What age should a child start swimming lessons?

One of the most common questions I am asked by first time parents is “when should I start swimming lessons for our new baby?”. This is a great question as learning to swim is such an important skill for all children in Australia given our aquatic environment, and swimming lessons for children are integral part of any child becoming a competent swimmer. Remember that your child is classified as a ‘competent swimmer’ when they can comfortably swim 400m.

While not applicable for all children, my preferred starting point [and the one I used for my own 3 children] is to begin lessons from around 6 months of age. It is important to note as well that prior to this time I recommend that from the early weeks of life parents develop and foster a love and enjoyment of water and the aquatic environment through the regular bathing process and making bath time a fun and happy experience for the child.

Simple steps, including pre-conditioning – pouring water over a child’s face at bath time and using verbal triggers –  teach children early breath control and prepare them for submersions when they do commence formal lessons.   It may seem like a little thing, but in my experience it can make a big difference when kids finally enter the pool for the first time.

Whilst many parents choose not to begin their child’s swimming lessons until a later age, children who commence swimming when they are under 10 months of age are rarely unhappy in the water and they do not develop the fear or anxiety about swimming that some older children struggle with.

In addition, a four-year project, Early-Years Swimming: Adding Capital to Young Australians, led by Griffith University has concluded that children who swim show more advanced physical and cognitive skills than those who don’t. They show better visual-motor abilities, such as drawing lines and colouring in shapes. They also excel in following instructions, language, counting and solving mathematical problems. Indirectly, it could help them become better performers once they’re at school.

There are a lot of good reasons why it is a great idea to start this early. However, starting this young is not for everybody or may not be practical, so I will also detail some of the pro’s and con’s of starting later as well.

Commencing lessons at 3-10 months

Pros:

  • Children have come from an aquatic environment in their mother’s womb and they are happy and relaxed in the water
  • Children learn aquatic independence and the foundation skills for later independent swimming
  • Early water safety and awareness skills are developed
  • Swimming lessons are a great bonding activity for parents and babies
  • Better physical and cognitive skill development than their non-swimming counterpart
  • Unlikely to develop a fear of water if they continue regular swimming
  • Usually first formal activity or class for baby (and parent), excellent for socialising and play

Cons

  • If children have any serious illnesses parents may not want to take them into a public aquatic facility
  • Progress in lessons will not be as fast as for older children

Commencing lessons from 10-24 months

Pros:

  • If kids have spent time in the water with their parents/ family they will usually transition into the water without any fear
  • Between 10-24 months toddlers like to develop independence (in activities and making decisions) and we can build their water awareness/ aquatic education and mobility skills.
  • Children develop good mobility, in and out of the water at this age and this mobility can be translated from the land to the water
  • Water safety and awareness is critically important for this curious age
  • Swimming lessons are a fun activity and great form of exercise
  • Development of foundation skills to learn to swim independently
  • Other pros as listed above

Cons

  • As children develop independence and imagination some children will develop a fear of swimming or going under water
  • Some children in 10-24 age group will not want to follow instructions in a formal lesson setting (although most good swim schools will have a fun, play based programme to counteract this).

24-36 months

Pros

  • As children are stronger they can develop a greater level of aquatic independence and a strong swimmer will learn to swim unaided at this age (of course only under adult supervision – no more than arms’ reach away)
  • Many children learn to follow instructions from their teacher in this period

Cons

  • If children have an irrational fear of the water lessons can be unproductive or counterproductive
  • Some children will not want to co-operate or follow instructions which can be critical to safety in classes

36-48 months

Pros

  • As children are stronger they can develop a greater level of aquatic independence and many children will learn to swim unaided at this age (of course only under adult supervision – no more than arms’ reach away)
  • Many children learn to follow instructions from their teacher in this period

Cons

  • If children haven’t spent time in the water at an earlier age it can take some time to learn to be comfortable in the water.  This comfort is essential to developing swimming skills.

4 years +

Pros

  • Children are able to aquire skills more quickly as they are more co-ordinated and physically capable

Cons

  • Waiting until 4 year of age will potentially give rise to the possibility of exposing your child to aquatic danger which they are not equipped to deal with, in the absence of prior swimming lessons (ie if they haven’t had swimming lessons, they may find themselves exposed to aquatic dangers before 4 years of age).
  • Children are less comfortable in the water and their movements are less natural than children who have spent time in the pool at a younger age
  • Children who don’t learn to swim until 4 years + are likely to be behind their peers in swimming skills in Australia.  This can also limit their opportunities for aquatic play/ fun with their friends.

For children under the age of 5, it makes a huge difference if they swim regularly  – children who swim with their parents between lessons make substantially faster progress than those who swim only during their lesson each week.  And for under 5s it doesn’t need to be formal practise – simply playing in the water will increase their confidence and comfort levels in the water.

Swimming lessons are hugely important for all Australian kids, and whilst swimming is a great recreational activity and sport, water safety and drowning prevention are clearly a hugely important motivating factor for parents in enrolling their children in swimming lessons.  A 2009 in by the USA’s National Institute of Health concluded that “participating in formal swimming lessons was associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning in children aged 1-4 years.”

Swimming lessons alone certainly don’t eliminate the risk of drowning, but a better understanding by children and parents of the aquatic environment and their own capabilities is a first and most important step in the process of aquatic education.

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