Freestyle is the first swimming stroke your kids should learn, but it’s not necessarily the easiest to teach. Also known as the “front crawl,” freestyle often resembles a “doggy paddle” initially as kids struggle to execute the stroke’s three components ⏤ arms, legs, and breathing ⏤ at the same time. Technically, it’s the most efficient swimming stroke ⏤ or at least it will be ⏤ but it definitely won’t look that way in the beginning.
A sustainable freestyle stroke is built on a foundation of comfort in the water and basic swimming skills, namely, floating and treading water. It’s important that the child is familiar, if not proficient, with both. That said, if a child can kick their feet and is willing to let go of mom, dad, or the wall, they’re ready to at least try. If they’re a strong floater, all the better ⏤ shooting across the water’s surface should be a relatively simple next step.
But how exactly do you teach a kid to swim freestyle? Here’s our step-by-step guide.
Loading Video Content
Step 1: Kick the Legs
When most parents pop their infant into the pool for the first time, they almost always try to get the child to move their feet. There’s a reason for that: Kicking is a natural place to begin teaching kids to swim. For an efficient freestyle stroke, you’ll want your child to kick with straight legs and pointed toes.
Start by sitting your child on the pool’s highest step. Help them extend their legs into the water while showing them how to point their toes like a ballerina. Now, holding just above their ankles, move their straight legs up and down in a scissor motion. After they see how it’s done, allow them to practice on their own.
If the child can keep their legs fairly straight while sitting down, they’re ready to try on their stomach. Have your kid get in the water and lie face down, with arms extended onto the steps and legs stretched behind them. Make sure the legs are straight and toes pointed, and again, move them up and down in the water by holding just above the ankles. Now let them try on their own. NOTE: If the pool doesn’t have steps, the child should hold onto a ledge or your hands.
Once the child has mastered kicking on the steps, it’s time to practice forward motion. Hold your child’s hands just under the surface of the water, while they lie on their stomach, and have them kick their legs up and down. While stepping backward as they move forward, emphasize the need to limit their knee bend and keep the legs under the water’s surface. The back of their toes may pop out making a bit of white water, but it’s no big deal. Also, most kids will bend their arms and pull themselves closer to you. That’s fine too. Although as they gain more confidence, encourage your swimmer to stretch their arms out like Super(wo)man. Walk around the pool at different speeds while they practice kicking.
The final kicking exercise: Have the child look at the bottom of the pool and blow bubbles as they kick. And similar to when learning to float, have them practice their bubble pattern ⏤ lifting their head up for a breath and returning their eyes to the bottom while they blow more bubbles.
Step 2: Move Those Arms
When it comes to the freestyle arm motion, you want their fingers closed, not sprawled out like they’re going to trace their hand, and their arms to pull water back towards their hips.
Start anywhere in the pool where the child can stand. As they walk around the pool, have them swing their arms in big circles. At this point, they’re just trying to get a feel for pulling water and pushing their arm underwater before lifting it back out into the air.
Once those shoulders are warmed up, have the child lie down on their stomach in the water with their arms extended and hands on a step (similar to learning the front float.) Help them pull one arm underwater to their hip ⏤ instruct boys to reach to their shorts and girls to pull past their swimsuit bottoms. Then lift their straightened arm out of the water and put it back on the step where it started. Move one arm and then the other.
Much like with learning to kick, the next step is to hold the child’s hands out in front of them while their body floats at the surface. Let go of one hand at a time as they practice circling their arm underwater to their hip and then back through the air into your hand. As the child gets comfortable with this motion, encourage them to multitask by kicking while they move their arms.
Next, hold your child’s waist and walk beside them as they move their arms in circles and kick their legs up and down. Both arms should be moving continuously, rather than taking turns as they did when you were holding their hands.
Assuming they’re able to keep their body at the surface and move both arms and legs in unison, it’s time for some solo swimming. Back away from your child and have them jump off the bottom and swim towards you. They can also blast off of a step, or push off the wall ⏤ anything to give them a bit of momentum. Keep practicing and encouraging the child to take progressively more strokes before they need to stop. The biggest reason they’ll need to put their feet down or be picked up will be to breath.
Step 3: Now Breathe
Breathing is the hardest part of swimming any stroke, and prior to this point, most kids will usually stop and stand up when they need air. That’s why lifting their heads to breathe will be a challenge for most kids at first. To help, you’ll want to start by tilting their body upward.
Hold your child around the waist while they swim. Every 3 to 5 strokes say “breathe” and tilt your child so their head lifts out of the water. Let them take a breath before saying “swim” and putting their face back in the water.
Once the child knows how to lift their head, give them some of their independence back. Have them swim towards you but slide a hand under their stomach for support every few strokes as you say “breathe.” Help hold your child at the surface while they take a breath, and then let go when they put their face back in.
Remind your child to keep kicking (or maybe kick even harder) while they breathe in order to keep their head above water. If breathing takes a long time, they may need to take some smaller “dog paddle” strokes while they breathe, to keep their body at the surface.
When they can catch their breath with minimal support, turn them loose. Just pay attention: some kids will lift their heads out of the water but forget to actually inhale. Continue giving verbal reminders to “breathe” and then “keep swimming” after each breath.
After they demonstrate several cycles of swimming, breathing, and returning to swimming, they’re ready to learn to breathe on the side.
In a part of the pool where they can stand, direct the child to put their face in the water and look at the bottom of the pool. From there, they should turn their head to the side so that one eye is submerged while their mouth is out of the water. Have them practice blowing bubbles while looking at the bottom and taking a breath when their head is to the side.
At this point, they should try to breathe while swimming. One good pointer here is to have them rest their ear on the outstretched arm as they breathe. So if their right arm is outstretched, they should breathe to the left. (Their right eye/ear will stay partially submerged.) If they need more air, they can kick while floating on their side with their face rested on their arm. Then turn their eyes back to the bottom of the pool while their arms continue pulling.
Step 4: Practice Patience
Freestyle is not a “learn it in a day” stroke. It’s not even a learn it in a summer stroke. It takes a lot of practice. Some kids will struggle with keeping their legs straight. Some may not get the breathing down. Still others won’t lift their arms above the water. Don’t worry about their mistakes or apply too much pressure. In fact, if they’ve built strong, confident doggy paddle, let them use it ⏤ you can work in some freestyle practice here and there. It’s more important that they feel good about having a way to cruise around the pool, and that they can play and enjoy the water.
Cathleen Pruden is a four-time All-American swimmer at Mount Holyoke College and the Assistant Swim Coach at Bowdoin College. She spent five years as the Head Coach of a summer league swim team for children ages 4- to- 18-year-olds and has taught over 600 private swim lessons to children and adults of all ages.