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How to Teach a Kid to Float

Floating is the first skill every kid should master in the water. Here's how.

Floating can be scary for kids. It means letting go of the ladder, the wall, mom or dad, and trusting that you won’t sink or get a face full water. Let’s be honest, it even freaks out some adults.

Still, floating is the absolute first skill a kid should master when learning to swim. Not only does it provide a strong foundation for learning to swim, but it’s considered one of the most important water safety skills a person can possess. The American Red Cross includes front and back floats as a Level 1 skill for all three of its Swimming and Water Safety Skills Charts.

Here’s the deal though: Not everybody can float naturally the first time they jump in the water. In fact, it’s actually harder for some people than others, namely, taller people because they’re so long. It takes practice. But the more comfortable kids get doing it ⏤ both back and front floating ⏤ the more confident they’ll become in the water and the more ready they will be to start swimming.

But how do you teach a kid to float, especially a toddler new to the pool? To help parents whose kids haven’t already been through swimming lessons, we put together this set of easy-to-follow instructions, as well as tips and tricks, key teaching phrases, and even activities to help make floating more interesting.

First, Some Science

Lungs are a person’s natural buoys. When filled with air, they rise to the surface of the water. When kids get in the water, however, some natural fear usually kicks in and it limits their ability to breathe deeply and inflate those lungs. So before even hitting the pool, parents should practice taking deep breaths with their kids. Practice in the living room. Practice in the car. More importantly, practice in the bathtub. Get them conditioned to staying calm in water and taking deep breaths.

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Start With The Back Float

Teaching a kid to float on their back is more important than teaching them to float on their stomach for two reasons: They can breathe more easily on their back, and they can call for help. So while, eventually, you’ll want them to know how to do both, start with back floating.

The goal is simple: You want your child to lie with their whole body on the surface, face above water, eyes looking up. To do that, follow these four steps:

  1. Start with your child’s head lying back on your shoulder, treating it like a pillow. Use your hands to support their back, holding their stomach up to the surface.
  2. Help the child relax. Spread their legs slightly and put their arms out to the sides so that they form a “T.”
  3. As a child gets more comfortable, move their head off your shoulder so it rests on the surface of the water but still keep your hand on their back.
  4. Support the child with fewer fingers, eventually getting down to one hand, and then to independent floating.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Spend a few minutes every time you get in the pool working on floating before putting them in a life vest/pool noodle or engaging in fun water play.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Place your hand behind your kid’s head, just above the water. Now hold up different numbers of fingers, asking the child how many fingers you’re showing. To see your fingers, they will have to lay their head back on the surface of the water.
  • As they look up at the sky, ask how many birds can they see? How many ceiling tiles or airplanes can they count?
  • Let a child pick a number and count to that number while they float. Can they pick higher numbers as they get more confident floating?

Key Phrases to Use:

  • “Head back, belly up:” This reminds a child of the two most important things that will keep them at the surface.
  • “Be a starfish:” When a child is tense, they’re less likely to spread out their limbs along the surface. If they can pretend to be a starfish, they’ll have more surface area to float on.

Graduate to the Front Float

To be able to float on their front, a child needs to be comfortable putting their face in the water and holding their breath. And the longer they can hold their breath, the longer they can float! Consider both skills prerequisites to be practiced before attempting the front float and don’t hesitate to fit them with a pair of goggles if necessary.

The goal is similar to a back float, just flipped upside down: You want your child to lie with their whole body on the surface of the water, but now their eyes are looking at the bottom of the pool. We can break front floating down into four steps too:

  1. Start with a child’s arms extended in front and hands touching a shallow step of the pool, stretched into a “Y” shape. (If no steps are available, place your hand under the child’s stomach to help lift their body closer to the surface, while the child extends their arms.)
  2. Have the child pick their feet up off the ground, and then help them lift their legs up to the surface. Their hands are still holding the step for support so they should feel comfortable.
  3. Have the child take a big breath and put their face in the water with their eyes looking at the bottom of the pool.
  4. With time, give the child’s body less support and gradually move away from the steps toward the middle of the pool.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Since kids love patterns, we repeat this simple one in the pool: “Bubbles-breathe-bubbles-breathe.” The child puts their face in and blows out their bubbles, then lifts their face up for a breathe, and repeats.
  • Count fingers: If a child is wearing goggles and can see your fingers underwater, ask the child how many fingers you held up. This will encourage a child to do more than just take a half second peek underwater.

Key Phrases to Use:

  • “Eyes to the bottom:” Reminding kids to look down will help the rest of their body balance up to the surface.
  • “Be a starfish:” Just as on their back, the more relaxed and spread out a child is, the more the water will support them.
  • “Do your bubble pattern:” Being able to blow bubbles and take a breathe will allow a child to float longer, and will set them up better for swimming.

How To Stand Up Again

Whenever a kid is learning to float, they’ll have to figure out how to get their feet back under themselves. It’s not always as straightforward as it seems. Saying “Feet down to stand up” at the end of each floating session can help a child understand that they’re putting their feet back on the ground. After a back float, push the child’s head up off your shoulder while pulling their feet down to the ground. After a front float, lift their face out of the water and push their feet down to the ground.

Cathleen Pruden is a four-time All-American swimmer at Mount Holyoke College and the Assistant Swim Coach at Bowdoin College. She spent five years as the Head Coach of a summer league swim team for children ages 4- to- 18-year-olds and has taught over 600 private swim lessons to children and adults of all ages.