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"Swim teams are a great way to help children become better swimmers," says Sue Mackie, executive director of the United States Swim School Association in Fountain Hills, Arizona. It's also a fun way to make friends and build some self-esteem. The trick to a fulfilling and memorable swim-team experience: "Emphasize the fun and don't concentrate on the competition," says Mackie.
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Get Lean with Laps
Swimming's easy on the joints yet it's a full-body workout, exercising arms, legs, and core muscles (hello, flatter stomach), and challenging to your heart, says Meg Mayer, the aquatics program lead at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota: "Start a swimming routine slowly, concentrating on time versus distance. And change strokes every few laps to vary your workout."
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Desizzle with Swim Snacks
Cool off after a hot day in the water with this chilling treat from Sara Westbrook of One Charming Party, a do-it-yourself party planning website: Stack fruit slices on a skewer and pop them in the freezer. "After a few hours serve the fruit kebabs as a tasty and healthy snack," Westbrook says.
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Ease Into the Swim
The ZAC Foundation, dedicated to water safety, in Fairfield, Connecticut, recommends teaching children to swim by age 4. But if your older child hasn't had the opportunity until now, or is reluctant, make sure you ease him or her into the experience, says swim expert Sue Mackie. For younger children, practicing in the bathtub really will help them feel more at ease in the water. "Getting a child comfortable with putting his face in water will help him enjoy water more," Mackie says. For older children, consider getting them a few lessons so that they can work on the basic skills in private before they try a group lesson or pool party with their peers.
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Be Prepared the Savvy Way
You don't need to cart half the medicine cabinet to each poolside or beach outing, says Constance Dunn, author of Practical Glamour. Take one Band-Aid, not 17, a small bottle of sunscreen, a few lightweight towels, a snack that won't melt in the heat, and a short book or magazine. Says Dunn: "It's so much more enjoyable when you're not weighed down."
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The Must-Know Move: Floating
Teach your kids to float. "The first gift I give children is the ability to float on their backs," says Rita Goldberg, owner of the British Swim School based in Sunrise, Florida, and author of I Love to Swim. "This enables all swimmers to rest, breathe, and call for help." Have your kids spend their first minutes in the pool (after the cannonball) floating. Remind them that this simple move can help them regain their energy and is far smarter than flailing around or trying to reach the side of the pool if they're tired.
If your child can't swim or is on a boat, make sure you have child Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices (PFDs), says Andrew Michael Jackson, a Red Cross Certified Water Safety Instructor in Woodside, Queens. PFD approvals are based on a child's weight; check the label to make sure it matches your child's pounds. The best devices are designed to turn a person from a facedown position to an upright, slightly backward one. Of course, never leave a child alone near the pool, even with flotation devices on. "Do not rely on water wings or other inflatable toys to keep your child safe," says Karen Cohn, co-founder of the ZAC Foundation.
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Find That Teachable Moment
"I made up laminated recipe cards with pictures of the fish, snails, and crustaceans in our river," says Judy Young, who, with her 12-year-old daughter, is a competitive swimmer in New Braunfels, Texas. "I put the cards on a ring so when my daughter and her friends are snorkeling, they can identify and learn about what they've seen."
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Dive Into It
As fun as cannonballs are, diving into a pool headfirst is a good skill to have, whether you're on the swim team or need to get to someone or something in the water fast (but no diving in unfamiliar spots or in the shallow end, of course). Competitive swimmer Young, who teaches neighborhood children how to swim, has a novel way to get kids used to diving. She anchors balloons underwater at different depths: "For every balloon the child touches, she gets a star, and after she gets five stars, she gets a prize," Young says. Prizes could be goggles, blow pops, a jar of bubbles, or a water toy. The incentives help most kids take the plunge (for some, nose plugs help too), but whatever you do, "Don't scold or push," says Young. "For some, it takes time."
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That's what Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com and mother of three in Murrieta, California, does with her kids, playing volleyball, badminton, and basketball in the water. You can buy water volleyball and badminton sets and floating basketball hoops with floating basketballs at online pool and swimming sites.
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Avoid Pool Head
Spritz a half-and-half mixture of water and leave-in conditioner (75/25 if you have fine limp hair) with UVA and UVB protection on your hair while you're poolside, suggests Emily Thomas, general manager and lead colorist at Cutler-Gansevoort Salon in Miami Beach: "It seals in moisture your hair loses because of drying salt water and chlorine." Use a clarifying shampoo once a week as well to get rid of chlorine buildup, suggests Meg Mayer at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
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Lighten Up Poolside
Mix 1 cup of dried chamomile flowers with 2 cups hot water, cool and pour in a plastic bottle. While the kids frolic, douse your hair with the tea, a natural hair lightener, says Thomas. Dry your hair in the sun, and you're suddenly brighter.
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Love Your Swimsuit (Really)
Tortured by the thought of wearing your swimsuit in public? Spring for less fabric on the panty part of the suit, suggests Ingrid Carney, founder of maternity line Ingrid & Isabel in San Francisco: "Less makes you look smaller and keeps you from 'cupping' at the bum." She likes skirted bottoms too: Pull higher to cover love handles, lower to cover more bum and hips. Opt for slimming dark colors, says shopping expert Jennifer Romolini, editor in chief of Yahoo! Shine: "And pick a one-piece with structure through the middle—ruching [gathers] is key here."
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Lather on Sunscreen
The best sunscreens provide UVA and UVB sunburn protection with physical blockers such as zinc or titanium, says Vincent Afsahi, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Use 30 SPF or above, apply 15 minutes before being in sunlight, and reapply after swimming or every two hours.
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Protect the Peepers
"Sunglasses are just as important as sunscreen," says child safety expert Debra Holtzman, M.A., author of The Safe Baby. "Children are more susceptible to UV exposure than adults because the lens in their eyes is clearer. Don't buy toy sunglasses."
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Whip Up a Water Workout
"Water is 12 times more resistant than air, so simple exercises like side leg lifts at the wall become more challenging," says Mayer. Want to make your water workout even harder? Use equipment like hand buoys, water paddles, or noodles to increase the resistance. Or use your kid as an exercise toy, suggests Erica Meyer, aquatics director at the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa in Houston: "Standing in waist-deep water, hold your child facing you with your arms long. Squat and stabilize your lower body. Twist to one side and then to the other, swishing your child—a great core strengthener."
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Hike the Fun with Photos
Whether you're splashing in the pool or taking your first snorkeling trip, having an underwater camera to document it all can hike the fun. (The camera may even be an incentive for that kid who is reluctant to put his head under the water.) In addition to still cameras, there are now inexpensive underwater camcorders. Toshiba and Samsung both offer easy-to-use waterproof models for under $160.
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Check Out Pool Drains
The Pool and Safety Act of 2008 requires all pools and spas to have anti-entrapment drain covers so that drain suction can't trap a swimmer, says Mayer. Recently, some drain covers have been recalled because of a hazard they present. Check yours to be super safe.