The Role of Bath Toys

Ok, so bath toys are great fun and can be useful lessons. A watering can shows a child how to water plants; a pitcher shows them how to pour; cups show them how to fill with the faucet; squeezy toys show them how to squeeze, fill, and squirt; bath markers and crayons show them hand coordination; and bathtub books are just FANTASTIC all around, right? These are wonderful lessons to practice in the tub.

Ducky In Bath
Teaching Your Toddler To Swim In Pool Bath Tub Cups

I am in no way telling you to throw away all your bath toys! But…I have noticed this:

With bath toys = Child plays with the toys

Without bath toys = Child plays with the water

What I mean by playing with the water is that they use their bodies to play with the properties of water; the water itself IS their toy. They cup water in their own hands to pour on their heads. They wiggle their own fingers through the running faucet water. They float their bodies either prone or on their backs, using just their hands to hold them up. The water itself becomes the toy with their imaginations providing creativity.

  • Try rotating between toys and no toys when you take baths. Encourage play with the washcloth or sponge, run the water faucet and feel the water, or cup water in your hands and blow bubbles into the cupped water with your mouth. Teach them how to squirt water using your fist.
  • When you do use toys, try to limit how many you put in so there isn’t a stark contrast between toys and no toys. If you are already using a lot of toys, slowly decrease how many there are, or set up a small pile of toys and let your child choose which toy from the pile to bring to the bathtub.
  • For practice swimming, blowing bubbles and blowing on the water (as though the surface is a hot cup of tea) is great. You can also put your mouth under the level of the water and hum the “ABC” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” songs for them; if they are old enough they can join you and get used to having the water over their mouths and breathing through their nostrils. If you can get them to wash themselves, including pouring water over their own body to rinse, it will give them confidence through independence and increase their comfort level with the water.text.

Games to Play Together in the Pool

  • Throwing your child up into the air and catching them under the arm pits while allowing their body to come down slightly under the water. Gradually increasing it (over weeks or months) until you are putting their chin and mouth under water. When you see that they are holding their breath, when you catch them, briefly allow their entire body to go all the way under the water.
  • Crawling in and out of the pool—at first with your help and then independently.
  • Jumping into your arms from the side of the pool.
  • Jumping to you from the deepest stair they can still touch—eventually gliding them briefly underwater as you pull them towards you.
  • Pulling them FAST through the water to feel what the sensations of fast water moving over their body is like.
  • Holding them under their chest and showing them that to propel themselves forward they need to kick, kick, kick!
  • Placing floating objects just out of reach so they will kick and try to get the object.
  • Place sinking objects at different levels on the stairs or the zero-entry slope until the last objects require ears, chin, or even mouths to go underwater to retrieve. Work up until your child needs to put their whole face and head underwater.

The Sprouts of Daecklyn’s Hard Work

At 6 months, we took Daecklyn into the pool for the first time. These first experiences were all about getting wet, smiling, and just cuddling in the water. We swam as often as we could, usually for about 20-30 minutes at a time, and we always took a bath afterwards to make sure chemicals didn’t stay on her skin. When the months grew too cold, we enrolled her in a Parent-Infant swimming class and she went once a week.

At first, she just had fun in the water as though it was the bath. After some time, we began to notice more and more independent movement in the water and great confidence. While she is not yet swimming, we are watching her now with the same anticipation we had just before she was able to walk. We can SEE the seeds that were sown beginning to sprout and it’s EXCITING!

  • She lays on her stomach, holding her body up with her arms and floats.
  • She has started to do this on her back, slightly letting the back of her head get wet.
  • When transitioning from floating, she temporarily lets go and doesn’t realize she’s floating on her own while she turns over. Eventually she’ll realize it 😊
  • She jumps and glides to me from the deep step, going slightly underwater until she reaches me.
  • She crawls out the side of a pool of deep water without my help.
  • She jumps back in to my arms from the side of the pool rather than leaning and waiting for me to reach her.
  • She clings to my back while I swim breaststroke.

Sprouts We’re STILL Waiting For!

(Omg when will these grow???)

  • She can blow on hot food, she can blow on the surface of water, but the second her mouth fully touches water SHE DRINKS IT! Ahhhhhhh. Nothing we’ve tried has worked yet. Every once in a while, she’ll actually blow a bubble; but man you’d think we never give our baby water the way she guzzles it in a pool or bathtub.
  • She HATES when we try to float her on her back. She clenches her stomach muscles to sit up every time, even though she’ll float herself on her back no problem.

I hope by reading about our personal experiences thus far it can give you all a bit of an infrastructure to build on, and plant some seeds for you and your family as well. Happy swimming everyone!!!

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