Analysis of Didactic Approaches to Teaching Young Children to Swim

Submitted by Anja Pečaver, Maja Pungeršek, Mateja Videmšek, Damir Karpljuk, Jože Štihec and Maja Meško.

ABSTRACT
Purpose: The study deals with an analysis of teaching swimming to children aged between four and eleven.

Methods: The study involved swimming instructors, teachers and coaches from different swimming schools in Slovenia. Data were acquired for 90 providers of swimming courses. The data were then analysed using descriptive statistic methods. The hypotheses were verified using Pearson’s χ² test and the Mann-Whitney test. Statistical significance was established at a 5% risk level.

Results: It was established that the differences between some parts of the exercise unit in terms of the frequency of use of a didactic movement game were related to gender and the acquired professional title. The didactic tools most frequently used during the swimming classes include kickboards, floating noodles and pool dive toys.

Conslusion: Children become more enthusiastic about learning to swim if information communication technology and didactic devices are used; it is easier to motivate them and attract their attention.

Applications in Sports: Swimming teachers should more often use didactic flotation devices whitch will fullfil children’s interest for swimming.

INTRODUCTION
It is extremely important for children to engage in a sport activity. Already at an early age they should be offered a variety of motor activities so as to broaden their horizons (16). In recent times, the age limit at which a child is expected to swim and have good swimming knowledge has decreased considerably. These days we expect children to swim already at the start of primary school whereas in the past children developed this ability at the end of primary school (17). Many reasons speak in favour of teaching children to swim as early as possible, with one of them clearly being to protect them from drowning. This is one reason that the new physical education curriculum for primary schools (10) includes a compulsory 20-hour swimming course in the second or third grade (at the age of 7–9 years). According to British experts, the most appropriate time to learn to swim is the three-year period from the age of eight to eleven because the learning process is fast and relaxed, children are motivated and few pupils skip classes (6). Relying on the results of her study, Škafar Novak (18) states it is reasonable to teach swimming at two age levels, namely getting children accustomed to water in the first primary school grade (6–7 years) and teaching them to swim in the third primary school grade (8–9 years). Great progress in swimming “literacy” is seen already with the youngest generations who explore water and its environment. Today about 10% of babies at the age of six months and older (17) can swim. Moreover, an analysis of reports on the running of annual sport programmes in local communities reveals that 249 swimming courses were conducted in 2008 (186 in primary schools, 63 in kindergartens) involving a total of 8,972 children (9).

When learning to swim it is important that the programme underpinning the learning process is well structured and suitable for the specific age group and the previous knowledge of the learners, and that it is organised flawlessly (4, 14). Incorrect steps taken during a child’s first contact with water can considerably extend the process of learning to swim and result in a negative experience which could linger throughout their life (12, 19). We should be aware that children’s safety is crucial in all types of sport activities, and just as important as maintaining their positive attitude to sport. All of the above depend more or less on the teacher who must be acquainted with the various contents, methods and types of learning to be able to attain the set goals. Working with young age groups is particularly demanding as it requires special approaches, gradual work and reasonable planning of the entire training process.

When one thinks about water activities for children, images of joy, fun, pleasure and laughter come to mind. To maintain such positive feelings during exercise and also afterwards, the swimming instructor/teacher/coach must not only have good knowledge of swimming techniques and good demonstration skills but also master appropriate swimming teaching methods which, for young children, must be based on didactic play. Jurak and Kovač (6) emphasise that the number of lessons making up the swimming “literacy” campaign has been decreasing which is why the teacher must make the best of the time that is dedicated to learning swimming. This can be achieved by using a modern learning programme which also includes the use of an appropriate didactic movement game and a variety of didactic tools (12, 25).

Given the obstacles that commonly appear on the way to the set goal, swimming professionals must cope with different situations, some of which may be very stressful for both the learners and teachers alike. It is up to the teacher which method they will choose to solve the problems, and their choice depends on their education, work experience and mainly their gift for working with children. Kovač (10) established that children up to nine years of age are most often taught by professionals with the title “swimming instructor” who generally have 3 to 5 years of work experience. They use a variety of didactic tools in their work which is positively reflected in the high motivation of children and, consequently, the high percentage of children who have become completely accustomed to water by the end of the course.

