For many swimmers, young and old, the backstroke is the easiest stroke to learn. And there’s a simple reason: Unlike other strokes that require a face in the water, backstrokers can breathe freely the entire time they’re swimming ⏤ which makes it much easier to maintain.
That said, some kids resist the backstroke because they can’t see where they’re going, don’t enjoy staring into the sun, or they hate being surprised by waves splashing over their faces when not wearing goggles. Nonetheless, it’s worth pushing them past their fears or discomfort. Like floating or treading water, the backstroke is an important stroke to learn for water safety. And even if a child never moves past elementary backstroke, they’ll always have a way to stay afloat in the water for long periods of time.
Another reason the backstroke is easy to learn it because its built on the back float ⏤ you’re simply adding intermittent arm and leg movements to make forward progress. And it shares some of the same elements as the freestyle stroke, which kids commonly learn early in their swimming careers. So if you’ve already taught your little one how to float and/or swim freestyle, backstroke should be fairly simple. Here’s how to teach them in four easy steps.
Start With The Elementary Backstroke
Elementary backstroke is not the same stroke you see Olympians race on television, but it gets the job done. Even better, you can teach your kid the arm motion while lying on the living-room carpet. Think of it as the snow angel of the swimming pool.
Step 1: Arms
There are two common refrains used to describe the arm movements of elementary backstroke: “Chicken-Airplane-Soldier” and “Tickle-T-Touch.” Maybe one of those brings back memories from your childhood, but if not, it’s about to be a catchy phrase your child recites often.
Start by holding your kid on their back, with their eyes looking straight up. Have them put their fingertips in their armpits. (Making chicken wings, or tickling themselves) Next, have them unfold both arms, straightening them out, perpendicular to their body. (They’re now an airplane, or the letter T.) While keeping their arms straight, push them down to their sides. (Now they’re a soldier standing up straight, or their arms are just touching their sides.) Slide their arms back up their body to make a Chicken/Tickle again. You can either practice that at home or on the side of the pool. Either way, face your child and have them mirror your motions.
In the pool, when the arms go from perpendicular to pressed down by their sides, they should be pushing quite a bit of water. That motion is what propels them in the direction of their head.
Step 2: Legs
Figuring out what to do with your legs in elementary backstroke is a bit more complicated. Some kids are solid floaters ⏤ they can just let their legs hang out and zoom across the surface using only their arms. It’s fine if that happens. Other kids may make progress with a basic flutter kick, moving their straight legs up and down, starting at their hips. Also, okay.
The formal kick intended to accompany the arms, however, is an upside-down breaststroke kick. Start by holding your child on their back in the water with their legs extended. Leaving their knees near the surface, pull their heels up under their body towards their rear end. (Your kid’s legs will spread apart a little bit when they do this.) Separate their heels, moving them out to the sides and away from each other. Now snap their legs back together, returning them to a straight line. It’s that snapping of the legs back together that will propel them forward, and the motion should happen at the same time as their arms are pressed to their sides.
After you walk them through the steps, let them try on their own. It won’t be perfect at first, but they should still move. Just remember, your kid’s legs should rotate in a circular shape in sync with their arms.
Graduate to the Real Deal
The backstroke is slightly more complicated but should be easy to pick up after a child masters the basics. Here’s what they need to know.
Step 1: Legs
The true backstroke kick is the same one used when swimming freestyle ⏤ only on your back. As you did teaching freestyle, you can start with your child sitting on a top step. Help them point their toes and straighten their legs. Holding just above their ankles, move their legs up and down so they get a sense of the motion. Once they can do that, hold them as they relax and float on their back. With legs straight and toes pointed, instruct them to kick up and down. Only their toes should pop through the surface, resembling boiling water.
Be aware, a child floating on their back will be tempted to kick their knees right out of the water. If this happens, hover your hand just above the surface of the water above their knees. This will give them the feedback they need to keep their legs under the surface.
Step 2: Arms
Backstroke arms are also similar to freestyle in that they both are always moving and kept opposite one another. So, when one arm is by your child’s side, the other should be by their head.
Start with your child standing in the water. Have them put their hands by their side. One arm at a time, help them lift their arm up forward to the surface. Their thumb should be facing up ⏤ as if they were giving a thumbs up ⏤ and come out of the water first. Circle their arms up to their head and then behind them, back under the water to their side. Once they understand that their arms should move in backward circles, they’re ready to try to swim.
After helping the child get into a solid floating position, guide their arms in those same backward circles. Their arm should rotate slightly as it circles through the air so that their pinky finger enters the water first. Their arm should stay straight while it rotates before bending underwater to push water to their toes and return to their hip.
From here, set them free to practice. Just be sure to follow alongside to pick them up when they stop, as they no doubt will when they get hit by a wave or feel water on their face. And finally, don’t forget to remind your child to kick as they pull, helping put the whole stroke together.
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.