The Best Age to Start Swimming Lessons: Advice from a Veteran Teacher, Mom and Grandma


Swim Blog picI am often asked, “What is the best age for my child to start swim lessons?”  Typically, my answer is, “Not two,” as two year olds can be very uncooperative at times, but in reality the answer is very complex.  There are many factors to consider when determining when to enroll your child in formal lessons, but the most important thing is that your child does learn to swim.  According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) 10 people die of unintentional drowning per day.  The largest risk group is children ages 1 to 4.  Drowning is responsible for more deaths in this age group than any other cause except birth defects.  There are many factors that influence drowning risks, but one of the top factors is lack of swimming ability.  In fact, recent research has shown that formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning not only for older children and adults, but also for this high risk group of children between the ages of 1 and 4.

While it seems to make sense to provide lessons for your child as soon as possible formal swim programs vary on the age at which they provide lessons for young children.  Most programs do not recommend formal lessons for children under 6 months of age, and even at this age skills learned will be limited due to limited developmental ability.  Of course if you are going to invest time and money into a formal swim class you will want to see your child make progress toward becoming an independent swimmer.  There are four main factors that determine how quickly children learn to swim independently; developmental level, natural ability, instruction (formal and informal) and opportunity to practice.  With these facts in mind, let’s look at some common considerations to think of as you consider the best timetable for your child.

What to consider:

  • Exposure to Water Environments-

In some areas water activities are common and plentiful and in others they are not.  In terms of safely, if you live in an area where your child has easy access to water, the younger you start lessons the better.  While there are swim schools that promise to “water proof” your child it is important to remember that no child is truly water safe.  I like the term, “water predictable” better.  When your child is water predictable you know how he or she will typically react in aquatic environments.  While no child, especially a very young child, should be left unattended around water, a child who has learned basic rules and skills and knows how to behave in water environments will typically behave in a more predictable manner.  Not only will the child know and understand what he or she can safely do to save him or herself, but parents, having seen their child in aquatic situations, will know how the child is likely to behave.  This can buy you the seconds or minutes needed to save your child if necessary.

Not only is the availability of water important in safety considerations, it is also important to consider in light of practice time.  One of the most important factors in how quickly children learn to swim is the availability of practice time.  Formal lessons are of little use if the child’s only time in the water is during the lesson.  Swim lessons should happen in conjunction with plenty of supervised water play time when skills can be practiced.

  • Time and Availability of Appropriate Lessons

Swim lessons may be taught by large swim schools, community programs, backyard swim programs as well as schools, day camp programs and preschools.  There are parent and child programs, one on one classes, as well as large group classes.  I will cover the pros and cons of these types of programs below, but the first thing you must determine is what is available in your area.  It is important to consider the goals in the program you are considering to make sure they match your personal goals for your child.  While traditional swim sessions run for about 8 to 10 days with lessons lasting 20 min. to a half hour, more intensive programs can run for many weeks meeting several days a week.  Part of your decision on when and where to enroll your child is if the program meets your schedule.  Children will make the best progress with consistent attendance in the program of your choice.  Choosing a program that fits your schedule well will help alleviate absences.

Typical Features of Various lesson types:

Private Swim School:

  • Main goal is to make a profit, however many are also quite passionate about their particular brand of swim instruction
  • Lessons may be available year round
  • Lesson are likely to be offered many times throughout the day
  • Teachers may have more experience, as this may be their main job, and typically need some sort of certification to teach
  • May be quite expensive
  • Methods may be quite different than other programs with a specific focus, such as “water safe” skills or swim team skill development
  • All ages are typically serviced, and some provide lessons for very young children

Community Programs:

  • Main goal is typically safety and as a service to the community
  • Lessons are typically only available during the summer months
  • Lesson times can be very rigid and limited
  • Teachers may be young and inexperienced, however there may be a few veterans; They will be required to have some sort of certification
  • Usually reasonably priced
  • Methods are usually standardized and developed by large organizations (such as the American Red Cross) teaching well researched skills and with practiced methodologies
  • While some may offer parent and child or preschool classes the focus is typically on courses for school aged children

Backyard Programs:

  • These programs vary from organized groups that facilitate small groupings in neighborhood pools, private instructors who come to your home or individuals who offer lessons in their own or others’ pools; Goals vary based on the group type.
  • Lessons typically only during summer months
  • Lesson times can be quite limited, however may be more flexible and adapted to individual needs.
  • Teacher experience varies greatly, be sure to ask what experience and training the teacher has had
  • Fees vary widely, from free and low cost community sponsored programs, to expensive private lessons

