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Swimming for self-confidence & fun; guidelines for a community-based swimming program.


Guidelines for a community-based swimming program.

Jodie learned to roll over a few weeks ago. This would be routine progress for a six-month-old baby, but for Jodie it was an accomplishment comparable to running a four-minute mile. Jodie is a six-year-old girl severely afflicted with cerebral palsy.

Jodie was floating on her back in three foot deep water in a municipal swimming pool. While her instructor watched her carefully, Jodie raised her left hand in the air, one of the few controlled arm movements possible for her. This caused her to roll to the left. Then, by twisting her head and arching her back, she corkscrewed in the water and came up again on her back.

Her delight at moving her body in a controlled manner was obvious. She was giggling happily as the water streamed from her face. We all cheered as the instructor hugged the triumphant girl.

Watching the joy of a child move by herself, perhaps for the first time, is one of the rewards of participating in a swimming program for children with disabilities.

The program, staffed entirely by volunteers, is run under the auspices of the North Jeffco Metropolitan Recreation and Park District of Arvada, Colo., and the Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross. One-hour classes are held each Saturday throughout most of the year. Emphasis is placed on teaching both children and adults with a wide range of disabilities to achieve standard Red Cross levels of swimming proficiency. Fees levied by the recreation district are nominal. Parents are responsible for bringing students to the class and for readying them for the water. The only requirement is that the student must be able to comprehend instructions.

The major focus of our program -- and the major benefit to our students -- is to make them safe in the water. By teaching our students to swim, and swim well, we are hopefully preventing future drownings. We hope to train each student to swim well enough so that an accidental dunking in deep water would not result in a tragedy. Actually, most of the advanced students are better swimmers than the average recreational swimmer. EXERCISE

Second in importance is the benefit of exercise. Children usually lead very active lives. Their high activity level builds muscles, bones and cardio-vascular capacity. Many children with disabilities are denied opportunities for exercise or their disabilities prevent them from exercising on land. Once trained, they are able to work out safely in the water, a cushioning medium. For some, water exercise may be the only unaided body movement possible. Some students have even commented: "The pool is the only place where I can walk."

Some youngsters with cerebral palsy, or other motor control impairments, cannot exercise strenuously on land for fear of falling and injuring themselves. Those who are wheelchair-bound often have not been trained in the sports that are possible for them. Children who are mentally retarded sometimes lack the attention span or grasp of rules that would allow them to participate in organized sports with other children. Because of these deficiencies, we find that many of our students have poor muscle development and lack stamina.

But most problems can be addressed with a structured swimming program. Once children are able to swim, they can exercise or be exercised safely in the pool. In the water, they are cushioned from damaging falls. Individuals who cannot use their legs can learn to do a very credible front crawl stroke, since that stroke gets little propulsion from the kick. Children with developmental disabilities can learn to swim well and most can participate enthusiastically in relay races. Adapted strokes can often be worked out for those with limited control of their muscles.

Of course, one workout per week is less than ideal. Once a student is water-safe, we encourage parents to take the child to a public swimming pool for his own exercise sessions, but this often cannot be worked into a busy schedule. SELF CONFIDENCE AND FUN

Competency in swimming adds significantly to the child's self-confidence. For children who may not be able to play all the games their peers play, becoming better-than-average swimmers is a source of great pride.

One of the major high points of our teaching year is the day the children show us their ribbons from the Special Olympics swimming events. For some of the students, participation in the annual swimming Special Olympics serves as a goal and motivation to improve strokes and speed.

We also give each student a trophy at our annual Christmas party, awarding trophies for such accomplishments as "most improvement," "best crawl stroke" or "most willing worker."

Not the least of our aims is to enable these children to thoroughly enjoy themselves for an hour a week. Added to the simple physical pleasure of working muscles vigorously is the thrill of mastering a new and difficult skill. But while fun is a major component of the program, the students are not allowed to forget that they are there to improve their swimming abilities. While there may be 10 minutes of free time at the end of each session, the rest of the hour is structured instruction.

The students are separated into beginner and advanced swimmers. The advanced swimmers are taught in classes of four to eight, usually by one instructor who directs them from the deck. Beginners invariably receive individual instruction.

Safety is an over-riding concern. A person with a Red Cross advanced lifesaving rating is always on the deck or in the pool. When it is necessary for the trained lifesaver to be in the water, a safety lookout, who may be a parent, is assigned to watch from the deck and alert the lifesaver to any potential trouble. ELEMENTARY STROKES

Formal training in swimming instruction techniques is not necessary for instructors working with beginning students. Those with American Red Cross ratings of Water Safety Instructor or Adapted Aquatics Instructor work with the advanced group. The instruction closely follows the American Red Cross guidelines. Beginning students are first taught breath control, rhythmic breathing and prone and back floats. The instruction then proceeds to the crawl or the beginner's stroke (a modified dog-paddle). Most youngsters can achieve proficiency in the crawl -- the most useful and fastest swimming stroke.

