By Sandy Kauten
EARLY YEARS 1-5
Although a small study found that formal swim lessons can reduce drowning risk in children ages one to four, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that preschool-age children should never be considered water safe. Before age four, children don’t have the motor skills needed to swim independently and still need constant adult supervision in and around the water, even if they have some swimming ability. But swim lessons can still benefit young kids; one recent study found that in addition to building physical skills, swim lessons gave kids a boost in cognitive and social development.
At this age, swim lessons should focus on building basic skills, such as getting into and out of the water safely and going underwater comfortably. Parents can help by emphasizing water safety rules, say Jenny and Chris McCuiston, parents and founders of Goldfish Swim School. “Rules are there for a reason, especially when it comes to rules for the pool. Walk, don't run; make sure an adult is watching; no horseplay. Reviewing rules together as a family before you swim helps everyone enjoy the water.”
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Just Keep Swimming
By grade school, kids may have the strength, stamina and control needed to master more complex swimming skills, from freestyle breathing to flip turns. With regular swim lessons and practice, your school-aged child is likely more confident in and around the water and may even have passed a swim test or two. At this point, families may be tempted to quit lessons and devote time and energy to other pursuits—after all, the kids already know how to swim, right?
Not so fast. There’s good reason to continue with lessons and practice into the tween and teen years, says Matti Svoboda, owner of Blue Dolphins Aquatics in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Every spring when parents come for refresher lessons, they’re are surprised at how much their child has forgotten since last summer,” she says. “Just like any other physical activity, kids should keep swimming multiples time throughout the year, whether it be in lessons or free swim, so they don't lose the muscle memory, endurance, and stamina they’ve gained.”
TEEN YEARS 13-18
Summertime pools and beaches brim with opportunities for teens to socialize, exercise, and relax. But drowning risk doesn’t evaporate once kids outgrow the baby pool—it’s still the second leading cause of death for children 1 to 19, with teenage boys particularly at risk. To protect kids from drowning, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children learn to swim, including teenagers. (If your child learned to swim years ago, periodic refresher lessons can help build and maintain swimming ability.)
Prioritize water safety by talking to teens about drowning risks, including the risks of drinking and swimming; per research journal Injury Prevention, up to 30 percent of drowning deaths involve alcohol. Make sure teens understand the risks of unsafe jumping and diving, which can include severe head injuries and paralysis, and teach teens to dive safely: Never dive headfirst into an unknown body of water or anywhere diving isn’t allowed. Insist on life vests when teens use watercraft and boats, including paddleboards. Finally, when it comes to pool safety, trust, but verify: Ask about adult supervision before your teen attends a pool party and confirm parents will be present during any swimming activity.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.