I think as we’re discussing water safety and drowning prevention, it’s important to focus on safety skills that historically have been associated with life saving techniques and explain if they’re really useful and when to use them. Treading water, for example, is often associated with beginner level safety skills; which in fact, is incorrect.
Treading water is really a safety skill to be used in open water scenarios; lakes or oceans, where the water is too deep to touch and there is no wall or stair to swim to. Of course, we learn to tread water in pools but unless a pool is so vast that you can’t see the sides, if you’re in deep water and are tired or starting to panic, treading is not your best option. Better to float on your back until you feel you have enough energy to swim to the side or simply stay on your back and swim elementary backstroke to the wall or steps.
Treading water is extremely difficult for beginners and is quite tiring. It is not a skill I ever introduce to beginners, especially ones that are not yet comfortable swimming in the deep end. In order to tread successfully, you have to be able to remain relaxed and keep your head above the water while using your legs in a modified breaststroke or egg beater kick and moving your arms in what we call ‘scullying’ back and forth under water. This takes a lot of practice and being comfortable in the deep end and going under water is essential.
Typically I’ll introduce treading to adults after they’ve begun swimming lengths for a few months. If a student can swim freestyle and breaststroke several laps at a time, they are probably in good shape for treading. If they have practiced going underwater in deeper areas and have jumped in from the side of the pool a few times, treading at this point will have a higher success rate.
And by the way, the same rules apply for young children. It is much better to teach a child to back float and swim elementary backstroke than to teach treading water to beginners. Although children who are comfortable in the water can learn to tread fairly quickly, they usually can’t maintain a treading posture for much longer than 30 seconds and they do end up quite tired.
Again, learning to tread water is a crucial safety skill and for older children who attend camps, most will need to pass a swim test that includes treading water for up to a minute. It is definitely a good indication of a child’s abilities and strength if they can do this. But it isn’t the desired safety maneuver for beginner swimmers in the deep end of a pool.