The Swim Professor

Jim Reiser, M.S.

How to Use Flotation Devices in Swim Lessons

For the last three plus decades, we have been experimenting with  learn-to-swim flotation devices,  experimenting with different ways to use them, and most importantly–striving to determine how to most effectively use them in order to help children learn to swim more efficiently.    At Swim Lessons University, we train swimming instructors to use buoyancy devices in a manner that is not only progressive and effective, but it also makes the process of learning to swim safer and more enjoyable.

In today’s blog, I am going to share with you video footage that will demonstrate the WRONG WAY and the RIGHT WAY to use flotation vests, as well as BEFORE AND AFTER FOOTAGE so you can see the evidence.

As you watch this first video clip, notice how the little girl on the left has just enough flotation that she can successfully practice the pop-up breath.  Whereas the young student on the right, Nolan, has too little flotation CAUSING him to go into what I call “survival swimming.”  You could even say he is swimming scared.   If your students are in survival swimming mode, as the instructor, you are basically eliminating their ability to practice the “Pop-up Breath.”   You are also often creating unnecessary anxiety in your student, which not only reduces his chances to improve, but it may also impede the progress all together.   Take a look:

The neat thing about the next video clip is you are going to see Nolan, on the same day, perform the same skill, with two more flotation pads. Notice how the proper amount of buoyancy affords our student with the ability to practice the “pop-up breath” with confidence.  The neat thing about these “progressive flotation vests,” is that you can give your students JUST ENOUGH flotation to be successful.  HOWEVER, SUCCESS is the key.  If your student is struggling, if your student can’t get his breath and immediately return to the face down swimming position then you need to ADD FLOTATION.  Watch the difference:

As your student’s skills improve to the point that the breath is automatic and effortless, then you can remove a buoyancy pad.  As long as the child doesn’t resort to the “survival swimming” mode, you can continue to remove flotation until he/she is swimming independently without it.  The flotation not only increases confidence and a child’s willingness to try, it increases “quality practice time” and promotes “good body positioning and technique.”  Last but not least, it make learning to swim enjoyable, creating a life long love affair of the water vs. fearing it.

Within just a few weeks of the first two clips where you saw Nolan NEEDED the flotation, you will now get to see Nolan performing the Surface Swim with the “Pop-up Breath” without it:

In the earlier videos, the flotation allowed him to practice a skill he could not do otherwise.   Our years of testing clearly demonstrate students don’t get dependent on flotation.  They do get dependent, however, on an instructor, or a parent holding them.  Regarding a false sense of security, no parent or child should EVER have a false sense of security.  Parents and children need to understand that LIFE JACKETS SAVE LIVES!  They are like SEAT BELTS.  No one should be ashamed to wear a life jacket when in or around the water.   Life Jackets just aren’t for boating either.  In our “Water Smart 101” program for children, the rule of thumb we teach is that if you can’t swim the length of the body of water you are in or playing around, and you aren’t within an “arms reach” of an adult, you should wear a life jacket.  Type III or Type V Life Jackets should be worn even in swimming pools when an adult isn’t providing “arms reach” supervision.   “Close and constant supervision” should be maintained during swimming instruction as well while wearing these progressive flotation devices.   Flotation devices equal safer swimming, but multiple layers of swim safety practices should be enforced at all times.

The progressive flotation devices we like are made by SwimWays.  We especially like the SwimWays Power Swimr.   The Sea Squirts Swim Assist, as seen in today’s YouTube video, is also nice but doesn’t have quite as much flotation so shouldn’t be used with a true beginner.  Swim Ways also carries a Sea Squirts Type III Coast Guard approved Life Jacket which is an excellent swimming life vest as it doesn’t ride up on the swimmer like most ski jackets do because of it’s design.  Konfidence-USA also makes a nice progressive flotation device.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame has named Jim Reiser the recipient of the 2015 Virginia Hunt Newman Award for his curriculum and approach in teaching infants, toddlers, and children to swim.  Jim is the first American to win the award in 10 years.

If you would like to learn more about the Swim Lessons University Online Swim Instructor Certification  and curriculum, make sure to visit us at

Swim Lessons University is currently being utilized by recreation departments, YMCAs, America Camp Association swim lessons programs, as well as by private swimming instructors in 45 states and over 30 countries!

You can also call us toll free at 1-866-498-SWIM (7946).

