How to Teach a Kid to Tread Water In 3 Easy Steps

Knowing how to tread water could save your child's life.

by Cathleen Pruden
Flickr / Lydur Skulason

Treading water is a life-saving skill. And next to floating, it’s the most important water skill you can teach a child who doesn’t yet know how to swim. Considering a diver from New Zealand once survived in the ocean for four days by treading water, it’s easy to understand why kids spending a summer at the pool or beach should know how to do it.

The goal of treading water is simple: stay in one place with your face above the water and your body fairly upright. There’s both an arm and a leg component, and it’s relatively easy to teach to kids who are just getting comfortable with the water. There’s also no one right way to tread water which means there’s more room for error ⏤ if a kid can comfortably stay above the surface without exhausting themselves, mission accomplished.

To help parents teach their kids to tread water, we broke it down into three easy-to-follow steps, as well provided a few tips and tricks, teaching aids, and games to keep things interesting.

Step I: Sculling Arms

There are two parts to learning how to tread water, and the first starts with moving the arms, or sculling. You should teach this motion in a shallow end of the pool where they can stand. Start by having them put their hands underwater by their sides. Now, with their wrists stiff and hands open (and slightly cupped), they should sweep their arms back and forth under the water. The hands should move towards their belly button but then turn away from each other before they collide. The motion should be like clapping, but their hands never get to quite come together. Let them practice this for a few minutes before moving into deeper water to work on stomping.

Step II: Stomping Legs

Once they’re comfortable with the arm motion, have your child hold onto you and/or the wall in deeper water. Obviously, they shouldn’t be able to touch the bottom of the pool. Kids have a natural tendency to use a flutter kick ⏤ straight legs, locked knees, kicking back and forth ⏤ when learning to tread water. While it works well enough to keep some kids above the surface, it’s exhausting. Make sure that they bend their knees.

The goal is for them to move their legs as if they’re riding a bike, but to focus on pushing down. If they can stomp down and then pull their legs back up quickly, they’ll create a more powerful motion that will make treading easier. As they perfect the motion, having them stomp further out to the sides. This creates a wider base upon which to hold themselves up.

Step III: Bring It Together… And Practice

After they’ve spent some time working independently on both arms and legs, bring the two together. Have them slowly move away from you or the wall as they stomp their legs and scull their arms. Stay close in case they panic or dip below the water and remind them of the importance to stay calm and breathe. If the child is younger or doesn’t appear ready to practice on their own, simply put a noodle under their arms for support. They can then practice the arm and leg motions without their body falling underwater. If you don’t have a pool noodle, you can also hold the child up under their arms. Once they’re comfortable, let go with one or both hands so that they can try on their own. Keep your arms underwater, ready to catch if your child starts to slip underwater.

Advanced Treading: Move In Slow Motion

When a kid can tread water for an extended period of time without getting tired, encourage them to do so more slowly in order to conserve energy. How slow can they move but still keep their head above water? That’s the challenge. Remember, the more energy they can conserve in an emergency situation, the longer they’ll be able to survive by treading water.


There’s no better way to convince a kid to practice a new skill than by turning it into a game. Here are a few for treading water:

  • Counting: Set a goal and count to it while your child keeps their head above water. Can your child set a more ambitious goal each time?
  • Questions: A key piece of treading water is keeping your face above water. Ask your child questions (What did you have for lunch today? Who is your favorite superhero?) while they’re treading water. Can they stay above water long enough to answer them? Can they ask you a question and stay above water long enough to hear your answer?
  • High Fives: Once a child becomes very proficient, you can challenge them to pick one hand up out of the water and give you a high five. Can they do the other hand? Both hands at the same time?

Combining Treading with Other Skills

Finally, treading water is an important skill on its own, but it should be combined with other skills to help your child become a more proficient swimmer and more water safe. Here are two drills to help them transition between swimming skills:

  • Tread to Swim to Tread: Have your child tread water while you back away from them. When you tell them to go, have them put their face in the water, and swim freestyle towards you, and then return to treading water.
  • Tread to Back Float to Tread: Have your child tread water. When they start to get tired tell them to lay their head back on the surface and push their stomach up so that they’re floating on their back. Once they’ve recovered, can they swim a bit on their back too? Once they’re ready, have them “stand” back up to resume treading water.

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.