Huge numbers of children are unable to swim, which largely explains why drowning is the second leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 19. Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its policy, reinforcing its advice that children ages 4 and older should learn to swim but also noting that children ages 1 to 4 are less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming lessons.
Furthermore, very young children who are comfortable in water are likely to be easier to teach to swim when they are ready to learn formal strokes.
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, about 70 percent of African-American children, 60 percent of Latino children and 40 percent of white children are nonswimmers. Lack of access and financial constraints account only partly for these numbers. Fear, cultural factors and even cosmetic issues play a role as well.
"Before the Civil War, more blacks than whites could swim," Lynn Sherr, the author of "Swim: Why We Love the Water," said in an interview. "There are many stories of shipwrecks in which black slaves rescued their owners."
But as Ms. Sherr learned from Bruce Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, segregation destroyed the aquatic culture of the black community. "Once whites discovered swimming, blacks were increasingly excluded from public pools and lifeguarded beaches," Mr. Wigo told her.
As a result, many minority parents never learned how to swim. Adults who can't swim often fear the water and, directly or indirectly, convey that fear to their children.
Image: Child swimming, via Shutterstock