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updated: 3/19/2014 3:45 PM

Swim schools keep it cool to keep little ones afloat

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  • Instructor Eva Kaneva helps 4-year-old Tess Tiedge of Arlington Heights with her swimming at the Chicago Swim School in Arlington Heights.

       Instructor Eva Kaneva helps 4-year-old Tess Tiedge of Arlington Heights with her swimming at the Chicago Swim School in Arlington Heights.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Youngsters Sarah Sapienza, 4, right, and Annabel Chung, 3, learn to swim from swim instructor Andy Jones at FOSS Swim School in Highland Park.

       Youngsters Sarah Sapienza, 4, right, and Annabel Chung, 3, learn to swim from swim instructor Andy Jones at FOSS Swim School in Highland Park.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Swim instructors work with young children as they learn to swim at FOSS Swim School in Highland Park.

       Swim instructors work with young children as they learn to swim at FOSS Swim School in Highland Park.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Goldfish Swim School owner Alex Tyler, squatting, chats with students and instructors during Saturday morning classes the St. Charles school.

       Goldfish Swim School owner Alex Tyler, squatting, chats with students and instructors during Saturday morning classes the St. Charles school.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Swim classes are held Saturday mornings at Goldfish Swim School in St. Charles.

       Swim classes are held Saturday mornings at Goldfish Swim School in St. Charles.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Arlene Miles

Swimming pools elicit cries of delight from kids on vacation or during the summer when they provide a respite from hot days. Your children enjoy the pool, so they should love swimming lessons, right? That's not always necessarily the case. Maybe the instructors are mean, the water is too deep, or the most common complaint, the water is just too cold.

Fear not. You don't have to give up swimming lessons for your family after one or two sessions because you're fighting with them simply to get out the door. A number of swim schools have begun operations in the Chicago suburbs over the past few years catering specifically to those fears while promoting water safety at the same time. Goldfish Swim School, FOSS Swim School and Chicago Swim School have similar philosophies that include warm, inviting and fun environments along with small instructor-to-student ratios. At these schools, you will never find class sizes that are larger than 3:1 or 4:1, making for highly individualized instruction.

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"I think that one of the major things is the temperature of our pool, which is 91 degrees, as opposed to a lap swim pool that is much colder," said Andy Jones, site director for FOSS Swimming School in Highland Park. "We take the excuse of cold water away so the kids can just jump right into the water."

Deep water is nonexistent at these schools. In most cases, students will be able to touch the pool floor while standing, taking away much of the fear. Goldfish Swim School in St. Charles even has the ability to change the depth of its pool at will.

"We have teaching islands that we are able to move around the pool that reduces the depth of the water to two feet," said Alex Tyler, Goldfish Swim School franchise owner. "What we try to do is create the perfect pool for kids who are scared of the water because it really does make a difference."

The welcoming environment makes lessons fun with tropical decorations adding to the warm water and balmy air temperatures. Each school divides classes by age, starting with parent and tot classes for infants.

"We have classes for parents and infants beginning at the age of four months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics," said Tracey Jensen, marketing leader of Chicago Swim School in Arlington Heights. "There are a lot of benefits by starting at this age, including increased bonding, improvement of motor skills and improved mental capacity. It also gets the parents comfortable as well to be able to leave their children in the water with the instructors."

At Goldfish, parent-and-baby water classes work on water acclimation and reinforcing what it feels like to fall into the water by assisting the little ones when placed on a slide.

"This reinforces what it feels like to fall into the water so that if it happens, it's not a total surprise," Tyler said.

Private swim schools have a number of other advantages, too. Although many suburban park districts offer classes throughout the year, selection is often limited throughout most of the year when outdoor pools are closed. Private schools give parents and children the luxury of continuing lessons throughout the year, no matter what the temperature, at times that are convenient for them. What's more, if a student progresses quickly during a session, he or she can often move up to the next level during that session instead of continuing to work on skills that have already been mastered.

Another plus that parents will find at local swim schools is that not only do the instructors have a background in competitive swimming, they also go through a training program that reflects a set of values that become instilled among the entire instructional staff. Specifics differ among each school, but what parents will find is a definite love for swimming that instructors want to pass onto their students.

"We have an in-depth training program that includes out-of-the-pool work and shadowing an instructor in the pool before instructors can teach a class on their own," Jensen said. "Our training is quite rigorous because we do have a significant drop-off rate of potential instructors who do not finish the program because we want to be pretty sure about having the right people who are properly trained."

As students progress through beginning levels, they begin to learn more advanced skills, eventually mastering all four competitive strokes -- freestyle, breast, back and butterfly. At some schools, parents will find that younger students are separated from older students even if they are working at the same skill level because relating and imparting information to an 11-year-old, for example, is much different from teaching a 6-year-old.

The advantages of small group lessons are many. Students are grouped according to ability level so you won't find one student in the group working on mastering freestyle stroking while another is simply learning how to float.

"We teach consistency," Jones said. "Each instructor teaches in exactly the same manner and the kids have the exact same skills that they must pass."

Some of the schools, such as Goldfish and FOSS, offer what they call a recreational swim team. In reality, what instruction on this level offers is a chance for swimmers to further improve their strokes and prepare them for competitive swimming if they so wish.

"These are longer lessons where students come for a full hour and they get more of a workout with the idea that if they want to go to a swim team, we'll help them get there," Tyler said. "Goldfish offers them twice a week, but students are only required to come once a week."

Adds FOSS' Jones, "We teach them what to expect if they decide to join a swim team, what a set is, things like that."

Goldfish has approximately 40 students enrolled in its swim team program, ranging in ages from eight to 14 years. The school will conduct its first in-house meet on April 7 in which students will race each other.

Even though students learn, an element of fun is always present, as well as an air of cooperation. At Chicago Swim School, for example, students make an agreement at the start of every class with their instructors to do something new during instructional time, whether it's as simple as trying to stop being afraid of a skill or mastering a stroke. Students feel good coming out of class, feeling like they have made progress. Chicago Swim school also uses deck assistants who help instructors by making suggestions when they may have difficulty getting students to understand a skill.

"I have seen this from both sides," noted Jensen, who has two children in the program. "My 5-year-old daughter was having a really hard time jumping in the water and doing a back float and the deck assistant made a recommendation that helped the instructor get her to do that."

Safety in and around the water is another very important facet of programs at all of the swim schools.

"Drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages 0-12 other than cancer," noted Tyler. Thus learning water survival skills are extremely important.

"That's another thing that sets us apart is that we are constantly teaching the kids to be safe as well as the parents to be safe around the pool, while learning to come here and have fun at the same time," Jones said.

Chicago Swim School even takes water safety instruction outside of its facilities with a 30-minute interactive program provided free to school groups, Scout troops and virtually any organization that would like to learn more about the topic.

"There are no pitches for the school," Jensen said. "We simply want to just get the information out there so that kids are safe."

Each swim school program is slightly different. FOSS, for example, offers lap swimming and masters' swim classes, while both Goldfish and Chicago Swim School have birthday party opportunities where families can host their child's celebration but don't have to be members to use the facility. Goldfish also has fee-based family swim times while Chicago Swim has a Wednesday morning drop-in water playtime.

Nevertheless, the warm, inviting atmosphere provides a welcome respite from Chicago-area weather.

"After all, what else are you going to do when it's so cold outside?" Tyler said. "Why not come inside and swim?"

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