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Benefits of adapted aquatics

This is an excerpt from Adapted Physical Education and Sport, Fifth Edition edited by Joseph Winnick.

Swimming and aquatic activities for children with disabilities can foster physical fitness and motor skill development within a physical education program and during recreational pursuits. In the opening scenario, Jack’s parents are within their legal rights to request swimming as part of their son’s IEP because aquatics is listed as a component of physical education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Aquatics instruction for students with disabilities is neither a luxury nor a therapeutic (related) service. Adapted aquatics means modifying the aquatic teaching environment, skills, facilities, equipment, and instructional strategies for people with disabilities. It can include aquatic activities of all types, including instructional and competitive swimming, small-craft boating, water aerobics, and skin diving or scuba diving (AAHPERD-AAALF, 1996).

Physical educators, school administrators, parents, related service personnel, and special education teachers must be educated about the benefits of aquatics and its role in a child’s physical education. The physical and psychosocial benefits of aquatics for students with disabilities are more pronounced and significant than for students without disabilities. Because of the buoyancy afforded by water, many people whose disabilities impair mobility on land can function independently in an aquatic environment without the assistance of braces, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs. Although adapted aquatics does not focus on therapeutic water exercise, warm water facilitates muscle relaxation, joint range of motion (ROM), and improved muscle strength and endurance (Koury, 1996). Swimming strengthens muscles that enhance the postural stability necessary for locomotor and object-control skills. Water supports the body, enabling a person to possibly walk for the first time, thus increasing strength for ambulation on land. Adapted aquatics also enhances breath control and cardiorespiratory fitness. Blowing bubbles, holding one’s breath, and inhalation and exhalation during the rhythmic breathing of swimming strokes improve respiratory function and oral motor control, aiding in speech development (Martin, 1983; see figure 25.1).

Benefits are not limited to the physical realm. Water activities that are carefully planned and implemented to meet individual needs provide an environment that contributes to psychosocial and cognitive development. As a student with a physical disability learns to move through the water without assistance, self-esteem and self-awareness improve. Moreover, the freedom of movement made possible by water boosts morale and provides an incentive to maximize potential in other aspects of rehabilitation (Koury, 1996).

The motivational and therapeutic properties of water provide a stimulating learning environment. Some instructors even reinforce academic learning, successfully integrating cognitive concepts during water games and activities centered on math, spelling, reading, and other concepts. Participants might count laps, dive for submerged plastic letters, or read their workouts from a whiteboard. These types of activities also help participants improve judgment and orientation to the surrounding environment.

General Teaching Suggestions

Each person is unique, and individualization is the key to safe, effective, and relevant programming. Thus, it should never be assumed that all characteristics associated with a disability are endemic to each person with that diagnosis. Generalizations merely present a wide scope of information that might pertain to swimmers with any particular disability. Each swimmer should be taught sufficient safety and swimming skills to become as safe and comfortable as possible during aquatic activities. Choice and presentation of skills should be tailored to meet the needs of each individual (Lepore, Gayle, & Stevens, 2007).

Before instruction begins, the teacher must gather information from written, oral, and observational sources. In addition to reading previous records and interviewing the swimmer and significant others, an aquatic assessment must be conducted to determine present level of functioning. General instructional suggestions include writing long-term goals and short-term performance objectives, task analyzing aquatic skills, determining proper lift and transfer methods, establishing communication signals, and developing holding and positioning techniques to facilitate instruction. Knowledge of typical growth and developmental patterns is helpful in understanding the difference between movements that are developmentally inappropriate and movements that have just not developed yet. For example, doing a bicycle kick is a developmentally appropriate sequence for most children who are learning to swim, but after more experience and decreased fear, this type of kick is inappropriate during freestyle movements.

Teaching basic safety skills first, such as mouth closure, rolling over from front to back, changing directions, recovering from falling into the pool, vertical recovery from front and back positions, and holding onto the pool wall, helps to alleviate fear of more difficult skills. A balanced body position in the water is an important prerequisite for skills. The instructor must experiment with horizontal and vertical rotation and appropriate placement of arms, legs, and head to teach the development of proper buoyancy, balance, and water comfort in relation to the student’s unique physical characteristics. One method of teaching balance and body positions in adapted aquatics is the Halliwick method (Stanat & Lambeck, 2001).

Finally, presenting swimming cues in a concise manner and connected to something that the student already is familiar with strengthens learning. Because swimming takes place in a unique setting, swimmers with disabilities need cues that refer to situations or movements they already know or know how to do. An example is using the phrase, “Move your hands as if you are opening and closing curtains,” to depict the movement of the hands while treading water or sculling.


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