Soon after I arrived in Flint, Mich., during World War II, the
Department of Recreation employed me to teach at four of their
pools. There were many surprises. Almost all of the children who
crowded into the pools at the stroke of 1 p.m. were either
nonswimmers or were taught by parents or other swimmers.
The only evidence I saw of skilled swimming was in persons
trained as American Red Cross lifesavers. Most of the children
just played in the water or swam two strokes: "front
stroke" and "back stroke."
That was in 1944. Front stroke was mostly dog paddling, with
arms under the water or a struggling way of moving in the water
with head held high up above the surface. I got into the pool,
held out my hands and said, "Let’s make a circle and
play tea party," to teach them to get down in the water
where they could get into a swimming position.
I’d pick up an imaginary tray and say, "Who’d
like some chocolate milk and graham crackers?" Then I’d
go underwater to set the imaginary refreshments on the bottom of
the pool and come up saying, let’s all go down to eat and
Then I’d say for the benefit of those who didn’t go,
"It’s OK to hold your nose if you want to." Then
I’d say, "What did you do with those graham cracker
crumbs? Let’s not leave them in the water." We’d
get them and pretend to throw them out of the pool.
I’d pass out imaginary rags and say, "Go back to
wipe up the milk you spilled." A child said, "We’d
better go wax the floor," and we did.
I’ve played a lot of tea parties and waxed a lot of pool
floors in my time. Even the ones who didn’t go under at
first went later forgetting to hold their noses. Tea party worked
with children in Michigan more than fifty years ago, and it
worked in my back yard pool with young Lacie and James last week.
My daughter, Nancy Russell, and I have taught thousands of
children to swim. Our objectives were the same as they’d
have been if we’d started by saying, "Quiet, please.
We’re ready to start the lesson." Our secret was to get
the group playing together in the water and keep it moving. We
played at walking like monkeys, making picture frames and going
under bridges, and so they’d be swimming before they knew
The game approach had some serious moments, but our objective
was to teach the children to swim well enough to enjoy it for a
After the third lesson, we gave special attention to children
who still could not yet take off alone, balanced and with face in
the water. In four more lessons and other "tricks and
gimmicks," we expected them to also swim on their backs and
do a beginner’s dive from the deck and come up swimming. We
stood by as they took turns with that.
We taught self rescue by playing "kangaroo hop" in
water chest deep. A group of kangaroos, hopping in a vertical
position, pulling with both hands while taking a breath and
moving forward a little with each hop. Later we took them one at
a time to deeper water and watched as they kangaroo hopped to
Some of those youngest swimmers still remember about the
graham crackers and chocolate milk. Many, like our own Nancy at
age four or five, got so caught up in the games that they were
swimming before they knew it. It was that way with Lacie and
James, my guests last week.