The purpose of the study was to analyse the teaching of swimming to children aged between four and eleven. We aimed to establish which difficulties swimming instructors/teachers/coaches encounter in individual exercise units, to what extent they use different didactic tools and a didactic movement game. Another aim was to establish whether there were any statistically significant gender differences in terms of the selection of the group of learners, the frequency of use of a didactic movement game and the frequency of coping with problems related to the learner’s personality. Another aim was to establish any statistically significant differences in the frequency of use of a didactic movement game depending on the professional title acquired by the instructor/teacher/coach.

WORK METHODS
Study subjects

The study encompassed a sample of 90 professionals (71 swimming instructors, 16 swimming teachers and 3 swimming coaches) who conduct swimming courses in different places in Slovenia. The sample of subjects included 57.8% of women aged between 20 and 50 and 42.2% of men aged between 19 and 55 years. The survey questionnaires were handed out during a licensing seminar for swimming instructors.

Swimming aids
The study was underpinned by a survey questionnaire which was completed by instructors, teachers and coaches from different swimming schools in Slovenia. The survey questionnaire included 15 questions of which some were closed-ended while others involved a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions. Absolute anonymity of the subjects was ensured.

Verification of the questionnaire’s reliability
Cronbach’s alpha is a coefficient of reliability or consistency. Its purpose is to establish how effectively a group of variables or items measures an individual one-dimensional latent composition. With a multidimensional structure the alpha coefficient is low (13).

The value of Cronbach’s alpha rises with an increase in the number of items in the questionnaire. When correlations between the items are low, the value of alpha is also low: the higher the correlation, the higher the alpha value. High correlations among the items prove that the latter are measuring the same basic problem or subject. In that case, we can conclude that their reliability is good, i.e. high. It has been assessed in theory that alpha values around 0.60 are still acceptable (13).

It was concluded that the questionnaire’s reliability is high ranging from 0.72 to a very high value of 0.816.

Procedure
The 90 swimming instructors, teachers and coaches who attended the licensing seminar for swimming instructors at the Faculty of Sport in Ljubljana received the survey questionnaires. The data were processed with the SPSS 19.0 (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) software application. The Mann-Whitney test and Hi² test were conducted. Statistical significance was established at a 5% risk level.

Limitations of the study
The study was conducted among swimming teachers in Slovenian primary schools. The study is thus limited to Slovenia in geographical terms. It does not encompass any teachers of children with special needs and does not investigate the characteristics and problems of the didactical teaching of children with special needs.

RESULTS
The results of the survey questionnaire served as a basis for analysing the system of work in different swimming schools in Slovenia.

The analysis of work experience revealed that professionals with 3 to 4 years of experience (31.1%) were in the majority, followed by those with 1 to 2 years (26.6%) and those with 5 to 6 years (23.3%) of experience. The smallest share was that of professionals with 7 years of experience or more (18.9%).

More than three-quarters of the surveyed professionals attend expert seminars once every two years to refresh their previous knowledge and acquire new knowledge. This result was expected since most of the surveyed professionals hold the swimming instructor licence which must be ratified every two years by attending expert seminars. Ten percent of the subjects attend seminars once a year and 3.3% twice a year. Surprisingly, 11.1% of those surveyed answered that they never attend any seminars.

We were also interested in which children they would prefer to select for their group (Figure 1) and whether there were any statistically significant differences in terms of the professionals’ genders (Table 1).

Figure 1. Selection of a group depending on a professional’s gender
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Only 18.9% of the surveyed professionals answered that it was irrelevant which group they teach, whereas others chose a group based on the learners’ age and knowledge. The results show that women prefer to teach the youngest children who are not yet accustomed to water or are unfamiliar with the swimming techniques, whereas men prefer learners who are accustomed to water and can swim 25 metres or more using one of the swimming techniques (Figure 1).

Table 1. Selection of a group depending on a professional’s gender
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It can be asserted at a 5% risk level that there are statistically significant differences in the selection of a group in terms of the gender of the swimming instructor/teacher/coach (Table 1).

Given the importance of playing for the overall development of a child, the surveyed professionals were asked how frequently they used didactic movement games when teaching children to swim (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Use of a didactic game in the teaching of swimming
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Using a 5-point Likert scale (with 1 meaning never and 5 always) the surveyed professionals assessed that they use a didactic movement game most often when getting children accustomed to putting their head under water (4.19), followed by the preparatory part of the exercise unit (4.12) and getting children accustomed to seeing under water (4.09). These are followed by getting children accustomed to exhaling in water (3.96), while sliding and in the main part of the exercise (both 3.5). The professionals use a didactic movement game the least in the actual teaching of swimming techniques (3.07) (Figure 2).

