Applying Universal Design To Swim Lessons

By Kristen Clatos Riggins
Photos: Cincinnati Recreation Commission

Group swim-lesson participants are becoming increasingly more diverse—in ability, language, learning type, age, etc. It is becoming the norm rather than the exception of yesteryear. Using the strategies that school-based educators are using to teach academic courses, swim instructors can maximize what is achieved in lesson sessions for all swimmers.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach that combats the primary barrier for many students: inflexible one-size-fits-all curricula. Learners with disabilities are most vulnerable to such barriers, but many students without disabilities also find that curricula are poorly implemented and fail to meet their needs. The Red Cross Learn to Swim Program and other curricula were designed to meet the needs of the broad middle of the “learn-to-swim” participants. This, unfortunately, is sometimes at the exclusion of those with different abilities, learning styles, backgrounds, and even preferences.

UDL helps meet the challenge of diversity by suggesting instructional materials that are flexible, techniques that are individualized, and strategies that empower instructors to meet these needs, as varied as they may be. During the lesson-preparation stage, instructors can plan higher-quality lessons by thinking about ways to incorporate the principles of UDL and implement those in the water. The key to UDL is to provide options—the more options and choices that can be offered to swimmers, the higher the chance that effective learning will occur.

Principle I: Provide Multiple Means Of Representation (The WHAT Of Learning)
Perception, Language-Expressions-Symbols, and Comprehension
Learners differ in the ways they perceive and comprehend information. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, autism spectrum disorders); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); and language, or cultural differences may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information more quickly or efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than through the printed text. Also, learning, and transfer of learning, occurs when multiple representations are used because they allow students to make connections within, as well as between, concepts. In short, there is not one means of representation that will be the optimum for all learners; providing options for representation is essential.

Examples of UDL-based swim-lesson strategies:

Visual schedules with the lesson routine (e.g., sit on the side, warm up, review activity, new skill, practice, game)

  • Picture cards to represent the skill or body position with the written word underneath in various languages

  • Sequence cards that show steps 1 through 3 and then steps 4 through 6 for learners of different speeds; giving the swimmers something to focus on while working with another individual or small group

  • Waterproof iPad or tablet with video demonstrations of the skill being introduced, or as visual feedback so swimmers can critique their performance to show transfer of learning.

Principle II: Provide Multiple Means Of Action And Expression (The HOW Of Learning)
Physical Action, Expression and Communication, and Executive Functioning
Learners differ in the ways they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and others who approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not in speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. Again, this shows there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.

Examples of UDL-based swim-lesson strategies:

  • Having a swimmer explain the parts of the movement/skill before physically demonstrating it

  • Having a swimmer demonstrate the movement on land and then transition to the water

  • Discussing adaptations upon stroke technique for a swimmer with physical disabilities

  • Providing hand-over-hand manipulation and fade to eventual verbal prompts.


Principle III: Provide Multiple Means Of Engagement (The WHY Of Learning)
Recruiting Interest, Sustaining Effort and Persistence, and Self-Regulation
Affect represents a crucial element to learning, and learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated. A variety of sources can influence individual variation in affect, including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge. Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty, while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring stringent routines. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers.

Examples of UDL-based swim lessons strategies:

Allowing for individual practice of higher-level skills towards the wall, or by using a more conducive lesson formation with the instructor in a safe location to monitor all swimmers

Using visual schedules with the lesson routine, but including generic routine wording with a specific activity that can change each week

Using peers to motivate swimmers who are struggling to stay interested or engaged; partner swim and show-swim or swim-and-tell activities

Allowing swimmers to choose (verbally or with pictures) when they are ready to move on in the skill progression or what activity they would like to do next and rotate throughout the group.

Kristen Clatos Riggins, MA, CTRS, ATRIC, is the Therapeutic Recreation Program Coordinator for the Division of Therapeutic Recreation at the LeBlond Recreation Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Reach her at (513) 352-4055, or