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Inclusive and therapeutic, swimming is so good for kids it’s a wonder they like it so much, says Claire Freeman

Learning to swim provides children with a vital survival skill and this is no different for children with a disability or SEN. There is no need for anyone to be deprived of the developmental opportunities on offer when getting wet, or to miss out on all the fun. Swimming is a very inclusive activity and a great way for families to have fun together. It’s an essential part of children’s school life too.

First and foremost, learning to swim is a skill that could ultimately save a child’s life. As drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death in children, it is vital that every child has the opportunity to learn to swim and gain core knowledge regarding water safety. The Government continues to see the value of learning to swim as a life saving skill, with proposals announced recently for the new draft National Curriculum confirming that swimming will remain on the curriculum for Key Stage 2. 

Swimming provides a lot of pleasure; it’s a great leveller and can help children have fun in a non-competitive environment. Disabled swimmers say that one of the great things about swimming from an early age is the new friends they made. They also say that it gave them a massive boost in confidence and really helped with social skills and communication.

Swimming can also greatly aid therapy for those with physical disabilities. Indeed, it is often prescribed for those with a physical disability as a form of therapy because the water is weight bearing.

Added to that, the sensory effects of water have been shown to stimulate interaction in children with emotional, behavioural and communication disorders and neurological conditions such as autism.  These children are known to benefit from sensory stimulation, as it helps with proprioception (awareness of the body in space).

Learning to swim can really boost children's confidence.Learning to swim

The majority of children with SEN or disabilities can learn to swim with non-disabled children and progress using the same British Gas ASA Learn to Swim Pathway (the national syllabus for swimming lessons).

Rewarding success and praising achievement keeps children motivated to continue learning and it’s important that they retain this during their swimming journey. The child can work through the same award stages as others, but will be exempt from some skills where s/he is physically unable to achieve them. It has been recognised that some individuals need skills broken down into small steps in order for them to be able to achieve, so with this in mind, there are three disability awards that form part of the learn to swim awards scheme. The intention is that once they have achieved these three stages there will be a smooth transition into the core stages suitable for all.

Some disabled children will never be able to reach the later stages – for example, some may not be able to swim on their front due to the nature of their disability. However, properly qualified swimming teachers understand that they are teaching aquatics, regardless of the ability/disability of the swimmer and so will adapt the teaching methods to suit the needs of the participants.

Clearly, no two people are identical and the teacher will consider how the individual’s physique, mobility and application affect the swimming technique. For example, breathing skills are very important and people who have difficulties swallowing may be at risk and require careful observation.

An individual approach

Determining the specific needs of the participant is an essential prerequisite for his/her successful involvement in swimming. These may be determined by direct consultation with the individual and parent or carer. The swimming teacher will consider:

  • if the swimmer is able to cope in a group
  • if s/he requires one-to-one assistance to move in the water
  • if the swimmer has a special need that is not apparent
  • if the swimmer’s disability has been acquired recently (for example through amputation) and so is new to the swimmer
  • if there are any restrictions or limitations in or under the water
  • if the swimmer requires medication during the session.

Support staff in schools can help encourage participation in swimming by ensuring that school swimming lessons are adapted, and that full consideration is given to any extra support that may need to be put in place. 

Care must to be taken to ensure that the pool and surrounding areas are suitable for all children, including those with specific needs. If hoists are required, it is highly recommended that staff visit the centre to check that these are operational.

Additional arrangements may need to be made for those with visual and hearing impairments and those with learning disabilities. For example, visually impaired learners may benefit from music, originating from one source, to aid orientation in the pool. The use of photos and pictures may help those with hearing impairments and the rhythm of a drum may also be used as an aid to timing. Continuous repetition and reinforcement of instructions in a variety of different ways may help many with learning disabilities. The use of praise to reinforce small steps – be it verbal, a smile or a thumbs-up – can also make a big difference.

Ben Foulston with four-times Paralympic champion Ellie Simmonds.Born to swim

According to his parents, twelve-year-old Ben Foulston has loved water ever since his first bath in the hospital. An inspiration to others and a born competitor, he enjoys his swimming so much that he now boasts a host of medals from competitions across the UK. When he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in April 2011, he was already swimming for a club, and he now swims for both a mainstream club and the county disability squad.  
“Ben swims five days a week, in the evenings and weekends”, says his dad Geoff. “He loves swimming and has made lots of friends. He has a right side weakness which mostly affects his stroke in breast and butterfly and he has stiffness in all his joints. 

“Our family life revolves around training sessions, galas and competitions. He will be competing this year in his first International race. He hopes to swim in the Paralympics and we have told him that if he trains hard and has a positive mental attitude to his swimming, then anything is possible.” 

Further information

Claire Freeman is from the ASA (formerly the Amateur Swimming Association), the governing body for swimming in England. The organisation provides a range of resources, information and support for parents, teachers and practitioners:
www.swimming.org

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