We were interested in whether any statistically significant differences in the frequency of using a didactic movement game when teaching swimming depend on a professional’s gender (Table 2).

Table 2. Use of a didactic motor game in specific parts of the exercise unit, with different contents, depending on a professional’s gender
chart

It can be asserted at a 5% risk level that there are statistically significant differences in the frequency of use of a didactic movement game in the preparatory part of the exercise unit, when getting children accustomed to water resistance, putting their head under water, seeing under water and exhaling in water (Table 2). The female professionals use didactic movement games more frequently when teaching the abovementioned activities (Figure 2).

We were interested in whether any statistically significant differences in the frequency of use of a didactic movement game in the teaching of swimming depend on a teacher’s gender (Table 3).

Table 3. Use of a didactic movement game in the exercise unit depending on the acquired professional title
chart2

It can be asserted at a 5% risk level that there are statistically significant differences in getting children accustomed to water resistance, putting their head under water and exhaling in water (Table 3). The swimming professionals with lower titles (swimming instructors) more frequently use a didactic movement game in the abovementioned activities than the professionals who hold higher titles (swimming teachers).

Table 4. Use of a didactic movement game in specific parts of the exercise unit depending on the professional title
chart3

The frequency of the use of different didactic tools during the teaching process was also analysed (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Use of swimming aids
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Analysis of the results shows (Figure 3) that in swimming schools the three most frequently used didactic tools include a kickboard (4.24), a floating noodle (4.11) and pool dive toys (3.60). Of all the above mentioned swimming aids the professionals only occasionally use pull buoys, swim hats/floating toys and rings/frames and only rarely mats and slides, whereas swimming balls and swimming belts are almost never used.

We were interested in how the swimming instructors/teachers/coaches acquaint children with the rules that must be observed in the swimming pool (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The method of acquainting children with the rules
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The professionals most often employ the discussion method (85.6%). Less than 14% of the answers to this question fit into the categories: by setting an example, using a stimulation game, with picture materials and by using all of the methods mentioned (Figure 4).

The respondents were asked how they impart new swimming contents to children. They had to mark the listed learning methods from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning never and 5 always (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Method of imparting new contents
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Figure 5 shows that a personal demonstration in the water is the method professionals use in almost every exercise unit to impart new contents to children (4.64). Personal demonstration on land ranks second (4.5). The professionals often use the explanation and discussion methods (4.19 and 4.13, respectively). Sometimes they use metaphors, comparisons (e.g. leap like a dolphin) and conceptions (3.24). It is surprising that they almost never use picture materials and video recordings (1.37).

In the study, we enquired into the problems the instructors/teachers/coaches deal with during the pedagogical process (Figure 6).

Figure 6. The frequency of problems related to a child’s personality the professionals deal with
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Figure 6 shows that the professionals most frequently deal with fear (3.46) during swimming lessons. In terms of the frequency of occurrence, that is followed by motor abilities (3.19), stubbornness and audacity or mischief (3.13). Disobedience (2.99) is also in the middle of the range. The sixth place in terms of frequency is held by lack of persistence (2.62) and the penultimate one to apathy (2.46). The least frequent is aggressiveness (1.93).

We were also interested in whether any statistically significant differences in the frequency of dealing with problems related to a child’s personality depend on a professional’s gender (Table 5).

Table 5. Frequency of dealing with problems depending on a professional’s gender
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It can be asserted at a 5% risk level that there are no statistically significant differences in the frequency of dealing with problems related to a child’s personality that depend on a professional’s gender (Table 5).

A prerequisite for the high-quality implementation of swimming courses is a swimming facility which complies with basic health, safety and pedagogical standards. The surveyed professionals were asked how frequently they encounter poor working conditions (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Frequency of encountering poor working conditions
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Figure 7 shows that the surveyed professionals most often deal with cold water – it was graded with 2.37 points, which means they encounter it sometimes. The next two are excessive noise in the swimming pool (2.33) and not enough space for exercise (2.31). Only rarely do the professionals deal with a damaged area surrounding the pool (2.09), a lack of swimming aids (2.04), too shallow/deep water (1.91), too many learners in the group (1.77) and the last-ranking dirty water (1.61).

