Wondering what age is best to start your child in swimming lessons? Read on for advice from local experts.
Are you convinced that your child will be the next Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin? If so, you may believe your children should start swimming as soon as possible. Many coaches, including Imagine Swimming's co-founder Casey Barrett, would agree. At Barrett's swimming academy, children can begin taking swim lessons with their parents at six months old. These lessons help children acclimate to the water and prepare them for more advanced classes.
"A lot of times, we're teaching parents as much as we're teaching kids in the earliest classes," says Barrett, whose introductory class incorporates music, focuses on basic safety, and teaches parents to hold their infants properly in the water so they can still move their arms and legs. "Ideally for the earliest classes, we just want the kids to be smiling and thrilled to come back."
Unlike swimming enthusiasts, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has traditionally encouraged parents to hold off on swim lessons until children are 4 years old. The AAP fears children who start swimming earlier may view themselves as drown-proof. The organization also contends that parents may not follow the recommendations that parents remain within arms' reach of infants and toddlers.
Still, the AAP acknowledges that children develop at different rates and that children will be ready to swim at different ages. Parents of children who are regularly exposed to water may choose to enroll their children in swimming lessons earlier than their peers. Other considerations include emotional maturity, physical limitations, and other health concerns.
The AAP recommendations, however, may be part of the reason that the most popular classes at Imagine Swimming are for 3- through 5-year-olds. That age range, according to Barrett, is the "golden period" for children who want to begin swimming lessons. In the same way that children acquire language, there's a window of opportunity for swim lessons. During this period, children aren't intimidated by the water and can quickly learn the skills necessary to be successful.
Lane Wineski, director of the 92nd Street Y Aquatics program, agrees. "Children's natural curiosity makes it easier to master the basics," he says. "When choosing a program, parents should look for a nationally certified one such as the American Red Cross or the YMCA."
Barrett also recommends that parents look for small class sizes. Each teacher should work with four or fewer children. Teachers should be experienced as teachers and swimmers, as well as be passionate about teaching.
Additionally, parents should make sure that the pool the class is held in is kept at a comfortable temperature for the swimmers. At Imagine Swimming, the pools for small swimmers are kept in the mid- to high-80s.
During the child's first swim lessons, parents should be sure to keep their emotions under control. If children are enrolled in a parent-and-child program, the adult who takes the child to class should be comfortable in chest-deep water. Participating parents should also speak to the instructor; most, even if they don't work with adult students directly, know how to adjust the activities to make the experiences as productive and enjoyable as possible, Wineski says.
"If parents are afraid and nervous, their children will pick up on it," Barrett said. "Once parents are no longer required in the water, they should stay within their child's range of site, but they should bring a book to read. Parents who draw too much attention to themselves can be distracting."
Also see: Competitive Swimming and Diving: Is It the Right Sport for Your Child?