Nothing evokes summertime bliss like hurling yourself into the pool, with legs pulled into your chest and your arms holding the rest of your body tucked into a perfect cannonball – the bigger the splash, the better!
Children are often naturals at the cannonball (it usually helps that their friends are cheering them on). Yet the more complex dive into the water, with a swimmer’s hands gliding them headfirst into the water, doesn’t come so naturally. With a little help from a swim instructor or parents, some children can learn to dive into a pool in an afternoon, while others may take the whole summer – or longer – to learn.
Until your child reaches about 7 or 8, she’s probably not ready to start diving into the pool, says Chris Bergere, a diving coach.
“Kids need to be able to comprehend what’s going on,” says Bergere, who in 2000 was awarded the Junior Olympic Diving Coach of the Year for his efforts with the U.S. team. As a parent, you need to be able to talk your child through the process of diving. Children also need to have developed enough muscle structure and coordination.
Along with physical and mental readiness, Bergere explains that children need to overcome one of the greatest obstacles to diving – fear. “Children have a conditioned reflex to pick their heads up and put their hands out when they feel like they’re falling,” Bergere explains. “As children start walking, they learn that if they don’t, they get hurt.”
For children, water seems like a solid object, so they tend to ready themselves as they would for a fall. Working against this instinct can be difficult when it comes to teaching children to dive.
When your children are younger, you can help them work through their fears of diving into the pool by helping them get comfortable just jumping in. Even if they aren’t yet ready to dive, have them jump into your arms from the side of the pool.
Taking a dry run
Before you even take your child poolside, talk about the process of diving – on land. Bergere suggests going to a grassy area near the pool and walking your child through what’s going to happen: “Explain to your child that the water is soft and that they should never lift their chin up.”
First, the child should place her arms straight above her head with her ears snug against biceps. Her chin should tuck in toward her chest, but not to the point that her neck is uncomfortable or overextended. Her hands should be flat and placed one on top of the other, not clasped with palms together.
For beginning divers, a child should practice starting the dive in a crouched position, which makes it seem more like they’re rolling into the water with proper form: With one knee on the ground, the foot flexed to move forward and the other knee up toward the chest and stomach, with that foot flat on the ground. In this position, the child is ready to move forward and into the dive. Practice this forward motion a few times on the grass before taking the lesson to the water.
The right support
Before your child attempts to dive into the pool, make sure the pool is deep enough. Ask the pool’s lifeguard what areas are OK for diving. Do not dive into a pool – or allow your child to dive into a pool – if you’re unsure whether it’s the right depth for dives. Diving in shallow water can lead to serious injuries and even death.
Once you’ve been given the go-ahead to practice diving, bring your child to the edge of the pool with his lead foot over the rim. Bergere suggests supporting your child by placing one hand on his hip and the other on his arms so you can help glide him into the water. Explain to your child that as his front foot flexes and pushes forward, the motion will also push him into the pool, hands first (as long as he stays in the right position). At first, this feeling might seem like he’s falling into the pool.
Be careful that when you’re supporting your child, you don’t push him into the pool, but rather, gently guide his movements so that he feels more confident diving in.
As your child gains confidence, go ahead and let him practice without your hands to support the movement.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, children just don’t respond to parents’ lessons. Or maybe you don’t feel quite confident in your own diving, so you’re not ready to instruct your child. Either way, you might look into having a swim or diving instructor teach your child how to dive instead of making the lesson an unpleasant experience for you both.
This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly.