Many parents wonder why their sensory-seeking child craves the water, calms after being in the water, submerges frequently, splashes excessively, or seems exceptionally drawn to the water. One reason is that the sensations their body receives in the water are significantly increased over what they receive sitting in the plain old air. There are several properties of the water that contribute to the increased sensory input… viscosity, surface tension, hydrostatic pressure, and others.
Think about what it feels like to wave your arms through the air. Now think about what it feels like to wave your body through the water. The increased sensation is because the “thickness” or viscosity of water is much greater than the air. The skin is the largest organ in the body and all of the receptors in your child’s skin are communicating this extra sensory input to their brain when they are moving through the water.
Surface tension also increases sensory input to your child’s brain. Every time your child’s arms, legs, head, or trunk move in and out of the water, they must break the surface tension. Water is unique in the way the molecules stick together, increasing the difficulty of separating them… aka breaking the surface tension. Splashing, jumping, submerging, kicking, and other similar movements all increase sensory input to the brain, helping to satisfy the increased sensory needs of many kids.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, is hydrostatic pressure. The pressure of the water pushing in on every skin cell of your child’s body acts like a huge hug, causing the release of dopamine in your child’s brain. This is a feel good neurotransmitter that calms and counteracts adrenaline and other fight or flight feelings. The hydrostatic pressure often feels SO good, that children will submerge and/or move upside down in the water to increase the sensation as much as possible. Often, simply standing in neck deep water can release enough dopamine to calm a disorganized, upset child.
At TheraSWIM, we strive to use all of the properties of water to maximize your child’s experience and ability to learn swimming and water safety skills. No two children are exactly the same, but all children can benefit from customized swimming instruction that satisfies their specific sensory needs.
*Many of these thoughts were inspired by specific interactions with patients and students, as well as the SWIM ANGELFISH Methodology Certification course by http://www.swimangelish.com.