Wanna teach a kid to swim? Just toss ‘em in the pond. They’ll figure it out mighty quick.

Wait. Don’t. Bad idea. As you might imagine, this isn’t the teaching technique used by modern swimming instructors. Nowadays, that old “baptism-by-water” trick would probably get you a call from CPS.

Today’s young children have it pretty easy. And, pretty fun. And, all that fun they’re having is pretty dang effective.

“There’s definitely more fun and games than in the past,” says Jill Schoenherr, a program director for the Maple Street YMCA. “But all the games and things that seem silly are all aimed at teaching. And they have a great track record of working really well.”

Schoenherr’s instructors use a technique called “Guided Discovery.” Much of the trick is getting kids to visualize swimming strokes by comparing them to movements the children already know. The result is a type of love more adorable than tough.

For the really little folks, instructions might sound like: “Show me what a frog looks like.” Mimicking the movements of the frog help the children get the basic idea of the breaststroke. “Show me what a starfish looks like.” That helps them learn to lie on their backs in the water. Playing dolphin helps children get their hips moving for the butterfly stroke.

“Put your ear in the water to hear the fishies. Put your mouth in the water to talk to the fishies.” This teaches youngsters how to breathe while swimming. Another game: As kids lie on their back in the water, the instructor tells them to look for some imaginary something-or-other on the ceiling. The idea: Get their mind off the fact they’re in the unnerving position of lying in water.

Some older-school instructors who join Schoenherr’s team aren’t always sure about all the fun and games.

“They kind of wonder why there’s all the playtime,” she says. “Then it dawns on them that all this has a very specific goal.”

Of course, as children move into the higher-level classes, the starfishies give way to much more precise instructions on fundamentals. They start getting that push to becoming the best they can be.

But any serious swimmer has to love swimming. And, and Schoenherr points out, if someone helps you love swimming early on, you’re much more likely to become a lifetime swimmer.

“You try to make swimming so fun they want to come back,” she says. “The idea is to give them a love for a sport that can be a healthy part of their whole life. That’s pretty cool if it can all start with a starfish.”

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