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June 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm Comments (0)

Flotation Devices for Swimming Lessons

Thank you, Coach P.D., from Australia, for your great questions regarding flotation devices for swimming lessons.  You asked about the one we are currently using at Swim Lessons University, the SwimWays Power Swimr, in particular.  Here are your questions, my thoughts, observations, and comments:

Dear Swim Professor:

The reason I write is (1) about the ‘POWER SWIMR’s’ that I’ve seen you use (I’ve watched some your DVD’s).  The training I underwent in Australia doesn’t recommend flotation devices at all because they think kids get dependent on it.  However, I’ve checked out how you use this Power Swimr and it appears to be an excellent tool.

Will you tell me a bit more about it and your experience with it?

Allow me first to say that children have been learning to swim for centuries, so there is more than one way to teach a child to swim. As long as the environment is safe and child-centered, to me, that is what is most important.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.  I just want learning to swim to be a happy enjoyable experience.

With that said, however, personally I seek perfection.  I am always looking for a better way, and there are better and more efficient ways to teach children to swim, in my opinion.  Utilizing a “progressive flotation device,” in particular, is one of those techniques that provide you with an edge.

I have been using this particular device since 1998, and we have had enormous success.   The dependency issue is a bad argument.  My first hand experience, having taught children to swim both with and without floatation devices, is that by using believe a progressive buoyancy device, such as the “Power Swimr” does just the opposite–it encourages “independence.”

On the other hand, when a swimming instructor, or parent, is holding/ physically supporting a child to allow him to move through the water, that promotes dependency more than anything.   In addition, while it is not an approved “life jacket,” it also allows for a “safer environment.”  It only takes seconds for a non-swimmer to find himself submerged underwater.  How would that look in a swimming lesson?

Lastly, because the multiple flotation pads are removable, as the child gets stronger in the water, you can gradually give him less “support/flotation” until he/she is swimming on independently.  It’s a very natural progression, and the device allows for “real practice time” time before the child can swim.  As a swimming instructor, you have now afforded the beginner with invaluable repetition that is just like the “real thing” without him/her being dependent on you.

Practice time is the “mother of learning skills.”   A non-swimmer without flotation, on the other hand, gets very limited practice time, not to mention the practice time without a flotation device would be far from natural because the instructor is supporting them.

What are things I have to keep in mind while using it?

Here are some bullet points of pointers that I train my staff to keep in mind:

  • Give the learner enough buoyancy that he can successfully swim the allocated distance with confidence in a near horizontal position in the water.
  • Once the child’s skills have progressed to the point that swimming that allocated distance is comfortable and fairly easy (say 15-20 feet for 3-5 year old), then remove one (1) buoyancy pad to make it a little more challenging without compromising safety or even technique.

***SIDE NOTE: Another tremendous advantage of the flotation device is the child can learn to swim in a horizontal position from the start, reinforcing good flutter kick fundamentals.   What happens when a child doesn’t have any flotation or not enough?  The learner starts getting diagonal or even vertical encouraging a bicycle kick, thus developing bad flutter/freestyle kick habits.

  • Continue to think “progression.”  When the child masters that swim in a near horizontal position, remove another buoyancy pad.  You may take out 2 or 3 pads in one class and zero for the next three classes, and then 1 pad the following class.  The bottom line is you want the progression to be natural and comfortable for the child, going at the child’s pace with just a little “push” from reducing the buoyancy which also incorporates a form of the progressive overload principle used in strength / weight training.
  • Eventually, at the child’s pace, you will have developed a swimmer, who is now skill ready to learn formal strokes, which leads me to your final question:


Does it keep the kids in a ‘streamline’ swimming position?

If you’re referring simply to a “horizontal position” or “in-line position” as I call it in the Swim Lessons University DVD’s and Lesson Plans, then yes–it certainly encourages and helps children achieve that position much sooner.  I think this is another great advantage of using the device.   Because without it, beginners almost always resort to poor kicking technique, which eliminates that body position, you’re striving for in your swimmers.

Lastly, please review my Youtube videos on floatation devices.  I have taken clips from the various Swim Lessons University DVD’s where we discuss this topic.

Thanks, Coach P.D., for your questions and hope I have helped you and many others in their pursuit of excellence in swimming instruction.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame has named Jim Reiser the recipient of the 2015 Virginia Hunt Newman Award for his curriculum and approach in teaching infants, toddlers, and children to swim.  Jim is the first American to win the award in 10 years.

If you would like to learn more about the Swim Lessons University Online Swim Instructor Certification  and curriculum, make sure to visit us at

Swim Lessons University is currently being utilized by recreation departments, YMCAs, America Camp Association swim lessons programs, as well as by private swimming instructors in 45 states and over 30 countries!

You can also call us toll free at 1-866-498-SWIM (7946).

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December 5, 2010 at 8:32 pm Comments (0)