Help Your Child Learn to Swim, Cycle or Skateboard
For many kids, summer days are anything but lazy. Once school’s out for a warm-weather break, it’s time to go outside. This makes summer prime time to learn new outdoor skills such as swimming, bicycling and skateboarding. With some preparation, practice and an emphasis on safety, you can help ease your child’s anxieties and ensure success (and fun!) while he or she masters these skills.
Some kids are fearless around water, ready to head for the deep end or spring off the diving board. That’s great for a child who understands water safety and is a strong swimmer, but potentially dangerous for one who hasn’t been taught.
For kids who are fearful around water, parents can help create a more pleasant, comfortable experience by working with the child in the pool before he or she is ready to take swimming lessons.
Make it fun
A pool with a shallow, sloped entry can help make entering a little less daunting than climbing down a ladder or jumping in from the side. Remember that your child may pick up on any nervousness on your part, so try to remain calm and reassuring throughout the experience.
Showing your child how to blow bubbles in the water is a good first step, because it teaches him or her to breathe out, rather than in, in the water, says Mandy Eiseman, aquatics director at the Alexander Family YMCA in Raleigh.
“Another thing parents can do is to hold the child up while [the child] lies on their back in the water,” as if learning to float, Eiseman says. “That is a great body-positioning exercise, because it allows children to feel their own buoyancy in the water and get used to getting their ears wet.”
Children can also hold onto a parent’s hands or the side of the pool to practice kicking and build coordination. Once your child becomes confident, playing water games can make pool time even more fun. Teach your child that running and rough play are not safe around water.
Choose floatation aids carefully
Floatation devices can help children enjoy the pool, too, but beware: Most are toys rather than safety devices, and children always need supervision, even when using them. Water wings, the floats that children can wear around their arms, fall into the toy category. For that reason, they are not allowed at many pools.
“Those have been known to pop off if a child jumps in with his arms above his head,” says Julia Herman, aquatics manager at Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary. “Anything allowed in our pool must be Coast Guard-certified. We prefer to use backpacks with foam floats inside them that can be removed as the child becomes a stronger swimmer, or noodles or kickboards, items that aren’t necessarily attached to your child, or if they are attached, can’t easily come out. A child can easily slip through those doughnut-shaped floats as well. And it’s never a bad thing for a child to wear a life jacket.”
Sign up for lessons
Experts agree that it’s never too early (or too late) to begin swimming lessons.
“Lessons are extremely important for children,” Herman says. “You never know when you might be around water. Children need to understand water safety even if they don’t know how to swim yet, and know that if they can’t swim, they should always have some sort of safety device with them or, better yet, just not go into the water.”
Eiseman agrees that learning to swim is imperative. “It’s a hugely important life skill,” she says.
Make learning to swim fun instead of frightening. “The sooner you get them into a good experience, they’re going to glide right through all the skills,” she says.
She also recommends regular swimming practice outside of lessons. “Once they get to preschool age, they learn fast, but they also lose their skills quickly. Keeping them in the water is key,” Eiseman says.
Most of us likely remember a few wobbly rides down the sidewalk after our parents took the training wheels off our bicycle. These initial trips can end with scraped knees, tears and frustration. Riding a bike is a skill learned by doing, and it can be a little scary for a child until he or she masters it.
Choose an appropriate first bike
Paul’s Schwinn in Winston-Salem has been outfitting families with bicycles for 50 years. Brothers Dennis, Paul and Dale Harrell understand the importance of finding the appropriate bike for a child and teaching safety.
“We recommend that parents bring their child in if they can, so we have a real idea of how they fit the bike,” Dennis Harrell says. “It’s not always just about height or leg length, or what they seem comfortable with. With children up to 6 years of age, there are 12-, 16- and 20-inch type wheels. But if the parent isn’t able to bring the child with them, age and height can give us a good idea of what’s appropriate.”
Bikes with training wheels continue to be an option for children who are beginners, Harrell says. Newer “walkabout”-type bikes without pedals have recently been designed, although bikes with training wheels are still much more popular, he says.
“The idea is that they walk themselves around on the [walkabout] bike and develop a sense of balance that way. They’re not trying to do three things at once by pedaling, balancing and steering. They can just concentrate on pushing it along and developing balance,” Harrell says. “Once they do that, it’s an easy transition to incorporate the peddling, but this is still a relatively new concept.”
When teaching your child to ride, try to walk or run alongside in a flat, open area while holding the child’s shoulders in case of a fall. Have your child practice riding, stopping and turning. Resist the urge to hold the handlebars so that your child will get a feel for his or her balance.
Insist on proper safety
Safety is important for all cyclists, Harrell says, adding that North Carolina law requires children 16 and younger to wear a helmet.
“Even for neighborhood riding, obviously helmets are going to come first. If they’re riding in a neighborhood or even a small, contained area, we also like to see the flashing LED lights on the front and rear of the bike. It will make them stand out, because reflectors really don’t do anything during the daytime,” Harrell says.
Also have your child wear long pants and tuck in shoelaces and consider kneepads or gloves.
Be sure to teach the rules of the road, including the meaning of street signs, riding on the right side of the road and hand signals. Keep your child’s bike in good condition, and never let him or her wear headphones when riding.
Patience is important when teaching a child to ride a bike. Realize that success on the first attempt is rare, and continue to encourage your child. Like everything else, riding a bike takes practice.
Skateboarding has come a long way. What used to be a hobby is now a full-blown extreme sport for some, complete with gravity-defying stunts. It’s not unusual to see kids trying new moves.
Skateboarding carries with it a pretty good chance of getting hurt, because falling is part of the learning process. Even experienced skaters get injured. According to www.kidshealth.org, more than 25,000 people are treated in the emergency room for skateboard-related injuries each year.
So what should you do if your son or daughter is interested in learning?
Look for backup
Most parents don’t have the skills to teach skateboarding, aside from an easy roll in a straight line. Check with local skateboard shops or skate parks to see whether they offer lessons. You will likely be asked to sign a waiver in case your child is injured. Also, skateboards come in many models, and a skate shop can help you find the right type of board for your child.
Add extra protection
Helmets and protective pads are essential. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that wearing wrist guards can reduce the number of wrist injuries by 87 percent; elbow pads can reduce the number of elbow injuries by 82 percent; and kneepads can reduce the number of knee injuries by 32 percent. Mouth guards and gloves are also good options. The more protection, the better.
Be sure your child wears shoes with good traction and practices on a dry, smooth surface free of sticks and gravel, away from traffic. Never allow your child to ride in the street.
Reinforce safe practices
Public and private skate parks post rules that skaters must obey. Be sure your child understands them before allowing him or her to use these facilities. When kids see other kids doing tricks, they want to do them, too. It’s hard for children to know their abilities and limitations when trying new things, so pay attention to what’s happening and encourage your child to take it slowly. Have your child practice even the simplest of maneuvers over and over before attempting something more difficult.
These summer activities are ideal ways for your child to exercise and socialize. Whether he or she is interested in paddling, pedaling or pivoting, start with the fundamentals and keep the process fun. Ask professionals for input whenever possible. With a little help and a lot of practice, your child will gain confidence as his or her skills improve. And that’s when the real fun begins! n
Tammy Holoman is a freelance writer who lives in Winston-Salem.