About half of Americans can’t swim well enough to save themselves. That’s scary, since many of those non-swimmers are also parents whose kids are getting into the water. Considering that accidental drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of 14, it’s critical that kids learn how to swim at an early age. It doesn’t matter if they’ll ever join a swim team, work as a lifeguard, or clock a 48-second 100m freestyle, learning to swim is an essential life skill. And it all begins with the basics: exposure, learning fundamental skills, and plenty of play.
That said, short of being a Michael Phelps-level trained swim instructor, there’s only so much you can do as a parent to teach your child (especially an infant) to swim. You can encourage water exploration in the bathtub. You can carry them around the pool to practice kicking. You can splash in the shallow end to show them that water is fun. Eventually, however, they’ll need official swim lessons, probably over the course of several summers. Here is everything you need to know about when (and how) to sign your kids up.
How Young Is Too Young?
It’s never too early to get your child in the pool, just understand that they won’t learn to swim at first ⏤ especially if they aren’t even old enough to remember it. While it’s perfectly okay to acclimate infants as young as 6- to 9-months-old to the water, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends starting kids at age one. Studies have shown that there are myriad benefits to bringing infants into the pool, including helping their balance and coordination, building muscle, and improving their sleeping. Although remember, infants under the age of one shouldn’t stay in the water for more than thirty minutes and even less if they’re cold.
Most kids aren’t ready for “formal” instruction, however, until they’re able to follow some basic directions. Four is a great age, although many kids are ready to make some progress at age three.
Start With Parent-Child Lessons
For the most part, parent-child classes are like bath time, just in a larger tub of water. Many people take them to the local YMCA, and they won’t include anything you couldn’t do on your own in any pool. But if signing up for a class is the only way you’ll have access to water, it’s worth it. Classes generally run 30 minutes each and last 3-4 weeks. For infants, they mostly involve zooming your baby around the shallow end, holding them on their backs in the water, and sprinkling water on their heads. For toddlers, expect to sing songs and play games, learn to kick, jump in from the pool deck, and swim after toys. Naturally, the parent will be holding the child the entire time, and again, the goal is less about formal instruction and more about water acclimation. So don’t expect them to start swimming like Katie Ledecky right out of the gate ⏤ just work on getting them more relaxed. Also, don’t forget the swim diapers.
Taking The Plunge
By age four, your child should be ready for more advanced lessons without you in the water. So buy a book and find a comfortable spot on the pool deck. Basic swim lessons for pre-schoolers usually start with blowing bubbles, floating, and kicking, before walking kids through pulling with their arms and jumping in on their own. Trained instructors often work with several kids and practice using kickboards, swimming with noodles, and treading water. By the end, they may not be swimming but should at least be familiar with swimming on their front and their back, and going underwater.
Most lessons are 30 minutes long ⏤ just long enough that they start to get tired, but not so long that they lose interest and get cold. Costs can vary greatly, depending on the area, the pool, and group or private lessons. Generally, private one-on-one lessons for school-aged children run between $20 and $40 for a half hour.
How Long Should a Kid Take Lessons?
Technically, there never needs to be an end to swim lessons ⏤ more training never hurts ⏤ but pockets are only so deep. The ultimate goal is water safety. At a minimum, children should be able to float on their back (a position in which they’ll be able to call for help), swim 25 yards (though when stuck in the middle of an average sized pool, they’ll never be more than 12.5 yards from a wall), and tread water for a minute. Children should be able to jump in (to emulate the instance in which they fall in) and get back out of the pool. If they can do all that, they should be okay. Although a few lessons at the start of the summer can be a great refresher for kids of any age. Remember, the less time you spend at a pool or near water every year, the more valuable lessons are.
No Matter What, Don’t Forget Play!
Lessons are great to formally teach skills: how to float, how to tread water, how to dominate their friends in the 200-meter individual medley. They’re important to allay fears and build confidence. But children can also learn a lot by just playing in the water. When your kid spends time in the pool with their friends (and significant parent supervision), they’ll make even more progress. They’ll mimic other kids, unknowingly practice skills they learned in their lessons, and inevitably trying new things. A child who refuses to put their face in may get splashed, only to realize it isn’t that bad. Another little one gets so caught up in play that their feet slip, but they stand back up, learning by doing. Preschools around the country are modeled on play-based learning. Why should swimming be any different?
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.