Check out these 10 swimming tips for sensory kids and kids who are reluctant to get into the water.
If you have a typically functioning sensory system, transitioning between one environment and another is probably pretty simple. You can move from being indoors to outdoors without much thought or awareness of the changes in the way the air feels or smells, or the difference between the surfaces you may be walking on.
A child, or adult, with sensory processing issues may have an entirely different experience. As soon as a door opens from the house to the outdoor space, they may immediately be overwhelmed by the sound of the birds or the wind in the trees. The smells of nature may make them cringe and the thought of walking from the smooth hardwood floors to the cold, textured cement might make them retreat back to the safety of their house.
Changes in physical environments are difficult for anyone with sensory challenges. Those with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, etc. may find situations like this simply unbearable.
One of the most challenging environments for a person with sensory concerns? The swimming pool. The smell of chlorine is overwhelming even to those of us with typical sensory systems. The wet tile, the loud and echoing acoustics, the feel of the water (temperature and movement), the large, open space. Yikes! Listing them out makes me a little anxious, and I swim laps several times a week!
However, swimming is our number one recommendation as a sport for kids with sensory processing difficulties. It offers strengthening benefits, promotes cardiovascular endurance, and provides proprioceptive, tactile, vestibular, and auditory experiences…and it is a sport that is, without a doubt, fun!
The Sensory Benefits of Swimming
In the water, kids auditory systems are calmed. You know that quiet sensation of being underwater? It’s incredibly relaxing!
In addition, the water provides proprioceptive input through compression — water has 30x more deep pressure stimulation than air and it provides that pressure consistently across the body which is extremely organizing for the sensory overloaded child.
Additionally, the resistance of the water as kids are moving helps to improve their awareness of where their body is in space. Water can also provide a consistent and safe place for vestibular input.
Activities in the water can help children with autism, ADHD or specific sensory challenges strengthen their sensory processing skills, while also providing calming and modulating benefits. Water is also a safe and supportive environment for trying new skills.
But first you may have to overcome a challenge…actually getting the kids into the water!
Swimming Tips for Reluctant Swimmers and Kids with Sensory Challenges
We’ve had several emails lately asking for strategies to help make the aquatic environment and swimming lessons themselves more comfortable and, ultimately, more successful for those with sensory challenges. Here are our top swimming tips for kids who need a little more support at the pool.
1 || Use a Visual Schedule
Visual schedules are a simple, highly successful tool for communicating routines and expectations to children. And, as an added bonus, they give adults relief from repeating themselves again and again and they motivate kids into action! Make it waterproof for the pool and focus on safety expectations first!
2 || Get the Right Equipment
Goggles, rash guards, water shoes, and earplugs go a long way toward making sensory input more tolerable for the tactile, visual, and auditory systems and can provide proprioceptive input for calming, too! Give the child options for which equipment might help him feel more comfortable in the water!
3 || Start in the Tub
The bathtub is a controlled environment where it’s easy to work on getting all parts of the body wet, blowing bubbles in the water to encourage submersion of the face, practicing different body positions in the water (lying on the back or belly) and is small enough to help a child feel safe during early introductions to water. Try these 10 fun bath-time activities for kids.
4 || Be Aware of the Warning Signs
Children with sensory difficulties may have trouble using words to express how they are feeling in a situation that feels challenging to them. Watch for changes in breathing, stressed facial expressions, avoidance of activities or fight or flight physical reactions such as tremors, crying, a death grip on the side of the pool or instructor. Being aware of and responding to these warning signs can help prevent a meltdown.
5 || Make it Fun
There are tons of fun water toys that will keep water time interesting and entertaining. Think squirt toys, water guns, sponges, buckets, etc. Try our recommendations for some of our favorite pool toys for kids. These ideas are great for adding an element of distraction.
6 || Stay Away from Peak Pool Times
Pools can get crazy loud and crazy crowded during peak times. If you have a child with auditory sensitivities this can be a huge challenge. Try heading to the pool early in the morning or ask the instructor or facility for options for smaller class times or a lesson that might be available when the pool has less traffic.
7 || Consider Water Temperature
Warmer water is typically easier to tolerate for anyone, let alone children with neuromotor and sensory issues. Find a site with a therapeutic pool or children’s activity pool that may be kept at a warmer temperature than a typical lap pool.
8 || Give the Child Some Control
Offer different ways to get in the water — ladder, jumping, sliding in from the wall. Pull out that visual schedule and offer the child choices of activities that she can put in the order that she would like to have them happen (first kicking at the wall, next bobs under the water, last jumps off of the wall).
9 || Start Slowly
If you have a pool with a ramp or zero depth entry, perfect! Have the child walk into the pool at their own pace. If these options aren’t available, try playing in buckets poolside with feet dangling in the water. Have the child reaching in the water to fill sponges or squirt toys to get hands and arms wet. Maybe progress to squeezing some water overhead!
10 || Make a Routine
For many kids with sensory processing issues, challenging experiences can be made slightly easier when the child knows exactly what to expect. Having a predictable approach, predictable expectations, and using predictable activities at the pool can help put the child at ease.
What are your best swimming tips for reluctant swimmers? Share them in the comments below!
Looking for more information about adaptive swim training and certification? Check out Swim Angelfish
And be sure to check out these swimming tips for helping your child learn to swim.