Swim lessons (in my opinion) are a critical part of growing up. Genuine swim lessons cannot begin until a child moves past their fear of putting their face in the water. "Gentle" toddler swim lessons that involve lots of splashing, bubbles and playing are a lot of fun... if you have a lot of time and energy to work with your toddler.
If you want your toddler to move into swimming, they must get over their fear first. There just is no way past this point. If you can begin this process at home, either in a tub or a small child's pool, it can lower the child's anxiety level and allow productive swim lessons to begin.
Please note that I am not a professional swim teacher, but I am a hobby one...... and I love it a lot, lot, lot. It is really rewarding to see the little guy who screamed at you for three days move within a week or so into "one more time Teacher Cindy" off of the diving board. (It usually takes about 3 days for a child to move past their fear if they are not conditioned to putting their face in the water). NOTE: I don't mind the screaming at all - just a part of swim lessons :) :) :)
So..... my list (to be used with adult supervision ONLY):
A child can be considered "ready" for actual instruction when they can get into the pool independently and put their own face into the water upon request by the teacher.
1) A great first step is in the bathtub over the winter or in the days or weeks leading up to swimming. The water is warm, which is a huge plus. Use a watering can, a bucket, a pot - something and dump water over their head in a sitting up position. I give my usual "underwater trigger" of "ready...go - 1-2-3...stop" to help them learn the breathing pattern.
2) Blow bubbles, starting with eyes and nose out of the water and progressing into making all kinds of rude noises by blowing against the bottom of the tub, face fully submerged (we have boys around here and that brings much laughter :)
4) Lay the child on their back in a couple of inches of water. Make sure the water is only to the child's ear. Let them get the feeling of being on their back in the water while fully supported. You can add more water as they get comfortable with this and then support the child with your hands to float on top of the water.
5) Tigger Hops: This is a great safety technique for kids of all ages and it can begin at home. From a standing position have the child squat down then JUMP up as high as they can go with their hands over their heads. This movement is a great motor skill to develop for any sport.
So, that is my list...... be sure to reward their good behavior with something special. We use a "Treasure Box" which is filled this year with Raw Revolution, LaraBars, non-sugar suckers and other treats.