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by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.


Wellness in the Headlines
(Don's Report to the World)

Water Wellness for Aqua Babies -- An Innovative Wellness Program
Monday March 31, 2003


I have often heard that there are many ways to skin a cat, though it seems unimaginable that anyone would care to know any of them. This can't be said about exploring multiple ways to learn about and sustain healthy lifestyles. American society and the rest of the world should look closely at all successful attempts to teach humanistic values and health-enhancing skills consistent with self-management for lifestyle artistry.

How soon can such education begin? Practically at birth, I suppose, though not with lectures or slide shows. For an understanding of a wellness approach for the very, very young (beginning as early as three months), consider the programs offered by the Lifestyle Swim School in Boca Raton, Florida. Here, under the direction of former swim great Rob McKay and his wife Kathy," an "Aqua Babies" program exists that has long been near the top of my list of innovative wellness initiatives. The McKays teach infants (and their parents) wellness-oriented lessons using water acclimatization techniques. I know from personal experience with the McKays that such early education can be quite compelling, grounded in solid philosophy and able to show excellent results.

Aqua Babies is one of many "child-centered" swim offerings created by the McKays. Their initiatives cover a range of swimming safety skills, from "baby friendly" programs to home pool safety issues. However, much more is involved than simply responding to parental desires to have a child "drown-proofed." The McKays are more interested in "worseness-proofing" infants from starting on the road to sickening normalcy, as is the national norm. They simply use water as a tool for teaching wellness to children and their guardians.

The McKays varied water-based programs are designed as an introduction to "a full life of joy, health, exploration, wonder and caring." These innovations have been featured on many national shows, including the Best of the Discovery Channel, CBS This Morning, USA TODAY and even Nippon TV in Japan. Not surprising given the demand for their offerings, the McKays have produced a book (Aqua Babies, published by DK publishing, May 2004) and a video series (Diaper Dolphins.)

The wellness philosophy of the McKays applied to teaching baby-friendly water skills is devoted to the following principles:

  • The first three years are the most impressionable time of life. Introduced properly, swimming can make this period an "uplifting, joyous experience" that will boost the child's chances to evolve into a well adjusted, joyous and healthy, caring person.
  • Parents can benefit as well as the infant by serving as co-teachers in the pool with their child. A group format is used by the McKays to guide babies to relate to the water with ease and confidence. The training begins as early as six months.
  • Their programs promote learning through songs, interactive games and all kinds of group activities as well as colorful toys and varied aquatic apparatus. They appeal to a child's sense of curiosity, wonder and play.
  • Using child-centered water lessons as a way to teach the importance of "do no harm" child rearing. The foundation lessons are about understanding, kindness and patience (never rushing); infant/toddler swimming simply provides a unique opportunity to unlock a child's potential and help him/her to grow healthfully on many levels.
  • Classes are, as you might expect, tailored to the experience and understanding of the children involved, being both age and developmentally appropriate with accommodations for individual differences. According to Rob McKay, "patience, consistency, play, repetition, commitment and positive parenting are the pillars of a successful program."

The McKays pepper their ideas with words like "joy, peace and laughter." They are convinced the "aquatic encounter" must be marked by fluid movements through the water; as well as be refreshing, invigorating and calming. They see water movements as an intuitive art that, in addition to encouraging water safety, helps the child deal with situations in calm and joyous ways. I wish I had been exposed to people like the McKays when I was a tot -- I'd be a better triathlete today! For one thing, they insist that swim lessons were never meant to be grim. Alas, my first swim "coaches" (to use the term loosely) evidently thought swim lessons WERE meant to be grim -- and conducted them accordingly.

In many ways, the McKays are running well baby clinics, serving as athletic Dr. Spock's to communicate basic insights about positive parenting. The lessons on dry land are vastly more consequential to anything that occurs in the water, however admirable all the aqua skills and safety aspects that training surely are. Yes, a life-long love and respect of the water is important, but more so is the lasting appreciation for learning and exploration that are imparted to parent and child. For the McKays and those who experience their training, skills and attitudes learned in the water are paths for the child to his/her full potentials.

Perhaps the best way to fully convey the wellness philosophy of the McKays is to quote their own words concerning child-raising and the importance of a cooperative partnership between parent, child and teacher.

Raising a child will be the most important job a parent will ever have and growing up is never easy. That is why well-informed, intelligent "child raising" choices by parents are necessary in order to provide their offspring a positive start in life. We must remember that while we teach the children to respect the water, we must never lose our respect for the children during the learning process, where our foremost concern must be with the well-being of the child. Teaching a baby to swim is a subtle, long-term process which requires interpersonal sensitivity, altruistic motivation, insight, skill and joy. Patient parents who are able to enjoy the moment and at the same time "stay the course" will rediscover the virtue of water and it's ability to nourish their baby's entire being. For the right people, in the right situation, baby swimming can foster a connectedness to family, community and to the outer world.

For more on how the McKays seek to create a harmonious relationship to gently and playfully guide young "Diaper Dolphins," go to Baby Swimming~The Gentle Journey.

Be well, and always look on the bright side of life.