There’s a reason the phrase “floating through life” conjures images of gentle meandering — floating is a deeply relaxing activity. More importantly, it’s an indispensable skill for beginning swimmers.
Floating can be used as a survival technique to prevent drowning, which is the fifth leading cause of accidental death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Luckily, floating is also an easy skill to teach. After years of experience as a Water Safety Instructor, I’ve developed this step-by-step guide for teaching float techniques to young swimmers. Whether through formal swim lessons, or practice at home, teaching your children to float is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It’s simple, relaxing — and it could save their lives.
Teaching proper body and head position in the water is paramount to a successful back float. Start with a verbal explanation for your child — but keep it relatable. While older kids usually grasp the concept easily, younger children need direct examples. When working with a younger student, I tell her that the body is like a see-saw in the water. When her head goes up, her feet go down; when her head goes down, her feet float up. When using this example, always be sure to add a visual demonstration. Float on your back with the back of your head and ears beneath the surface. Have the child watch what happens to your feet when you lift your head out of the water. (Hint: They’ll sink straight to the bottom!)
As for the rest of the body, a child’s arms and legs should be outstretched like a starfish in the water. This broad-bodied position distributes weight across the surface of the water, making it easier to stay afloat. You can demonstrate this concept by rolling into a tight ball and showing your child how the compact position makes you sink to the bottom. Then, as soon as you unroll and spread your arms and legs wide, you’ll float back up to the surface.
Lending a Hand (Or Two)
When your child is ready to practice back floats, make sure to help her at first and encourage her to remain relaxed. She can start by standing in a shallow area or gripping the side of the pool with both hands. If using the side, have your child place her feet on the wall in a squat position before releasing her hold. From either starting position, you’ll want to stand behind her and hold your child’s waist with both hands. I also use short cues like “head back”, “tummy up”, and “arms out” to coach my students into position.
Ask your child to lean her head back on your shoulder like a pillow. As your child relaxes, sink yourself farther down into the water so that her head and ears submerge. Your goal is to get the water over her ears and for the water line to be around her face with all of her hair in the pool. It’s very important to lower the ears all the way into the water; when water laps at the ears, it causes discomfort and may make your child lift her head out of the water — and sink.
Calmly remind your child of the se-saw demonstration from earlier, and try again. If your child is hesitant to submerge her ears, make it into a game by asking her to listen under the water and describe what she can hear.
Once your child is feeling good about having her hair and ears in the water, begin stretching your arms out away from your body — still holding her waist — so that your child’s head is no longer resting on your shoulder. Her head should be in the water just in front of your body. From here, you can reposition one hand to the center of your child’s lower back while the other hand moves to gently grip the base of her skull. This might cause a little trepidation, so move slowly and verbalize your movements. Encourage your child to push her head back into your hand to maintain the right position.
When she seems comfortable, slowly move the hand on her back away from her body so that you’re using just one hand to lightly support her head. Make your touch lighter and lighter, before finally removing that hand as well. It’s a good idea to stay nearby, because most children will flip over in the water when your hand first disappears. You child needs to know that floating independently is the intention. Tell her that her job is to stay floating as long as she can, even when she can’t feel your hands anymore. When she begins to sit up or flip over, return your hands immediately and help her to stand up.
As you practice, give your child verbal cues to correct body position like “chin up”, “look at the sky”, and “send your toes underwater.” These little adjustments will make all the difference in your son or daughter’s ability to float.
Relax, Relax, Relax
One of the most difficult aspects of a back float is remaining relaxed. Many sources I’ve come across encourage instructors to avoid float practice altogether until the child is confident and comfortable in the water. But I find this approach to be a bit backwards. If your child swims on his own but doesn’t know basic survival skills, like floating, you’re asking for trouble. Many of my most fearful students actually found comfort when floating on their backs, and were able to translate that comfort to future swimming techniques.
One student, who I’ll call Victoria, had some fairly acute anxiety. She panicked before nearly every lesson, but would float on her back without protesting due to the calming nature of the activity. Floating allowed her to quiet the world around her by putting her ears in the water. And, because she knew that back floating could be her go-to whenever she was scared or tired, she became even more interested in practicing the skill.
You can’t really teach a child to relax, nor can you ask her to “just calm down.” Comfort comes only with time and repetition. My best advice is to practice extended back floats with your child. Don’t merely float for a few seconds and call it quits. Help your child float for 30 seconds or longer so that she can fully loosen up and recline onto her back. Think of it like a stretch: You need to hold your stretch for at least 30 seconds for any meaningful progress to be made. The same is true for your child’s mental stretch while floating.
Sink or… Float?
Children with more body fat will have an easier time floating simply because their bodies are less dense. Kids who are very lean, or have little body fat, will find it more difficult to remain afloat because their denser body composition wants to sink. Although the ability to float well is somewhat dependent on body type, any child can learn to float proficiently, even if that means modifying his or her floating position.
If your child is fully relaxed and in the correct position but still has trouble floating, try some of these tricks. Have your child take a deep breath and hold it, creating a large air pocket inside his body. Although holding the breath isn’t ideal, since floating is a survival skill, it will help him achieve a full, high-chested float. This way, he’ll know what it feels like to perform a good back float, and can mimic this by sculling his hands — swishing them back and forth in the water — or kicking lightly to keep his chest up.
If your child is still struggling, he can also try reaching his arms up above his head as though stretching to the other side of the pool, or bending his knees so that his toes point down toward the bottom of the pool. Both of these alterations shift weight distribution, allowing the torso to float up and act as a buoy.
Whether you’re teaching your child to swim on your own or taking lessons from a professional instructor, floating is a critical safety skill that lays the groundwork for future learning, helps build water confidence, and just might save your child’s life.
AUTHOR BIO: This article was written by Lizzy Bullock a WSI-certified swimming instructor with over a decade of experience working with infants, children, and adults. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.