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I personally want to teach my children (all under 6yo) how to swim. What readiness guidelines should I use to determine if they're ready to start? What things should I teach them first? Are there good resources (online videos or sites) that teach parents to teach their children to swim?

This is a "do-it-yourself" question, so suggesting that I put my children in swim classes is not an answer that I'm looking for.

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I just want to say thanks for asking this question; we hadn't really thought about swimming lessons quite this early for our baby (15 mo) but now that I read the answers, I see just how important it is. I was too allergic to chlorine to go into a pool till I was in my teens, and to this day am rubbish at swimming despite lessons when I was 14-15. (I guess that would be my non-useful answer to your question about guidelines to determine when to start--starting in the teens is WAY too late!) –  Corvus Melori Jul 3 '11 at 20:48
    
+1 Thanks for asking this question. –  Guy Apr 23 '12 at 6:44
    
This question on how to encourage a 5-year old to swim, can add some useful info on this topic. –  awe Jun 6 '12 at 13:19

10 Answers 10

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I'm just going to give a bit on swimming lessons first, even though its not the answer you want, it can provide some answers to the "when". Then I'll talk about some of the things we do in the classes which you could do on your own, as lessons are a good guide.


I live in Australia, where its very common to start taking your children to swimming lessons from 6 months. Even though obviously they won't be able to swim until later on, its very important to teach them about water, water safety, understanding to hold their breath when they do go underwater.

I have a 2yo who has just finished her second term of swimming lessons (we started her at 12 months, intended to start earlier). She can now swim with a floating device on her back (not for long and I would not be much more than an arms reach away from her.

The classes for 3 year olds+ I believe they start to learn to swim on their own.


As I mentioned we started our daughter at 12 months, so I'm less aware about the routines they do in the youngest classes. Some of the beginner things she's done from 12-24 months are:

  • Chin in the water.
  • Left/Right ear in the water.
  • Blowing bubbles (this is really good to teach them about not breathing in, but out and can lead to holding their breath)
  • Lying on their backs, head on your shoulder and kicking.
  • In a shallow pool, trying to pick pool toys off the floor, you can assist them a bit, but teaches them to put the head into the water on their own.
  • With a floating device on their back, running to fetch a floating toy. (Support them at first, but they can do this on their own fairly easily).
  • Jumping into the pool - standing on the edge, touching their toes then jumping to you. (Let them fall in the water, don't catch them straight away. Also assist them to climb out of the pool on their own)
  • Underwater swims, with someone else, guiding them underwater to the other person (Teach them to hold their arms out in front and hold their breath).

With all these things, as they get better you can support them less, and get them to do more on their own.


I know you said all under 6 years old, so some of the activities may be too basic for them. I'd really suggest getting some sort of floatation device, (floaties, lifejacket) and assisting them until they feel comfortable on their own. But I don't have the experience with older kids yet, so its just what I'd imagine would be good.


I should also note as I did in my other answer. Learn CPR for kids!

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One thing to add for younger children: teach them to reach for the wall of the pool. We just started with our 6 month old, and this was one of the first lessons. Having your child reach for the wall early on teaches them that there is a stable place to rest in the pool should they need it. –  Beofett Apr 11 '11 at 12:59
    
We did the same thing, there tend to be more and more baby/toddler-swim classes that you can sign up for, we had great success with those. –  MichaelF May 4 '11 at 14:33

There's really no lower bound on swimming - or at least getting them into a pool. My elder one has been going swimming since just was about 4 months old, although for most of the first couple of years it is as much about tolerance of the water and confidence around the pool.

I think that until they have the co-ordination on the land, some decent strength in their legs and arms, and breathing control, that they'll actually develop anything approaching swimming skills. For many that's 18 months to 2 years, but that isn't to say that it's a waste of time before then, but the rewards will be a lot less, their enjoyment will be mixed and they'll get bored and frustrated a lot quicker.

In terms of starting them off, you're looking to develop a respect for the water but also an understanding that they can do if they try. Key things to develop:

  • immerse as early as possible (albeit for very brief periods),
  • songs with jumping (lifting up and down, but also formulaic with getting in and out of the pool, or splashing, going on their backs)
  • games involving toys (floating, chasing, jumping, fetching from the bottom) are key
  • also floatation devices (flat floats, longer-thinner 'noodle' types, etc.).

