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Everything Parents Need to Know About Kids’ Swimming Lessons

From when to sign up to what are 'water safety' skills, college swimming coach Cathleen Pruden answers the most common questions about swimming lessons.

Crawl, walk, run, swim. That’s the order a parent ⏤ whether a proficient lap swimmer or one still deathly afraid of the water ⏤ should think about their child’s physical milestones. Few life skills are as important as the ability to survive in the water. And swimming lessons, from learning how to float, to treading water, to your average pool workout, to clocking a 23-second, 50-meter freestyle and winning the gold medal, is where it all starts.

But knowing when and how to get your kids into swimming lessons isn’t as straightforward as teaching them to walk. Is it worth starting when they’re 9-months old? How often should they take lessons? And when have they taken enough lessons? It’s not uncommon for parents to be overwhelmed by the many options available when it comes to kids’ swimming lessons and to have a lot of questions. And as a college swimming coach and youth instructor, I’ve heard them all. Which is why I’ve put together this list of the 15 most common questions parents ask about swimming lessons, and some helpful pointers on how to get kids on the path to aquatic proficiency.

1. When should my child start swim lessons?

It’s never too early to get your child in the water, although most doctors would suggest you wait until they’re at least a few months old. And while it’s okay to lead the lessons in the beginning if you’re an avid swimmer, consider parent-child swimming lessons if you don’t have pool access or aren’t particularly confident in the water. They are often available for kids as young as 6-months-old. By age four, most kids should be ready for more formal instruction. In fact, preschoolers are learning so much every day that it makes sense to add swimming to their ever-expanding set of physical skills.

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2. How much do swim lessons cost?

The cost of swimming lessons can vary significantly based on where you live and the level of instructors. It is rare to find private lessons for less than $20 per session and they can often cost as much as $40 per lesson. Similarly, group lessons usually start around $15 per session and reach as high as $30. Sometimes signing up an additional child or for more than one lesson at a time can help lower the price.

3. How long does the average swim lesson last?

Most swim lessons take 30 minutes. If a lesson goes much longer, kids usually start to get cold and lose focus. Not only that but if kids are just beginning in the water and the list of skills to practice is short, the lesson will quickly get redundant.

4. Should my child take private or group lessons?

Ask yourself this: Will my child focus in a group or are they going to be the one to prevent the other kids from learning? There are also safety concerns to consider. Because an instructor can’t have their hands on all of the children at once, you need to be confident that your child will actually sit on the side of the pool when asked. For some kids, a group lesson provides the necessary, healthy peer pressure that encourages them to try new things. Others, on the other hand, would prefer to practice with nobody else watching.

Also, consider what you’re hoping to get out of lessons: If you’re looking for a water activity where they’ll spend time with other kids their age, then a group lesson is a good option. If you’re looking for more intensive instruction so they could progress at a quicker pace, private lessons are probably the way to go. Or if your child has a peer at a similar skill level, they may enjoy swimming with their friend. Scheduling a private lesson for them both would help you and the other parent save money.

5. Where can I sign my child up for swim lessons?

It really depends on where you live, but almost every YMCA offers swim lessons ⏤ they’re a great place to start. If you live in a city with a community pool, there’s a good chance it’ll offer lessons during the summer. And private pools often instruction, as well. One place most parents don’t think to look, however, is the local college. Most college swim teams offer lessons for all age groups in the fall and spring, often as a team fundraiser. So if you live near a college campus, you could be in luck. Finally, swim schools like Aqua-Tots, Goldfish, and SwimLabs are increasingly popular and offer year-round options.

6. How long should my child take swim lessons?

The beginning of the summer is the perfect time to give children a lesson or two as a refresher. They’ll likely need a few reminders on how to stay calm, tread water efficiently, or transition between skills and strokes. Even a child who was swimming well at the end of the previous summer can use a check-in when it comes to water safety. An early lesson will help them brush up before they head back into the deep end for another summer of fun. Otherwise, you should keep a child in lessons until they’ve reached whatever goal you set going in, assuming they’re still enjoying themselves and making progress.

7. How frequently should my child take swim lessons?

Consistency is key when it comes to learning to swim. Getting a child in the water regularly (think once a week for several months) is much better than doing one intensive week of lessons followed by not swimming, or an occasional swim now and again. Most programs meet between one and three times per week, for anywhere from three and six weeks. And as one would expect, no matter how significant the progress a kid makes in a given session, the longer the break between lessons, the more likely they are to forget what they learned.