Private or Semi-Private Lessons:

  • Goals in these programs vary; Most useful for adults or older children looking to perfect strokes (Typically, young children and children just learning to swim do much better in a group, where they can see other students in their general age group performing the skills they are working on.)
  • Typically, lesson times are tailored to needs of students
  • Teacher experience varies; Be sure to ask about certifications and experience
  • Quite expensive

Preschool or Day Camp Programs:

  • Main goal of these programs is typically to provide lessons for children who may not otherwise have access to swim lessons because they attend all day preschool or day camp programs
  • Lessons typically take place during the regular school or day camp hours
  • Lesson can be offered in large classes, small groups or in private or semi-private groups
  • Teacher experience varies
  • May be part of the preschool or camp fees, or may be an extra fee
  • No standardized methods, however many states require teachers to hold a water safety certificate issued by a authorizing agency, such as the American Red Cross, with standardized procedures

Another factor to consider when looking at swim programs is practice time.  Does the facility offer time for children to practice?  Is there an open swim time?  Can they stay in the water after their lesson, or do they have to get out immediately after?  Remember, a key to how quickly children learn to swim independently is practice time.  If children have an opportunity to practice their skills in the same location as they receive instruction this is a real plus.

  • Child’s Skills and Temperament

While every child can and should learn to swim, some children are naturally more adept at an early age.  Some of the hundreds of children I have taught to swim include my 5 children and 10 of my 11 grandchildren (the youngest being too young for formal lessons).  While all have been quite proficient swimmers by about the age of 4 or 5, some reached that level of proficiency at a much earlier age.  While there have been some variations in the availability of practice time, the main difference has been natural ability and temperament.

Some children take to a body of water as if they are part fish.  Holding their breath, moving arms and legs, jumping into the water and navigating entries and exits are quickly mastered and all that is needed is the development of the ability to lift their head to breathe and instruction in formal strokes.  These children are easy and fun to teach to swim.  When these children take lessons as infants or preschoolers they often master in one day what it takes their less adept peers to learn in an entire session.  While it is important to teach these children safety rules and basic skills, sometimes those can be easily taught outside of formal lessons.  The most important thing with this kind of child is for parents to have clear rules about when the child can and cannot jump in and swim and enforce them.  While some of the skills these children possess can help save them, they may also be very brave and jump in to bodies of water unexpectedly.  Even very young children can and should be taught to ask and get permission before jumping in and “swimming” to others.  If you or your child need formal lessons to master these safety skills then do take advantage of this.

Blake Swims still

Click here for an example of a natural swimmer.  This is Blake, my grandson, who at just 2  could easily and naturally swim across the pool.

For other children, however, every individual skill is difficult and laborious.  They are not fond of water in the face, and instead of holding their breath their natural inclination may be to suck up water.  They can move their arms or legs in the water, but don’t ask for both at the same time.  Jumping in is a scary proposition, and all water entries and exits take a while to learn and adjust to.  These children will take much longer to master basic swim skills, and will probably require several sessions of lessons to feel comfortable in the water.  Generally, these fearful children are a lot less likely to jump into a body of water unexpectedly, however a fearful child is more likely to suck up water if accidentally submerged and drown within seconds vs. the minutes that may be afforded with effective breath-holding.  Often, the parent with the brave child is more apt to pursue early swim lessons, however in some ways the fearful child can benefit more.

Another important factor to consider in this area is how well your child adapts to and learns from others.  For very young children parent and child lessons are often available, however once the parent is not involved in the lessons children react differently to a swim teacher.  Generally, the more friendly the child is with the teacher the quicker he or she will learn.  This is why I generally advise that children not start lessons at the age of 2.  While there are exceptions, most 2 year olds are not friendly with new adults and are often not even cooperative with their own parents.  For this reason, most children do better starting at a younger age or starting when they are a bit older.

  • Parent Goals and Desire for Child

So, what are your goals for your child?  Are you looking for the next big Olympic medalist?  Is safety your big thing, or do you just want your kids to have a good time?  You will want to make sure that your goals match the type of lessons that you choose.  As you look for available resources keep this in mind; look for lessons that match what you believe is important.  Don’t be afraid to share your goals with the school or teacher.  It will help them to tailor what they teach to your child.  And, if the direction the lessons you chose ends up not fitting your needs, feel free to choose another program.  The most important thing is that you do teach your child to swim!

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