Many adults and children report that they can’t swim or that they are weak swimmers. Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children and young adults. Every day, about 11 people die from drowning in the United States. More children ages 1–4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects. For children ages 1–14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes.
Swimming lessons can’t prevent all of those deaths, but they can prevent a lot of them. A child doesn’t need to be able to swim butterfly or do flip turns, but the ability to get back to the surface, float, tread water, and swim to where they can stand or grab onto something can save a life.
Children don’t really have the cognitive skills to learn to swim until they are around 4 years old. They need to be able to listen, follow directions, and retain what they’ve learned, and that’s usually around 4 years old, with some kids being ready a little earlier. That said, swim lessons between 1 and 4 years old can be useful. Not only are some kids simply ready earlier, younger children can learn some skills that can be useful if they fall into the water, like getting back to the side of a pool.
What should I look for when choosing swim lessons?
Look for classes and instructors that follow guidelines focused not just on swim stroke techniques, but broader water survival competency skills. All children should learn how to get back to the surface from under water, propel themselves at least 25 yards, and get out of the water, for example. Instructors should evaluate children’s progress and give ongoing feedback on their skill levels.
Look for programs that teach good safety habits in, on, and near water. Children should learn to never swim alone or without adult supervision. Instructors should teach children to always ask for permission from parents, lifeguards, or swimming instructors before they get into a pool or natural bodies of water like a lake.
Require multiple sessions. Once children start lessons, you should be able to see gradual but consistent progress in their abilities over time. Continue lessons at least until your they master basic water competency skills.
Being scared of the water isn’t a reason not to take, or to quit, swimming lessons. It’s common and normal to be afraid of the water, and some children are more afraid than others. While you don’t want to force a child to do something they are terrified of doing, giving up isn’t a good idea either. Start more gradually, with lots of positive reinforcement. The swim teacher should be willing to help.
Enrolling in quality swim lessons―once your child is ready for them―is one of several essential ways to help prevent drowning. Talk with your pediatrician if you have any questions about whether your child is developmentally ready for swim lessons and how to find a quality program for your family.