Hillary Joseph can’t remember not being able to swim. When your backyard is a lake, as it was for Joseph and her two sisters growing up in northern Wisconsin, and when your grandparents live on Captiva Island, Fla., with a pool, you have to learn. “While we didn’t have formal lessons, our parents gave us specific goals, such as swimming about 100 yards without stopping to and from an offshore raft,” she recalls.
Though Joseph and her husband, Bryon Thornburgh, now call landlocked Denver home, both their daughter, Sierra, 6, and 4-year-old son, Declan, were enrolled in swimming lessons before they were out of diapers. “Swimming is an essential life skill,” Joseph says.
Her maternal caution is warranted. Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death in U.S. children ages 1 to 4, and the third-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in kids ages 5 to 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In its newest water safety guidelines, the AAP recommend children start swimming lessons around age 1 to help decrease risks of drowning. This is the first time the AAP has suggested children begin learning water safety skills at such a young age.
“Research has found that swim lessons are beneficial for children starting around age 1,” Linda Quan, a co-author of the policy statement, said in a AAP news release.
“Formal lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent,” says Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming, whose goal is to have every child learn to swim.
“We have found a child can start at 6 months or when they are able to hold their head upright,” says Lindsay Mondick, senior manager of aquatics for the YMCA of the USA, Other factors to consider include health status, emotional maturity, and physical and cognitive limitations.
“Think of group swim lessons [as] the same as having your kid wear a bike helmet,” says Gina Bewersdorf, who owns three Goldfish Swim Schools in Northern Virginia. The private swimming facilities accept children as young as 4 months old. “Our goal is to get them into the water, so they aren’t fearful. Parents even take infants underwater when the child is comfortable doing so,” says the mother of two, whose daughter started lessons at 6 months old.
At such a young age, kids shouldn’t be expected to do the backstroke, but they can blow bubbles, kick and eventually learn to roll over and float on their back, all building blocks to future aquatic skills.
Not every program is right for every child. You may need to dive deep into the specifics to find swim lessons that meet your needs. Start at the USA Swimming Foundation website. Its Make A Splash program has the largest network of swimming instructors in the United States, with more than 1,000 vetted partners, including Ys, recreation centers and private swim schools. Go to USAswimmingfoundation.org and type in your Zip code or city/state under “Find Swim Lessons.”
Pools differ, so you’ll want to visit one or more facilities before enrolling your child. Get a feel for the place, see the pool(s) and meet the staff. Consider whether you want an indoor or outdoor pool; one with both a shallow and deep end; one that dedicates only a portion of its space to swim lessons, has multiple lessons or other activities occurring simultaneously, or is designed specifically for lessons. Check the water temperature, which may be set from 77 to 82 degrees.
Ask about the ratio of children to instructors; Hesse says the standard is no more than 6 to 1. How long are the lessons? At minimum, children should be in the water for 30 minutes per class, with six to eight lessons per session. Make sure the instructors are certified by a reputable organization such as the American Red Cross, YMCA or Ellis & Associates, an aquatic safety firm. Are certified lifeguards on duty during lessons to provide extra protection? Is the pool insured? That’s one more indication it’s a professional facility.
One of Joseph’s more practical criteria: A separate changing room for families with toilet and shower, where she could change her son and daughter together before and after lessons (especially important during a Colorado winter).
Though every child develops at their own rate, just like walking, talking or potty training, they are typically ready for more skills-based swim lessons sometime between ages 3 and 5. At that point, the goal is self-rescue should they unexpectedly fall in the water. Key skills include the ability to enter the water, surface, turn around, propel oneself for at least 25 yards, float or tread water, and get out safely.
Here are more tips to ensure your tadpole stays safe while learning to swim and beyond.
Leave it to the pros. Unless you are Michael Phelps, it’s best to have certified instructors teach your child to swim. This ensures consistency, repetition and a step-by-step curriculum. Group lessons provide kids a positive experience; not only do they receive reinforcement from their classmates, but they learn skills by watching others. Between classes, you can also help your child practice what they have learned.
Expect to get wet. Until a child is about 3 years old, swim lessons are going to be parent-facilitated. You don’t have to demo the breaststroke or even know how to dog paddle, but you will be standing in water up to your waist or higher. “Every minute you can get in the water helps build bonds between parent and child and also helps educate you about water safety,” Mondick says.
Don’t let cost deter you. If the price of swim lessons is a barrier, ask facilities about scholarships or financial assistance. According to Hesse, more than 1.3 million free and reduced-fee swim lessons were reported by USA Swimming Foundation network partners in 2018. Many facilities offer free lessons throughout the year, especially during slower months. Bewersdorf says private schools such as Goldfish hold fundraisers so children from all economic backgrounds can participate.
Follow the arm’s-length rule. Swim lessons do not drown-proof a child. Parents must be hyper-aware and closely supervise kids when in and around water, Hesse advises. An adult with swim skills should be within an arm’s length of any child who cannot swim. And if you are the designated “water watcher” for any child, regardless of their swimming ability, don’t be distracted by texting, reading a juicy novel, socializing or drinking alcohol.
Skip the floaties. Air-filled swimming aids (such as “water wings”) can give kids a false sense of security, and they may not realize they can’t float or swim on their own.
Safety-proof your space. Children are drawn to water. Install barriers such as locks, fences and gates to prevent unanticipated, unsupervised access to swimming pools, hot tubs, spas, bathtubs, natural bodies of water, even standing water such as backyard water features, buckets and toilets. Be vigilant about checking for water hazards at new locations.
Lay down the law. Set expectations and rules for kids, and strictly enforce them. “Teaching children not to go into the water without an adult nearby is the most important skill you can pass on,” Hesse says.
If USA Swimming Foundation has its way, every child will learn not only to swim but to be comfortable and have fun in the water. That’s just fine with Joseph, whose children are back in lessons this summer. “I’d like Sierra and Declan to become strong swimmers — not just capable of keeping their head above water, so they can eventually snorkel, scuba, swim in the ocean and embrace our family’s love of water.”