Teach­ing swim­ming to chil­dren with spe­cial needs



Wa­ter and swim­ming can in­spire both tremen­dous fear and great joy in spe­cial needs chil­dren. Pools can be used for aquatic ther­apy, to learn es­sen­tial wa­ter safety, and for swim­ming.

“Aquatic ther­apy is oc­cu­pa­tional or phys­i­cal ther­apy that is per­formed in the wa­ter,” Karen Bron­stein, an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist in pri­vate prac­tice based out of En­gle­wood, says. “The buoy­ancy of wa­ter can help fa­cil­i­tate bal­ance and ease of move­ment. Wa­ter pro­vides light re­sis­tance, and mov­ing one’s body in the wa­ter pro­motes strength­en­ing by ac­ti­vat­ing mus­cles against this re­sis­tance.”


“Warm wa­ter can soothe tight mus­cles that are of­ten prob­lem­atic for chil­dren post-surgery and for chil­dren with neu­ro­mus­cu­lar dis­or­ders, such as cere­bral palsy,” she says. “For very weak or very low-tone chil­dren, the buoy­ancy of wa­ter and free­dom of move­ment within the wa­ter is some­thing that is im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate in a gym, and can pro­vide great joy.”

Beyond aquatic ther­apy, over­com­ing fear of the wa­ter and, ul­ti­mately, learn­ing to swim can pro­vide nu­mer­ous ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing nec­es­sary sensory in­put, im­prove­ment of social skills and cru­cial wa­ter-safety lessons. The JCC on the Pal­isades in Te­nafly of­fers pri­vate lessons to chil­dren with spe­cial needs.

“We have seven in­struc­tors, all of

whom are trained in adap­tive phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and/or adap­tive wa­ter safety,” says Shel­ley Levy, di­rec­tor of the Gut­ten­berg Cen­ter for Spe­cial Ser­vices at the JCC.

She says that while some swim par­tic­i­pants have phys­i­cal chal­lenges, most have been di­ag­nosed with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der (ASD). For those par­tic­i­pants with needs that re­quire it, the JCC has a hy­draulic lift.

“Our aquat­ics in­struc­tion staff is sen­si­tized to the char­ac­ter­is­tics of chil­dren with ASD,” Levy says.

Chil­dren as young as 3 can par­tic­i­pate in the swim lessons.

“This pro­gram grew or­gan­i­cally as a re­sponse to the needs of the com­mu­nity,” Levy says.

She cites wa­ter safety, self-reg­u­la­tion and self-stim­u­la­tion of sensory needs as three great ben­e­fits to the swim lessons.

“It also helps re­lease anx­i­ety and stress. Kids love play­ing in the wa­ter,” Levy says. “We have a beau­ti­ful wa­ter park, and the chil­dren love wa­ter pour­ing on their heads.”

Of course, while some chil­dren have no fear of the wa­ter, which makes learn­ing to swim im­per­a­tive be­cause they may not re­al­ize their own lim­i­ta­tions, other chil­dren are very afraid.

“We do an in­take process with any fam­ily who has a child with spe­cial needs, so that the in­struc­tor will be fully pre­pared to work with that child and their par­tic­u­lar needs,” Levy says.

The YWCA Ber­gen County in Ridge­wood of­fers pri­vate and group lessons for chil­dren with spe­cial needs. Aquat­ics man­ager Heather See­back ob­serves that swim­ming gives the chil­dren free­dom.

“These are kids whose lives are usu­ally struc­tured and con­strained,” See­back says. “In the pool, they can be them­selves and be free.”

She em­pha­sizes that they “work on skills in a man­ner that fits each par­tic­i­pant.” Many kids with ASD like to be un­der­wa­ter, but for those who are afraid, “we help them get over their fear,” See­back says.

She re­calls a girl who started in the fall and be­gan afraid but even­tu­ally was able to swim with a belt. Now she swims with­out one.

“It is great to see the progress that the kids make,” See­back says.

Both the JCC on the Pal­isades and the YWCA Ber­gen County are deemed au­tho­rized providers by New Jersey’s Di­vi­sion of De­vel­op­men­tal Dis­abil­i­ties and work with fam­i­lies to help de­fray costs of their pro­grams.

SOME­THING DIF­FER­ENT Aquatic ther­apy can break up the monotony for chil­dren, while also calm­ing them.

EAS­ING FEARS Equip­ment like this can help chil­dren who may be afraid to get in the wa­ter.

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