Many times I hear parents talk about their child’s ability to swim as though it is like any other childhood milestone, such as riding a bike. It can seem like there is a checklist of skills and experiences parents would like their kids to master by the time they start elementary school. The truth is, knowing how to swim is not any other childhood milestone: it’s a necessary life skill that should be learned as soon as possible.
The rate of childhood drowning is staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a reported 3,391 people died by accidental drowning in the United States in 2013. An estimated one in five people who die from drowning are children under the age of 14. Additionally, for every child who dies from drowning, another five children suffer injuries as the result of non-fatal drowning.
If knowing how to swim is to be on the same timetable of any childhood milestone, it should be linked with walking. “If a child can walk into a pool, he or she should be in swim lessons,” says Starfish Aquatic Institute’s COO and Swim School Specialist, Jennifer White. “A child can begin swim lessons as early as six months and should definitely be enrolled in swim lessons by 3 years old,” says White. There is no reason to wait until your child reaches a certain grade in school before enrolling him in swim lessons.
Prepare Your Child From the BeginningHaving successful swim lessons begins with early exposure to the water, before your child is even enrolled in lessons. Use bath time as an opportunity to acquaint your child with the water. Pour water over your child’s head and face as early as the first bath to get him used to the sensation of water on his face. Also, engage your child in a float position on his back during bath time. “The fear of water only gets worse over time, so it’s very important to get kids used to the water as soon as possible,” explains White.
Choose a Swim Program WiselyMost towns offer more than one learn-to-swim program. If you aren’t familiar with swimming, it can be a daunting task to know which program to choose. Do your homework. First ask around for recommendations for programs in your area. Confirm that the instructor has a nationally recognized certification and a set curriculum for each class. The simple act of knowing how to swim - even being on a swim team - does not mean that someone will be able to effectively teach another person, especially a child, how to swim. Nationally recognized certification implies that an instructor has the necessary tools to teach swimming to your child.
Before enrolling your child in a program, observe a swim lesson to see the style of the lesson and how the instructor interacts with the kids. If you have the opportunity for your child to meet the instructor before enrolling in lessons, do so. “The connection between the child and the instructor directly impacts the performance of that child in swim lessons,” says White. Notice if the instructor engages with your child and how your child responds. Effective instructors are those who will meet your child at his level to positively encourage and instruct your child.
Consider the Setting of the LessonHaving a one-on-one lesson with an instructor is optimal, as it ensures that your child will be engaged in swimming the entire class. However, if a private lesson is not feasible, look for a class with a small child-to-instructor ratio. “If there are too many kids in a lesson,” explains White, “you could pay for a 30 minute lesson, but your child may only receive 5 minutes of actual swim instruction.” Point being, your child is not going to learn to swim by sitting on the side of the pool, watching other kids try new skills. Your child will only learn to swim by engaging in the water. If you do choose a group lesson program, make sure the instructor keeps all students active for the majority of the swim lesson time.
Monitor ProgressHaving your child attend a series of swim lessons is not the end of the swimming journey. Keep track of how your child is doing, and understand that one series of swim lessons is a good start to teaching your child appropriate water safety, but some necessary skills may take more than one season of swim lessons to master. A program with a clear curriculum should give you feedback about your child’s progress. The key to swim lessons is that your child does make progress. “You should be able to see progress at every lesson,” says White.
Beginning swim lessons should teach your child basic life-saving skills: how to jump into the pool, roll over in the water, float, and swim back to the wall. As your child progresses, so should the level of lessons. “At a minimum,” says White, “a child should be in swim lessons until he can swim at least ten yards, rolling on his back to rest and breathe when needed.”
Learning how to swim early in life is much more than accomplishing a milestone. It is an essential safety measure necessary for every child.