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The Benefits of Fun and Games

When you sign up your child for swim lessons or attend a swim lesson of your own, you may expect to continually be swimming and working on your strokes. It is easy to get upset when you see your child playing around with a ball under the water or bouncing across the pool on their tip toes. You paid for them to learn to swim! When it comes to occupational therapy, let me reassure you that what may seem like fun and games is extremely beneficial for your child.

This is a picture of my friend and me waiting for practice with my sister behind us. As you can see, we are pretty excited, because we were at our favorite weekday practice. Friday practice! Every Friday in the summer, we would end our practice with games. Oh, how we lived for these days! Our coach would play Fruit Basket Upset in the deep end, where she would throw in a handful of plastic Easter eggs and let them sink.

We would all line the edges of a square shaped diving well sloped on one edge and 12 feet deep. We would eagerly wait for her to call out strawberries (pink eggs), bananas (yellow eggs), grapes (purple eggs), etc., or fruit basket upset where we would grab all the egg colors. As soon as we dove down and got the eggs, we would swim back to the edge and see who had the most for that round. Although it may have only taken us a few minutes, or even seconds to complete the task, the inherent learning was tremendous.

Play and Learn

This game was so great because it worked on many different skills. For example, breath control. If you wanted to get many eggs, you needed to learn to relax and control your breath. As your breath control progressed, you ran out of room to hold onto the eggs and began to store the eggs in your suit, which added to the silliness as we hopped out of the pool with lumps and bumps all over. In addition, you had to learn to “feel the water.” It is important to be able to feel how your hands move against the water to find the most powerful and efficient movements to get to the bottom. Or, learning to maneuver on the bottom to quickly turn from one egg to the other. Overall, this game helped you to be aware of your body in the water.

The skills learned in this game transferred easily to the lap swimming. Better breath control allowed you to recognize when you needed to adjust how you were breathing. Whether you needed to optimize your oxygen intake or to relax to maximize your oxygen usage. Being aware of how your body kinesthetically works with the water is vital to swimming. The slightest adjustment to a hand position can allow a kid to “catch” the water and thus propel forward, or for higher levels increase their “catch” and thus the power of each pull. The next time you see your kid diving down for a ball or bouncing on their tips toes, relax and remember that the little-hidden things can make a big difference for success.

Therapeutic Play

Now, for those of you that have been in the swimming world for a while you may be thinking, “Okay, this is basic stuff, where does OT fit into the picture?” Remember how I said that the deep end used for the Fruit Basket Upset games was sloped on one side? Hills/slopes have a grade to them. You will see roads signs for trucks notifying them to make incremental adjustments to be able drive and reach the top or bottom successfully. The same is true when structuring tasks. The slope allowed for the game to be adjusted so that, while challenging, each kid could start at a level where they were able to complete the task and then progress to the bottom of the pool as their skills improved.

Occupational therapists structure therapy in a way that is focused on “the just right challenge.” We want the task to push the individual to learn, build strength, increase activity tolerance, and quicken speed and accuracy. This is hard to do if clients, or swimmers, are given a task that is too advanced for them at the moment. If a task is too challenging, it discourages the individual because he or she feel as if they are failing with no means of mastery. Instead, be sure to structure a task that motivates the individual to continue to be able to progress successfully.

Another aspect of the game showcasing the application of OT is that it was a means to an end. Every task you do has a purpose. Sometimes we prepare to master that task by doing that exact task (end). Other times, we do the task to assist in the completion of a different task (means).

Therapy SwimmingFor example, individuals may have changes to vision and memory after having a stroke. For therapy, we may play cards with the individual. During this task, we can identify playing a card game for the goal of being able to play the client’s favorite game (the card game is the means and the end). In addition, this card game can be the means to working on vision by having them scan through their hand to identify their next move, or it is an opportunity for them to teach us the game, requiring them to recall from memory the rules (the cards are a means to the end of increasing visual scanning and memory recall).

Some may think, “Is that even therapy?” Well, yes it is. When you explain the reasoning behind why you are doing what you do, you can see that the play is not just fun and games. There are a myriad of ways to continue striving for end goals and mastery of skills.

Swimming Therapy

Here is an example to tie it all together from a lesson with a younger child. This child loved swimming in the water, flipping and twisting every second they could. She swim some freestyle arm strokes a short distance (3-5 strokes), I tried to teach her to do ice cream scoop hands to really grab the water. “Scoop as much ice cream as you can.”

This task seemed to be at the just right challenge level, requiring short breaks. Nonetheless, it was tiring and could not be graded up for the child to be successful and continually learning. After a few minutes, the child was tired, ready to move on and just wanted to bounce. This was okay because I did not want to over exert the child so they were not able to complete any more tasks during the session.

In addition, understanding the developmental stages taught at OT school, and realizing how attention to task is different as you age, I agreed to the bouncing so the child would continue to learn and not disengage from the session. From far away, it may have seemed like we were wasting time just bobbing up and down. However, up close you could hear me asking her if she could do ice cream scoops to the side while she bounced.

This gave another opportunity for her to work on proprioception of her body in the water and the awareness of her body movements kinesthetically in the water. As the child processed these sensations, she was also working on muscle memory. Thus, the feeling became natural and felt right.

So when the child went to swim freestyle again, her initial way of scooping no longer felt correct. She could then integrate the feeling of the ice cream scoops from bouncing and translate it to finding the correct hand position when pulling during freestyle strokes. The bouncing with scoops was our means to the end result of using scoops to grab the water in freestyle.

So easy, right? Just remember, whether you are watching from the deck, or in the water yourself, what may seem like fun and games is beneficial, and is indeed worth your money and time.

This concludes your rapid introduction to Occupational Therapy and swimming! If you have any questions, I’d love to talk with you more.

Feel free to contact me via Email. I look forward to hearing from you!

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