Liz Walker thought an inflated ball would keep her safe as she went down the slide of a hotel swimming pool.
When the ball popped out of her hands on the way down, Walker landed in the pool with nothing to keep her afloat. The 7-year-old girl, who did not know how to swim, almost drowned.
Where to go for swim lessons
Steiner Aquatic Center
Where » 645 S. Guardsman Way (1580 East), Salt Lake City
Info » 801-583-9713 or www.recreation.slco.org/slcsports
Cottonwood Heights Recreation Center
Where » 7500 S. 2700 East, Cottonwood Heights
Info » 801-943-3190 or www.cottonwoodheights.com
South Davis Recreation Center
Where » 550 N. 200 West Bountiful
Info » 801-298-6220 or southdavisrecreation.com
Where » 4679 S. 2225 East, Holladay
Info » 801-944-8811 or www.swimkids.biz
"Luckily, someone was walking by on the outside of the gated area," said Walker, now 53. "Growing up, teaching children how to swim was always at the back of my mind."
Walker went on to open SwimKids in her early 20s. Founded soon after the birth of her daughter Kirstin, the business specializes in teaching children of all ages how to move in, through and above the water.
Armed with a degree in early childhood education from Utah State University, Walker applied her knowledge to the best methods of teaching children how to swim. She quickly learned that children, who have concrete thought processes not easily broken down into parts, learned best when the swimming was taught to them step-by-step, then woven into a whole skill.
"Once they’re comfortable being underwater, and kicking and moving their arms in correct fashion, then I can teach them the backstroke and how to float," Walker said.
No other recreational skill gives parents greater peace of mind, and gives children a more valuable sense of self-confidence, than swimming.
Drowning endures as the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Only car accidents top that. Once you get past the fact that swimming is a life-saving skill, you and your children can appreciate its aerobic qualities that exercise almost every part of the body, and all the social opportunities it affords by the beach, lake or neighborhood pool.
As recently as two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended against swimming lessons for toddlers between ages 1 and 3. When evidence was presented that early swim lessons might prevent drowning, the ban was lifted. The academy now says it’s fine for children as young as 1 to start learning strokes, but no younger.
Swim instructors say there is no ideal age for anyone, young or old, to start swimming. What matters most is an enthusiastic instructor who won’t make kids nervous, can assure anxious parents and is interested in fun and safety above all.
"A positive instructor who won’t push too hard, too fast, is ideal," said Colin O’Connor, aquatics coordinator at Steiner Aquatic Center. "Even if the wind’s blowing, and it’s cold, you don’t want an instructor with a frown on his or her face. The kids pick up on that."
Becky Kubanik remembers that her son Joshua Kubanik cried many times the first year of his lessons at Steiner because he was so scared. Now in his third year at the Salt Lake County facility near the University of Utah, he relishes every session.
"I don’t even know what strokes he’s learned," said Kubanik, a Salt Lake City kindergarten teacher and mother of two. "He just jumps in the water and swims through it. That’s a great show of confidence."
Walker said parents need to learn to relax during lessons, even if their child seems anxious or cries.
"I wouldn’t say my lessons are without tears, but I also help parents understand what children are communicating when they cry," she said. "Swimming lessons are an opportunity for growth and safety. Parents take their children in for immunizations, and they cry then as well, but most parents realize that immunizations are good for their children."
Ashley Burnham, a stay-at-home-parent of two in Salt Lake City, remembers that her son Van cried too during his first lessons at Steiner at age 1. Her calm demeanor saw him through, she said.
"If they sense a parent’s worried or concerned, they will be, too," Burnham said.
Now, in addition to watching her 3-year-old son float and stroke, she gets the pleasure of watching as he learns small lessons in pool safety and first aid.
"He’s at the age when he asks ‘Why?’ all the time," she said. "Now he’s the one reminding me to put on sunscreen before we go out."
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