At the end the swimming instructors/teachers/coaches were asked to explain how they choose the method for resolving problems encountered during the pedagogical process (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Demonstration of the frequency of problem-solving methods
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The surveyed professionals most often choose the problem solving methods they became acquainted with during additional trainings such as seminars and courses; these methods were assessed with 3.60. Slightly fewer professionals use methods stemming from their own experience acquired during training sessions in clubs or sport societies (3.27). In third place is knowledge acquired in school and/or at a faculty (3.21). Professionals help themselves the least with the experience they have acquired in their home environment based on behavioural patterns in the family and the examples set by parents. This was assessed with 3.14.

DISCUSSION
Teaching young children to swim requires the use of methodical procedures, good knowledge of different games and the handling of swimming aids as well as a lot of patience, dedication and energy (14). The study established that women prefer to teach the youngest children, especially those who are not yet accustomed to water or are unfamiliar with the swimming techniques, whereas men prefer to teach children who are already accustomed to water and can swim 25 metres or more using one of the swimming techniques.

Emotional learning takes place as long as there is an emotional link with the subject of learning; when the link is broken, children become weary and they turn their attention to other things and no longer accept information. If the games are carefully chosen they will engage the child’s emotions sufficiently (2, 11, 21). The study shows that swimming professionals only occasionally use a didactic movement game in the actual teaching of swimming techniques. This is of great concern because it shows that swimming professionals are not aware that children, even when they are already accustomed to water, are still children whose basic desire, need and right is to play and to enjoy playing. The results show that professionals with lower titles (swimming instructors) and who are female use didactic games in some swimming course activities considerably more than men. Playfulness is the prerequisite for a game and should combine freedom, relaxedness and an absence of fear. We believe that too many instructors/teachers/coaches refuse to rediscover the child within themselves and to descend to the child’s level, or are incapable of doing this. In their analysis of skiing teaching methods for the youngest, Dobida and Videmšek (5) also established that didactic games were much too rarely used in practice and that their use declines with the increasing skiing knowledge of a child.

The use of appropriate didactic tools adds to the quality of the exercise, while also making it more lively (8). The analysis of the results shows that in swimming schools the three most frequently used didactic tools included kickboards, floating noodles and pool dive toys. In fact, these are very commonly used swimming aids and can be used to get a learner accustomed to water and to teach them the basics of the swimming technique. Of all the above mentioned aids, swimming professionals occasionally use pull buoys, swimming hats/floating toys and rings/frames and only rarely mats and slides, whereas swimming balls and swimming belts are almost never used. The abovementioned aids break the monotony of the exercise, enable the learner to gain some independence in the water and provide for diversity in the learning process, and so they are an important motivational tool for learners. It is important that the aids are suitable (made of safe materials), in vivid colours, of the appropriate size etc. (22). Sometimes, the use of didactic tools for teaching non-swimmers was limited solely to a kickboard and balls or, in many cases, there were no tools at all (6, 15). Today, swimming instructors/teachers/coaches have many didactic tools available that enable the transfer of information in the psychomotor cognitive process; they facilitate the demonstration of a specific movement as well as the transfer and acceptance of different pieces of information which influence the final knowledge of the swimming course participant. It is difficult to imagine any sport activity without appropriate tools. An exercise becomes dull and is difficult to implement, especially with the youngest children. Didactic tools should be selected based on the set goals and children’s level of development. The availability of tools most often depends on financial resources; however, with a little resourcefulness one can make tools by themselves or borrow them.

In all sport exercises specific rules and regulations apply that must be followed by those implementing activities and the learners. Also in a pool or a swimming facility one must observe the rules and, most importantly, respect oneself and other people. The purpose of the signs set up around pools and swimming facilities is to inform swimmers about the water depth, prohibitions and types of danger (14). Therefore, we were interested in studying how the swimming instructors/teachers/coaches acquaint children with the rules that must be observed in the swimming pool. The swimming professionals most often only employ the discussion method. Only a few professionals set their own example, use a stimulation game and picture materials even though these are the methods that attract a child’s attention the most.

