How to Teach Kids to Swim at Every Age

Want to prepare your child for the beach or pool? Check out our age-by-age guide to swimming lessons and water safety tips for kids.

Signing up your little one for swimming lessons is a great way to increase their comfort, skill, and safety in the water. It's a smart move, too, because while swimming is loads of fun, playing in the water can also be dangerous, especially considering that drowning is a top cause of death among children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

"While no course can 'drown-proof' a child, a progressive learn-to-swim program can provide your child with skills that will last a lifetime," says Connie Harvey, national health and safety expert for the American Red Cross.

The AAP recommends that parents hold off on formal swimming lessons until after their child's first birthday. Additionally, you should always consider their "emotional maturity, physical and developmental abilities and limitations, and comfort level" before enrolling them, suggests the AAP. If you don't think they're ready for independent swim lessons, consider a parent-child program that focuses on water games, swimming-readiness skills, and safety in and around the pool.

Water Safety Mother and Daughter In Pool
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Always take the time to research swim lessons before enrolling. Classes should focus on both swimming skills and "water survival competency skills," says the AAP. Also, they should be taught by instructors certified through a nationally recognized learn-to-swim curriculum. "There should also be lifeguards on duty who have current CPR and First Aid certification," adds the AAP. What's more, the lessons should be age-appropriate, and the water should be kept warm and clean.

Whether you enroll in swim lessons or take to the backyard pool, here's how to teach a child to swim at every age.

1 to 2 Years Old

At this age, you simply want to introduce your child to the water. Play in the pool with them yourself, or join a class that focuses on having fun and getting comfortable in the water (instead of learning to swim). Activities may include showing them how to splash, singing songs while bobbing around, and playing gentle games in the water together.

Water safety tips

Follow these water safety tips for 1- to 2-year-olds:

  • Keep your baby in your arms at all times.
  • Do not submerge any child under 3. Kids this age can swallow a large amount of water—enough to dilute the chemicals in their blood, causing sleepiness, nausea, and seizures. In rare cases, water intoxication can occur, which in severe cases can be fatal.
  • Dress them in a swim diaper that prevents fecal matter from leaking into the pool, which is a major health risk for other swimmers.
  • An infant can drown in an inch or two of water in less than 30 seconds, so beware of all water hazards, including inflatable baby pools, buckets, toilets, and tubs.

2 to 3 Years Old

Wondering how to teach a toddler to swim? Your curious tot will be more active in the water now, though they still need an adult to hold and watch them. In your pool or swimming program, play fun games that encourage them to move their arms (for example, throw a ball across the pool and have them reach for it), kick their legs, and float supported on their stomach or back.

Show them how to blow bubbles in the water so they learn to get their face wet without swallowing the pool water. By the time they're 3, they may be able to do these things with little help from you. However, constant supervision is still a must.

Water safety tips

Follow these water safety tips for 2- to 3-year-olds:

  • Your toddler may feel so comfortable in the water that they think they can swim solo. Their confidence is great, but don't leave them alone—even for a minute. They need attentive adult supervision around water.
  • Make sure the pool gate is always closed and the lock is out of reach. That's because the Consumer Product Safety Commission "found that 69% of children under the age of 5 years were not expected to be in the water at the time of a drowning," says the AAP.
  • Stress basic pool safety, like not running near the pool and only going into the water with an adult.
  • Avoid water wings, air-filled swimsuits, and inflatable flotation toys. Your toddler will sink if they deflate, and these items can give them (and you) a false sense of security. If you want to use a flotation device, buy a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
  • Don't leave toys in the pool after your child gets out as they may be tempted to reach for them and fall in.

4 to 5 Years Old

Now that your child is developing enough coordination to swim by themselves, they can enroll in formal swimming lessons. If they don't have much experience in the water, choose a program that will help them get comfortable. You might be allowed to participate in their first class to make the transition easier.

In shallow water, your child should learn how to float independently, submerge their head under the water for five to 10 seconds, go from a standing to a swimming position without assistance, glide through the water, reach an exit point, and use coordinated kicking and arm movements. Their swimming class should focus on both water and safety skills.

Water safety tips

Follow these water safety tips for 4- to 5-year-olds:

  • Even though you may not need to hold your child at this age, a guardian should practice "reach supervision" by being in the water within reaching distance.
  • Be patient. Your child may be a fish one day and afraid of the water the next. Don't force them to do an activity until they're ready.
  • Make sure your pool marks the deep and shallow ends. Having a lifeline to separate the two ends is also smart.
  • Never assume another adult is watching, even if a lifeguard is present.
  • Some children hate to get their faces wet. Practice at home by encouraging your kid to put their head under the shower spray.

6 Years Old and Up

An older child can hold their breath for longer periods of time, swim underwater, and retrieve objects at the bottom. Many kids at this age can learn to jump into the water and resurface on their own. They can start developing all swimming strokes, including the breast- and backstroke. Their greater endurance will allow them to swim longer distances. However, note that while some 6-year-olds are swimming independently, others may take to a bit longer to master this skill.

At this point, you may not need to be in the water with your child, but you still need to supervise all pool activities, as they might overestimate their own abilities. Remember that drowning typically happens quickly and silently, and even adept swimmers can get into trouble in the water. So, always keep a watchful eye on all children—swimmers and non-swimmers alike—in and around a pool.

Water safety tips

Follow these water safety tips for children 6 years and older:

  • An adult should watch all water activities; even a good swimmer can drown.
  • Make it a rule that your child can swim only with an adult present, and encourage them to always swim with a buddy.
  • Teach them to dive when an adult is watching and the water is deep.
  • You should be extra vigilant at the beach or a lake. A child's swimming skills in a pool don't necessarily translate to open water.
  • Always have your child wear a life jacket when boating or water skiing, even if they can swim.

Where to Find Swimming Lessons

If you're lucky enough to have a relative, friend, or friendly neighbor with a pool—or your very own, then finding a spot to teach your child to swim will be a piece of cake. But if not, there are plenty of other options. Try your local community centers, schools (especially universities), and sports clubs. Many offer swim lessons for children, day passes, or membership opportunities so that you can swim with your child. Additionally, you can rent a pool by the hour with Swimply.

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