Teaching Kids to Snorkel

by Jennifer King

When and where should I begin teaching my kids?

Start early. Buy a mask and snorkel when your kids are two or three years old, and let them play with the equipment whenever you go swimming. They'll be experts by the time you go on your first resort trip.

Remember the key to every instructional endeavor with children: Make it fun. Don't get hung up on details. If your child wants to use the mask or snorkel alone or wants to carry the snorkel instead of mounting it on her mask, that's fine.

Take your turn first. Try each technique before teaching it to your child, especially if you're a diver rather than a snorkeler. Many divers have not been taught to snorkel or haven't done it in a long while. Parents should practice the pike dive and snorkel clearing techniques before teaching them to their children.

How do I introduce the mask?

Step 1: Clean the mask following the manufacturer's directions (usually with a mild abrasive like toothpaste) and rub in a good defogger--one look at someone spitting into a mask and your kid may opt for a more hygienic sport.

Step 2: While your child is standing on the pool's steps or in shallow water, position the mask over his face, ensuring that his eyes and nose are not pinched. Pull the strap over his head and, if necessary, adjust for proper tightness--enough to hold it in place, but no more. Remember: proper fit provides a good seal, not tightness. A too-tight mask can turn kids off faster than spit.

Step 3: Playtime! Show them some fun things under water--people's hairy legs, toys or coins you've put on the bottom. In the ocean, look for small fish, rocks, shells, possibly "pirate treasure" you've hidden. Nonswimming children can be towed on a boogie board or given a SASY unit that provides buoyancy without immobilizing or constricting their arms as do life jackets and arm floats.

How do I teach mask clearing?

For younger kids, demonstrate the "lift and dump" technique. Standing in the shallow end, bend over and fill your mask with water. After a warning about inhaling through the nose, simply lift the mask's bottom and drain.

Older kids can be taught to purge their mask using two hands on the top of the mask and exhaling though their nose. They will be quite proud of this accomplishment and can even practice it under water by kneeling on the bottom in the shallow end.

What about the snorkel?

Smaller children may be quite content with just the mask, and that's fine. Older children will appreciate the heads-down benefit of the snorkel, although be prepared for those who insist on holding it rather than attaching it to the mask. Whatever works for them.

As with the mask, begin in shallow water, first breathing on the snorkel while standing up, then with face in the water. Once she's comfortable with the snorkel, let her swim around with it and, if possible, convince her to let you attach it to her mask.

What are the best snorkel clearing techniques for children?

Once your child is comfortable breathing with a snorkel, it's time for some clearing techniques. Again, the easiest one is the "lift and dump"--taking the mouthpiece out and turning it down to drain.

The next step is to show kids how to blow water gently out the purge valve. Then comes the fun part--the blast method. Kids have a great time spraying each other with blasts, a fun way to gain proficiency.

Older kids who are performing breathhold dives can be taught the displacement method--exhaling a small bubble on ascent that expands and clears the snorkel of most water. With this method, children should also be taught to use their tongue as a splash guard for the first breath.

Do kids need fins?

Younger children may not want to bother with fins. That's fine, as they can have plenty of fun and mobility without them. Older kids will quickly become fin aficionados once they realize the ease and speed of movement that fins allow.

Start by showing your child how to don fins using the "figure four"--one leg crossed over the opposite knee--both standing and seated.

Using your arms, demonstrate the proper form for the flutter kick: keeping the legs straight as possible while you kick from the hips.

Then hold your child under the abdomen in shallow water while practicing the kick. Try to correct problems like bicycling or too much knee bending, but don't be overly concerned about form.

Once he enjoys his fins, show him variations--the back flutter kick and the scissors kick--so that he learns to work different muscle groups in case of fatigue.

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