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Rethinking Toddler Lesson Structures

Written By: Ashley Graves


Are we rethinking lesson program structures and skills taught as often as we adapt stroke technique changes? If you are not taking the time to redesign and grow within your swim lesson structure, you are hindering your greatest swim team feeder.


If we take a moment to consider what goals parents have for their babies & younger toddlers when they go to a pool it may be important to change the structure of our lessons and create spaces for them within our team lesson programs.


We all know that in most circumstances it's a lot easier to coach someone without a strong background in fundamentals than it is to change bad habits. We would much rather have the opportunity to coach that individual from the beginning and give them great habits from the start. A perfect example of this situation is a child taught in swim lessons to always hold their breath and now they don't breathe while swimming freestyle and continue to just hold their breath instead of nose bubbles or take as many strokes as they can until they run out of air and stop mid lane. Usually it takes a long period of time to correct this bad habit and replace it with ones that align with competitive swimming.


In an ideal world, swim lessons should be thought of as your level 1 group of your swim team.


How early are you accepting kids into your lesson program? Personally, in my program, they start as early as 6 months old in a Parent & Me setting. This class is the most important structure because it helps develop lasting relationships with the parents, your true customers, as well as a strong skill foundation. Swimming is one of the first baby activities parents are looking to get their children enrolled in and you have an opportunity to connect with a family and bring them all the way through your program. At 2 years old they move into independent private lessons. Group Lessons after age 2 are not offered in my program for a multitude of reasons (that's another discussion entirely).


Ages 6m -3yrs are such impressionable years. A lot of swim lesson programs, especially those attached to swim clubs, are not always offering this age range for lessons. Enabling this age group to start earlier encourages an incredible relationship to water and creates parental habits of going to the pool multiple times a week which makes the switch to a lower commitment competitive group an easier transition. Most importantly, these lessons build trust with both parents and swimmers early on and they also feel included in your program from the beginning.


Quality toddler lessons enable a child to be "that 5 year old" when it's time to join the swim team and start swimming at a higher level in the 8 & U category. The best part, their entire foundation came from you and your team because there was a place for them in every step of your program not only as a continuing customer but future athlete.


Most parents are realistic and their hope for a 1-3 year old isn't to swim across the pool independently so those lessons should probably not be taught to accomplish that as a primary goal at this age. A majority of parents want to be able to take their children to the pool, splash pad, or the beach, most often in a shallow area, and have a great summer weekend or vacation. Don't get me wrong, I still work on stroke foundations and swimming short distances in my lessons but my goals for toddler lessons has a much bigger focus on a few other components.


So what skills do I focus on in my toddler lessons if it's not automatically geared toward independent swimming?

  • Reading the pool environment

Let's talk about numbers. Can you count to 5? Let's walk around the pool and read & find the numbers. How do the numbers apply to water depth? What numbers can you explore by yourself in the water safely and what numbers mean you need help from Mom or Dad? What do the black lines & ropes mean? If I cross them, can I still stand there or when does the water get to high for me and I need to stop, turn around, and ask for help?

  • Chasing Floating Toys & Understanding Self Limitations

In all of my classes, I have a floating puffer fish that my kids do different things with as they evolve through the program levels. I let the toddler throw it out as far as they can and we walk out in the shallow end to together to go get it. Eventually we will get to a part of the pool where the water is getting high on their chest. We establish the boundary, usually they do this on their own because they realize it's rising higher on them, that moment before they get afraid, we establish this as the stopping point and I have them practice asking me for help to reach the toy for them and instruct them to walk back to the stairs.

  • Depth Perception, Refraction, Buoyancy & Water Movement

Let's talk about toys. Which ones float, which ones sink. What is the same about these toys? They are both round, they are both green. What do we notice that is different about these toys? One floats on top of the water and one sinks under the water. Can we grab both of them? Do they both move in the water? Do we move differently in the water to collect different types of toys?

  • When To Ask For Help vs Gaining Self Confidence

Self confidence may be the most important skill kids gain from swim lessons at this age. It's often the first fear they have to keep coming back to in order to overcome. We want kids to know their own boundaries well enough that they feel confident to perform skills they are able to do on their own just as much as knowing what they need assistance with. For example, we can jump by ourselves in 2 ft, can we find the number 2 so we know where to do an independent jump? Can you find the numbers 3, 4, & 5? Can we jump there by ourselves or do we need help? Let's practice jumping by ourselves in number 2 spaces and with help in numbers 3, 4, & 5.

  • Playing with toys safely

Toys move in water, if it's floating or sinking, they all still move. It's a busy day at the pool, we threw our sinking toys in the shallow end but because so much traffic is in that space they floated on the bottom past the shallow end rope. Let's problem solve together, how can we get those? Are they too far away for us to get right now by ourselves? Do we need to ask for help? Would you like help to go underwater and retrieve them or would you like to ask me for help to grab them. Learn the comfort zones of each child but always offer the next step up as an option for them to try so they get used to understanding there is more than one way to get them in a safe way. They also start to understand the progression and begin learning how to get them in new ways by watching us do it different ways safely.

  • Goggles & other sensory objects

This is a big one. It's controversial in the swim lesson community as well. Not all instructors use goggles, at my swim lesson program we do. My personal reasoning is, they can be worn in all aquatic spaces their parents take them to so why would I exclude them. Goggles also help children a lot when it comes to following objects underwater with their eyes open and I've found them to be more beneficial than not. They also are a big part of competitive swimming and I teach all of my lessons to gear children towards that as an end goal so they can graduate into a competitive program if they desire. Goggles are a big sensory issue for many kids. I desensitize them by having kids start wearing them in the bath. From there they are asked to be on during certain skills. Then we build all the way up to having them on the whole class time. Learning to wear goggles and work through skills with them on is an important part of my toddler lesson classes.


Check out: Swim With Streamline Teams for more ideas! Follow us: @swimwithstreamlineteams


Ashley began her coaching journey at the age of nineteen years old. She became the youngest female head coach in the country of a club team and combined high school program in 2014. Ashley has continued to work in the swim community in a variety of roles but is most well known for her work at Streamline Teams where she is the Founder & CEO. In her community she runs a summer swim lesson school serving both local and military families.

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