Many people erroneously perceive floaties to be tools that help children learn to swim. I believe they do the exact opposite, and work against anything a child has ever learned in a swim lesson. these flotation devices teach kids to operate in the water in a vertical (straight up and down) position. That's great if you are running through the water or practicing your water-treading skills. But moving vertically through the water is incredibly inefficient - think about how hard it is to walk through your pool submerged up to your waist or chest. "Swimming" vertically tires you very quickly - that's why we teach kids to roll over and float rather than tread water at our swim school. But I digress - more on that in future blogs. Bottom line - if you want to make efficient progress through the water you need to get your body in a horizontal position - this means face in the water, hips up so you are swimming in a plane across the water, and then using your arms and legs for propulsion through the water.
Floaties create a false sense of comfort in both the child and the parent, even though each pair is printed with the warning, "Not to be used as a lifesaving device." As a parent, you see your child motoring around the pool with their face out of the water, propelling themselves from below with their legs. You (erroneously) feel a little safer because your child is wearing a flotation device, and your child likes the fact that his floaties allow him to jump in the water and pop back up to the surface. But what happens when he takes his floaties off in the deep end, or jumps in without them and doesn't pop right back up to the surface? The risks of floaties are many - they can slide off, pop or deflate, but the real reason to discourage their use is that they do not teach children the correct body position or movement in order to swim.
At our swim school, we are firm believers that there should be a consequence whenever a child steps off the side of a pool and enters the water. That consequence is that the child goes under the water and has to learn to surface and get back to the wall or step or roll over and float. The child learns never to enter the pool without being invited in or without planning a way to get to the side and get out. Floaties teach kids to jump in and let the floaties do the work of popping them back up to the surface. They learn to run and jump with complete abandon and use the floaties to raise them high in the water rather than relaxing and trusting the water to float them.
So what do you do as a parent of multiple children who doesn't feel comfortable with everyone in the water without floaties? My first suggestion is to enroll your kids in swimming lessons - at our school or at any other location recommended on the US Swim School Association website, or at your local city pool, red cross or YMCA. Secondly, look for some other device, such as a life jacket or something you can place the child in securely. While these are not ideal, they provide more safety features than floaties. Thirdly, make sure that the last memory a child has before getting out of the pool is of swimming without any devices. Let them float and be free and remember how their body reacts to the force of the water.
Children have a great ability to adapt to their environment and they can learn to swim and float at a very young age. Give them the chance to use their own little bodies and minds to figure out their buoyancy, breath control and propulsion issues. Check out this article from Swimming Technique magazine by Kathy Hubbard about letting children experiment and swim - or as the Beatles said, "Let it Be."