By Eric Braun
For me, few things symbolize the joy of summer vacation more than a swimming pool. When I wrap my toes over a pool’s concrete lip, gaze at the shimmering blue water, and inhale the smell of chlorine, memories bob to the surface of my mind like floaty toys. Equally lovely are lakes, oceans, swimming holes, and rivers.
Like most kids, I always loved playing in the water, but like many, I was nervous about swimming lessons. Even now I can remember fighting with my parents about this subject. I argued that I didn’t need lessons. Really, lessons put me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t have friends in my classes and I didn’t know the teachers. It wasn’t fun—it was work, and I was afraid.
Kids certainly need swimming lessons. But when should they start? What if they have anxiety about lessons? Here are a few guidelines for parents.
When to Begin
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids begin swimming lessons around age 4. Some kids may begin earlier. Parents should decide whether to enroll their kids earlier than age 4 based on the child’s emotional development, physical abilities, and how often he is exposed to water.
“Not every child will be ready to learn to swim at the same age,” said Jeffrey Weiss, MD, FAAP, lead author of the AAP’s policy statement on the prevention of drowning. The policy does not recommend lessons for kids under 1 year old.
Is your child ready? If she’s fighting or screaming, she probably won’t learn much anyway—and she surely won’t have fun. Don’t force it. Consider sitting poolside during the first lesson or two and just watching. If she’s not ready after watching a couple lessons, your best move might be to hold off for a few months.
What to Look for in Lessons
Get opinions from other parents, and if possible, visit lessons to see the facility and teacher. Here’s what to look for:
- Safety. There should be a lifeguard on duty in addition to the swimming instructor and appropriate lifesaving and first aid equipment.
- Teacher. A teacher certified by the American Red Cross or YMCA has training in teaching and in safety. Also, you want a teacher who gets in the water with the kids and who is supportive and positive. Look for kids who are having fun—that’s a good sign.
- Class size. The lower the student-to-teacher ratio, the better. Less than six kids per teacher is best. While you’re visiting, pay attention to whether the teacher is watching all the children at all times.
- Class length. 30 to 45 minutes is ideal. After that, kids start getting distracted and tired.
What About that Anxiety?
A fear of water or swimming lessons may seem silly to adults, but to a kid who’s experiencing it, it’s real. The most important thing we can do is respect the fear. Let them know you understand, but be firm that learning to swim is important. You can work up the courage together. Maybe you start by sitting on the edge of the pool and dipping feet in. Then you get in up to your child’s knees, then hips. And so on, up to his neck. Introduce a little water on the face, but back off if your child isn’t ready.
While working with the child, try to keep things fun. Play with water toys such as diving rings and boats, and don’t pressure him to do more than he’s ready for. Take small steps and be patient.
Of course, swimming lessons don’t guarantee safety. Drowning is the second-leading cause of death among kids ages 1 to 19.
“Children need to learn to swim,” Dr. Weiss said. “But even advanced swimming skills cannot ‘drown-proof’ a child of any age. Parents must also closely supervise their children around water and know how to perform CPR. A four-sided fence around the pool is essential.”
Water can be the number-one ingredient in a fun summer and a great memory-maker. Be patient and persistent with kids who resist swimming lessons. It will pay off.
Eric Braun, when he is not busy writing, might be seen riding his bicycle to the beach.
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