8. What should I do if my child loses interest or stops making progress?

Follow your child’s lead. Swimming is a series of physical skills to be learned, no different than crawling, walking, or writing their name. Some things take more time than others. It’s nearly impossible to force a child to do something in the water ⏤ they can easily become dead weight for their instructor to carry around ⏤ so don’t push it. An excited, engaged child will learn much faster and more painlessly than one who starts to dislike the water. If they begin to lose interest, simply return to playing in the pool and allow them to discover things they want to learn how to do. Same with a child who plateaus in lessons. That’s okay too. Give them time to play and master the skills they’ve already learned before forcing new ones on them.

9. When will my child be ready for a swim team?

Remember that the goal of swim lessons is “water safety,” not training a future Olympian. But, yes, some kids take naturally to the water and you may see a future for your child in the sport. Swim teams ⏤ from city programs to YMCAs to clubs ⏤ vary widely in terms of commitment and level of competition. At the beginning level, most require a child to be able to comfortably freestyle and backstroke the full length of a pool without stopping. Others may also expect at least a solid attempt at breaststroke, as well. Most teams start between ages six and eight.

Summer league swim teams, on the other hand, often expect less in terms of skills and may serve more as glorified swim lessons, teaching your little swimmers what they will eventually need to know to participate on the team. Summer leagues are also often available at an earlier age, with kids as young as 4-years-old participating.

10. How can I encourage my child to be a better swimmer?

Cheer them on! Your kid is learning something new and difficult. Give them encouragement and praise for their successes and their efforts. Some parents use bribes and rewards in life, and while that may work fine with swim lessons, most instructors would agree that the best thing a parent can do is just be a cheerleader.

11. What should I do during my child’s swim lessons?

As tempting as it may be to embrace a half an hour of child-free time and read the news on your phone, pay attention! Watch what the teacher does with your child. Listen to and learn the lingo. The order of the words (and actions) for the game “Chicken-Airplane-Soldier” matters, and helping your little one learn it will improve their swimming. And you can’t help them sing along unless you can recite the refrains correctly. At the same time, stay out of the way. You wouldn’t hover over your child in their classroom, so why would you in the pool? Give them the space to form a relationship with their instructor and learn proper technique without parental interjections.

12. What can I do to help my child learn?

Practice, practice, practice! Don’t hesitate to ask your instructor about the most important skill or two that your child has been working on and/or are struggling with. Then take your child to the pool and let them play. There’s no need to spend your entire time in the water working on skills, but do take 5 or 10 minutes of your hour long pool trip to review the lessons with your child. That consistent exposure is helpful.

13. What constitutes “water safety?”

While there is technically no such thing as being “water safe” (anything could happen to even the most experienced athlete), there are a number of skills a person should have to help significantly reduce the risk of water injury or death. A person should be able to float on their back and their front, tread water, and transition from treading water to floating, and vice versa. They should also be able to make forward progress on both their back and their stomach. Your child should know how to do all of these things, as well as how to raise their hands and call for help both while treading water and while swimming on their back.

Swim tests, which often permit a child to swim in all areas of a pool or use water slides and diving boards, typically require a person to swim 25 yards of freestyle and to tread water for anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute. Even if you consider your child “water safe,” always watch them when they are in and around a pool. Also, no child should ever swim alone. Ever.

14. Should I let my child use water wings?

No! Too much trust is misplaced in water wings. They are not the same as a lifejacket, from a safety perspective. A child can still get caught on their stomach, face down in the pool while wearing water wings. Not only that, but water wings inhibit a child’s ability to learn to swim. They limit a kid’s ability to move their arms, and they provide an unrealistic feeling in the water. While arms are not as heavy as legs, they will still sink easily.

If you are bringing multiple kids to the pool and don’t have anybody else along to hold or keep a child within arm’s reach, then a Puddle Jumper is a good alternative. It is safer than a pair of water wings but still won’t help a little one learn much.

15. What gear will my child need for swim lessons?

At the core of swimming, all you need is a body of water. Before hitting your first lesson, though, you’ll want your child in a comfortable swimsuit. If your little one isn’t fully potty trained yet, the other patrons will also thank you for remembering the swim diapers. Many kids may want to try swimming with goggles, and some will become reliant on them. Other toys from paint brushes to pool noodles to rubber ducks can also be helpful swim learning aids, though none are absolutely necessary.

Cathleen Pruden is a four-time All-American swimmer at Mount Holyoke College and the Assistant Swim Coach at Bowdoin College. She spent five years as the Head Coach of a summer league swim team for children ages 4- to 18-year-olds and has taught over 600 private swim lessons to children and adults of all ages.