How to Create Sensory-Friendly Swim Lessons

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As summer camps and outdoor swimming pools begin opening for the summer in the Western Hemisphere, it important to include as many children as possible in swimming lessons. The World Health Organization tells us that drowning is the third major cause of death for children and youth. Sensory-friendly swimming lessons are needed.

A common summertime activity is swimming. For many younger children, this involves learning how to swim or improving their skills. However, standard swimming lessons do not include children with sensory disorders. Children who struggle with the sensory experience of swimming also include children with autism, anxiety, ADHD, concussion, developmental disability, hearing or vision loss. You likely know of a child in your circle of family or friends who experiences one of those diagnoses. Therefore, it is important that sensory-friendly swimming lessons to be inclusive of all children.

Why are swimming lessons good for children with sensory sensitives?

Water safety

There are several benefits of sensory-friendly swimming lessons for children with sensory differences. The most important factor is safety. Participating in swim lessons, helps children gain skills needed to be safe in water. Therefore, for all children, swimming lessons provide the opportunity to develop water safety skills. .

Sensory exploration

Another added benefit of swimming lessons is the sensory aspect. Immersing yourself in water engages all the different senses. That includes what a child sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells. It also includes a child’s sense of movement, sense of balance and internal body sense (called interoceptions). The sensory experience in water allows children to explore their senses in a fun way. Additionally, the repetitive, rhythmic motions used is swimming can be calming. Swimming is very therapeutic.

Socialization

Lastly, swimming lessons provide all children an opportunity to socialize. For many children with sensory differences, interacting with their peers causes stress and anxiety. Therefore, participating in swim lessons with other children gives them the opportunity to develop and practice social skills, too.

Three young children at sensory-friendly swim lessons with a swimming instructor.

How to create sensory-friendly swim lessons

Sensory Friendly Solutions interviewed Jen Maitland, an occupational therapy student at Queen’s University.  Jen shares her experience teaching sensory-friendly swim lessons and the different ways she adapted her swim program as an instructor. Here are her tips she used to create sensory-sensitive swim lessons.

An infographic listing 6 ways to create sensory-friendly swim lessons.

Change the environment

There are several changes that can be made to the swimming environment to make it sensory-friendly. Many swim environments are too busy and too noisy. For children with sensory sensitivities, this may lead to increased stress and sensory overload. However, there are several simple changes that help create a less overwhelming experience. Like, turning off background music.  Check out our blog post “Sensory-Friendly Swim Time” to learn more about these adaptations.

Be patient

First and foremost , it is important to remain patient. Patient with children in general. And especially patient when running swim lessons with children that have sensory sensitivities. It may take children several different sessions to get comfortable in the pool. Therefore, expect that the first couple of lessons may just involve playing in knee-deep water. Or sitting on the side of the pool. If the first few lessons only involve stepping or crouching in the water, consider that a success! It is most important for the child to feel safe in the pool before rushing them into the water. This allows you to build trust, which is critical in sensory-friendly swim lessons.

Select a less busy area of the pool

Another technique to create sensory-friendly swim lessons is to run the lesson in less busy areas of the pool.  Or at a less busy time. If possible, try to find a smaller pool or a quiet area in a bigger pool to do your swim lessons. The loud noises of other swimmers, splashes, waves and bright pool toys are overwhelming for a child with a sensory differences. Therefore, begin your swim lessons in less stimulating areas of the pool.

While recalling her experience running sensory-friendly swim lessons, Jen discussed the influence of the sensory-rich pool environment on the teaching process. She stated,

“Any time a lifeguard had to whistle for something (happened usually at least once a session), they tensed up and looked where the sound came from. A lot of swimming technique comes from relaxing your body so this made it tough.”

– Jen Maitland, OT Student

Therefore, try your best to be strategic where you run your lessons.

Offer sensory-friendly hours

It is unrealistic to try to eliminate all loud sounds around the pool. Therefore, consider running your sensory-friendly lessons during sensory or autism hours, like they do in stores. During these hours, changes are made to the pool area. It makes for a less sensory-rich experience. For example, whistles will not be used. In addition, the number of people in the pool is limited. Furthermore, all background music is turned off, etc. Finally, these hours are only offered to children with sensory sensitivities and their caregivers. Sensory hours give children the opportunity to practice their swimming skills in a comfortable setting. Ultimately, this helps children focus more on their lessons and less on the overwhelming sensory experience at the pool.

Young boy practicing dunking head in sensory-friendly swim lessons.

Sensory-friendly swim toys

Another common strategy in sensory-friendly swim lessons is using pool toys. This can include things such as pool noodles, flutter boards or sensory-friendly swim goggles, like Frogglez. The latter are helpful during swimming lessons. They are comfortable to wear and not distracting. Other tools like noodles and boards help children slowly ease into the process of swimming independently while feeling safe.

Use a graded approach in your swimming lessons

In addition to this, using a graded approach during your swimming lessons is an effective strategy.  A graded approach simply means breaking down a larger task into smaller, easier steps. For example, Jen discussed her techniques using a graded approach to help her sensory sensitive swimmer feel comfortable dunking their head under the water.

“ At the beginning, they didn’t even get their hair wet. I’d start letting some water drip off my hand onto their head. I would then use a watering can to drip more water onto their head and then use a bucket. We then worked on getting one ear in the water, then both, and eventually their whole head underwater.”

– Jen Maitland, OT Student

Jen explained that this process alone took 2 months to work up to. However, using a graded approach helped her swimmer feel more comfortable in the water. This allowed her to build greater trust with her student. Therefore, when she slowly intensified the task, her swimmer felt comfortable following her.

Jen expressed that by one year of working with this swimmer, she was able to work up to holding the swimmer in the water independently with no assistive devices.

By using some of these strategies to create your sensory-friendly swim lessons, you will create a more inclusive and safe swimming program. Thank you to Jen Maitland, occupational therapy student, for her wonderful contributions to this blog post!

Interested in learning more about sensory-friendly related to summer or swimming? Check out:

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