In a country surrounded by water, where fun in the sun and water are as much a part of our childhood as band-aids and bikes, swimming lessons are a rite of passage and a necessary life saving skill. But when should your children start?
If you turn to Google, finding out when to start formal swimming lessons can be confusing. Immediately after birth, at 4 months, 6 months, 3 years, 4 years… It’s true, children don’t have the fine motor skills to perform freestyle ‘correctly’ until they are 4, but Australian Swimming Coaches & Teachers Association guidelines suggest 4 months is an ideal starting age. This allows time for parents to have bonded with their babies, for the immune system to be stronger and for a medical history to have developed.
Swimming lessons for your baby are all about water familiarisation and safety (for them and you). Lessons for your toddler are important to teach them water safety rules, allow them to learn about boundaries and teach them real skills that can be both life saving and form the basis of swimming strokes.
There is no specific time that is going to make your child an Olympic champion and they will never be drown-proof, but children who are comfortable and confident in the water at an early age are better prepared in case of an emergency. And that is what water confidence lessons are all about.
Swimming is surviving
Swimming is a survival skill; one that could, quite literally, save your child’s life. Accidental drowning is the leading cause of death in Australian children under the age of 5. Participating in formal swimming lessons throughout the whole year is associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning in children between 1 and 4 years (although this is just one step in building the layers of safer swimming). That’s a great return.
Swimming is thriving
A four-year project, Early-Years Swimming: Adding Capital to Young Australians, led by Griffith University, concluded that children who attend swimming lessons early 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.
You may believe your child will be the next Dawn Fraser but you should be prepared for the fact that swimming takes time. It is a gradual progression; one that takes time and constant participation. By starting at an early age you are giving your child a head start but lessons need to continue for skills to be maintained. Think about how your child’s walking would progress if they were prevented from doing so for an extended period. It wouldn’t; they would regress. Even if you can’t see substantial progress every week, your child is at least maintaining the current ability level, and that is progress.
My child can swim, can we stop?
That depends. Everyone’s idea of what constitutes swimming differs. Is it when they can dog paddle? When they can swim to the other side of the pool? Can swim freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke? When they can swim 1km?
According to the Royal Life Saving Society – Australia, children are starting swimming lessons at a younger age than ever before, but many aren’t reaching benchmarks that could save their lives. They recommend children be able to swim 400 m continuously without resting or struggling before considering stopping formal swimming lessons. We say, just keep swimming.
Just keep swimming
Keeping kids in swimming programs is not without its challenges. Parents struggle to keep their children motivated and to fit lessons into a busy week of activities. Not only can lessons often end up clashing with weekend sport, they also cost money.
For Australians, learning to swim isn’t just about the pool. Our lifestyle means there is always water around — be it a lake, beach, swimming pool or river — and the conditions in each of those places is vastly different. A child who is a strong swimmer in the pool and who is exposed to other swimming environments is less likely to panic if conditions place them out of their comfort zone.
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 important step in the process of aquatic education.
And remember, while learning to swim takes time it can save your child’s life (and enhance their life in many ways), be it now or in the future. That’s worth the investment.