The surveyed professionals were asked how they impart new swimming contents to children. The demonstration method plays a particularly important role in the implementation of a physical education process for the youngest. It allows children to obtain a clear idea of the movement they are expected to perform. The analysis of the answers to the abovementioned survey questions shows that the professionals are aware of the above, as personal demonstration in the water and personal demonstration on land were ranked first and second, respectively. The professionals often use the explanation and discussion methods. Learning strategies are quite rarely used, namely, comparisons, metaphors and conceptions functioning as cognitive aids in the process of learning new contents and systematically supporting cognitive processes related to knowledge and the acquiring of new knowledge (1, 23). Those who run swimming courses know too little about the learning strategies which help learners achieve the set goals faster and easier. The swimming professionals almost never use picture material and video recordings. Children become more enthusiastic about learning to swim if information communication technology is used; it is easier to motivate them and attract their attention.

As a group consists of children with different behavioural characteristics and peculiarities, many things can happen while teaching them to swim (11). We enquired about the problems instructors/teachers/coaches deal with during the pedagogical process. The surveyed professionals noted that the greatest burden is a child’s fear of water which is a consequence of their negative experience with water. This fear is often unintentionally created by parents and the heads of swimming courses if they incessantly warn children about the dangers of water. As expected, the second place was occupied by poorly developed motor abilities of children which represent a great problem of modern times. Namely, children spend most of their leisure time at home, watching TV or sitting in front of a computer. Fear and poor motor abilities are followed by stubbornness, audacity and disobedience. We established no statistically significant differences in the frequency of dealing with problems related to the child’s personality depending on a swimming professional’s gender. All of the abovementioned problems are a consequence of the fast pace of living since these days parents do not spend enough time with their children. The latter learn many things from TV shows and computer games. The last three places among all problems were taken by a lack of persistence, apathy and aggressiveness. In one of their studies, Štihec, Bežek, Videmšek, and Karpljuk (20) found that physical education teachers often have to cope with a lack of discipline, excessive boisterousness, a failure to follow instructions, unauthorised absences, pupils’ lack of motivation, potentially dangerous situations/activities for pupils etc. during their work which can lead to a conflict situation.

The prerequisite for the high-quality implementation of a swimming course is appropriate working conditions. The swimming facility must meet basic health, safety and pedagogical standards (3). The surveyed professionals were asked how frequently they encounter poor working conditions and they ranked contact with cold water at the top of the problem list. Therefore, it is very important that children do not stand still during the swimming course but perform different motor tasks all the time. The surveyed professionals also reported that excessive noise in the swimming pool and insufficient space for exercise were quite annoying. Only rarely do the professionals deal with a damaged area surrounding the pool, a lack of swimming aids, too shallow/deep water, too many learners in the group and dirty water.

If the swimming instructors/teachers/coaches encounter problems during the pedagogical process they most often choose problem-solving methods they have learned about during additional trainings such as seminars and courses. In second place is the method stemming from their own experience which was acquired during trainings in clubs or sport societies. This is followed by knowledge acquired at school or a faculty, whereas the method the instructors/teachers/coaches use the least is their experience they have acquired in their home environment (examples set by parents and other members of the family).

CONCLUSION
The swimming learning model has been developed in Slovenia for already 50 years. The Slovenian theoretical design and practical implementation have thus approached the models of some of the most developed European countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands (7). In slightly less than a decade, swimming knowledge in Slovenia has improved by almost 20% due to the systematic approach to individual levels of the teaching of swimming, monitoring of an individual’s progress after each level, the intertwining of compulsory and elective school programmes as well as the projects within the National Sport Programme, a number of systemic measures throughout all these years and public co-financing (9).

The quality of the teacher’s expert work primarily depends on their professional qualifications or knowledge, personality, abilities, creativity and authority (8, 24). When teaching the youngest, one should be aware that children are not just a miniature copy of adults but are specific learners with their own needs, requirements and last but not least desires. One has to be familiar with the different paths to the goal that must be adjusted to children. Therefore, when teaching these age categories swimming instructors/teachers/coaches must consider a child’s developmental characteristics, adjust the didactic approaches and include different didactic tools in the process. Finally, it is very important that learning to swim becomes a pleasant and interesting experience for the child, that it awakens positive feelings in them so that they will continue to engage in recreational swimming later in life.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
We have to be aware that a didactic game is a fundamental method of work and approach to working with children, but the study shows that swimming professionals only occasionally use a didactic movement game in the actual teaching of swimming techniques. Therefore didactic motor game is still underused in practice; its use decreasing with the increasing level of child’s swimming skills. Children need and right is to play and to enjoy playing, so swimming teachers should more often use didactic flotation devices.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Authors agree that this research has non-financial conflicts or interest. This includes all monetary reimbursement, salary, stocks or shares in any company.

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