A good deal of emphasis is also placed on the elementary back stroke -- a very restful stroke that is especially useful in situations where survival is at stake. Care must be used in introducing students to back floats and back strokes. Young children are invariably uncomfortable on their backs in the water because they feel out of control. This can be especially true of students with physical disabilities.

Other water skills specified by the Red Cross, including surface diving, diving from the side, swimming under water, treading water, survival floating and use of personal flotation devices (life jackets and ring buoys) are taught to all advanced students. Breast stroke, back crawl and other more complicated strokes are selectively taught to the most advanced students. ADAPTATIONS

There are obvious adaptations necessary for various disabilities. One of our most significant problems is water temperature. We use a municipal swimming pool where the water temperature is kept at 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Children who are unable to generate much body heat through muscle activity get chilled rather quickly. A cotton T-shirt is a great help in retaining body heat in the water. Beginners are usually limited to half-hour lessons to minimize this problem.

Another obvious adaptation is the use of floats for non-swimmers. We use these very sparingly. If a student can be taught to stay at the surface in any way without flotation devices, we will not use them. The children come to depend on these aids, and they ultimately slow training. However, muscle rigidity increases specific gravity, and students with spastic paralysis often cannot float without swimming aids.

We have found that swimming goggles are also useful. The chemicals in the average public swimming pool irritate the eyes. While this is not harmful, it is annoying. More importantly, goggles help get the students past a major hurdle in learning to swim -- immersing the face in the water. Few swimming strokes can be swum properly or efficiently without most of the weight of the head being supported by the water. With front strokes (front crawl and breast stroke), the face is immersed throughout most of the stroke. Until the student learns to swim with his face submerged and to breathe rhythmically, progress in these important strokes will be quite limited.

One typical fear that keeps children from putting their faces in the water is reluctance to get water in their eyes. I suspect this develops from getting soapy water, which stings, in their eyes during baths. By wearing goggles, the students realize that they can see well under water and that their eyes are protected.

Children with spina bifida can become excellent swimmers of the front crawl, which gets little propulsion from the legs. However, they have difficulties with the back crawl, since their legs often float up into a jackknife position when they are on their backs. The breast stroke is not very effective for any student with limited leg mobility.

Often, individual adaptations must be worked out for students with cerebral palsy. If necessary, we will let such students swim with floats attached to their bodies, either inflated arm cuffs or styrofoam floats taped to their ankles. However, every effort is made to eliminate such aids as soon as possible. One reason is that reliance on swim aids does not prepare the students for survival of an accidental immersion, one principle goal of the program.

Students with visual impairments can often be taught the strokes by physically guiding their arms and legs through the proper motions. In this case, the pace of instruction must be adapted, not only to the learning ability of the student, but also to the student's degree of hesitancy towards new experiences. We always bear in mind that we are dealing with children who may have had few successes in dealing with the physical world. WHERE TO BEGIN

Parents who wish to find a swimming program for their child might start by inquiring at the local American Red Cross office. School officials involved in special education programs and people active in local swimming instruction programs might also know of available programs.

If there are no convenient swimming programs, parents may want to consider starting a program in their community. The Red Cross can give invaluable help. "Water time" (scheduled use of a municipal pool) will be needed. An indoor pool is recommended, as a summer-only program would be of limited value. Water time is expensive, so fees will probably be necessary.

Recruiting dedicated, dependable instructors can be the biggest hurdle. The volunteer whose attendance is sporadic is of limited value, no matter how inspired his teaching. For teaching beginning swimmers, the instructor's skill is less important than his patience and sincere desire to teach.

Dedicated teachers should be encouraged to move through the Red Cross swimming instructors programs. Advanced training will make instructors more useful and make their work more personally satisfying. The Instructor's Course in Adapted Aquatics is a course specifically intended for teaching swimmers with disabilities. However, other courses must be taken first. The Advanced Lifesaving course is a prerequisite for being certified as a Water Safety Instructor, which is a prerequisite for the Adapted Aquatics Instructor course.

PHOTO : Jill Jahnke, six, begins learning to swim under the guidance of Julie McGlothen.

PHOTO : Nora Nickel guides Richard Lowe, six, in the beginner's stroke.

PHOTO : Advanced swimmers Goeff Fort, front, and Jeff Hardin, right, pause in their workout with

PHOTO : instructor Susie O'Donnell.
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Author:Bond, Robert F.
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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