I wouldn't rush to get goggles, but inflatable arm bands, once a little bigger, are great for independence in the pool.

And until they're 3+, you absolutely have to be in there with them. No question.

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I'm answering this question as a swimming instructor (5 years of experience), NOT as a parent.

We usually encourage parents to start swimming with their children as soon as possible (lessons are available for children as young as 4 months or so where I work). The rationale behind this is that the sooner you present swimming as an enjoyable activity and practice it with your child, the more at ease he/she will be when the time to swim on their own comes. You'll have to be in the pool with your child until he/she is at least 3-4 years old, depending on their ability. If you start early and take good lessons, your child will make very quick progress. I've seen 3 year olds swim to the bottom of a 12' pool to retrieve objects on their own.

As to how, the best thing I could suggest is that you take swimming lessons. Even if you don't seem to want to, I believe it's the best way to teach children. If you have access to Red-Cross swimming lessons in your area, those are extremely good. Also, make sure your child sees the lessons as a reward or a fun activity, not as a burden.

Last but not least, use a life jacket rather than swim-aids or things that are strapped to the back as life jackets promote a better body position.

Bottom line: start as early as possible, make it fun, contribute, take lessons and use appropriate floating equipment.

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Thanks for the answer, but you don't address the key part of the question, which is "what things should I teach them first". If you answer this I'll switch my down vote to an up vote. –  Javid Jamae Apr 9 '11 at 21:05

As a former swim instructor, one of the key milestones is being comfortable putting your head under water. If your child is not able to do this without hesitation, you will become very frustrated trying to progress any further. Blowing bubbles is a good step towards this, especially for younger kids. Goggles are perfectly acceptable, even preferable given the chlorine content of some public pools.

The next step after this is floating, front and back. I like to concentrate on free style swimming, with backstroke as a recovery option if they become tired. I have seen other instructors try to introduce multiple strokes early on, but I find this counter productive.

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There is no too young to swim age. Babies can often swim better than toddlers because they still have the automatic reflex that closes their throat under water.

You have already received some great advice- except one thing. It is never, ever a good idea to put floaties/water wings on children. If I wasn't a capitalist I would be in favor of banning them altogether.

They teach them to be upright in the water. This becomes their learned position of safety and what that means when they don't have them on- they sink and drown.

Kids don't understand how water works if they aren't allowed to learn the truth of it. Water wings teach them false things about water and children drown because of it. They get used to "swimming" in water that is way too deep for their ability and they get used to being upright.

This is a recipe for disaster. Spread the word!

swimsafely.weebly.com

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Excellent point regarding floaties! The very first thing small children should learn is how to get to (or at least hold on to) the side of the pool, just in case they accidentally fall in. Since it's unlikely they'll be wearing floaties in such circumstances, it does no good -- and, as you point out, great harm -- to use them at all. –  Bill Clark May 19 '11 at 16:36

We have swam with our children since they were 6 months old, so that they felt it as a natural part of their life; the first child we used to go maybe 5 times a week initially. I think the main part is in getting them to feel confident in the water. I have 3 girls and I am VERY boisterous with them in the pool, so that they quickly get over having water splashed into their eyes. As very young infants, we'd 'throw' them to each other underwater. They will very quickly learn how to float (I taught them all to lay on their backs and not panic if they felt they were sinking as they will float - after a while they get it), after this they learn quickly to move about, I am talking a few weeks. When it comes to strokes, there are books, but, sorry to put this, we've found getting a professional in at this stage pays massive dividends as they know how to quickly coach a stroke into your kids; you don't and they seems to, after a stage, listen more to professionals.

After a while, when they are okay about going underwater (this does take a while), get them to dive; we have heaps of diving toys and they quickly learn to love 'diving' to the bottom of the pool returning them.

One note of caution, is never to betray their trust in a pool whilst they lack confidence, as this takes an age to rebuild.

We have 3 girls, one was swimming on her own aged 2, the middle one 3 and the third is not quite old enough to be allowed into a pool.

I am not insightful old fool, I just love swim time with the kids; it's fun and once you promote that, the swimming seems to develop very quickly.

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The sooner you do it the easier it will be. If you are fully at ease in the water this will help as well, as they will try to copy everything you do.

The specifics Jacob listed are all excellent, plus a couple of others around reducing fear of the face going underwater:

Start off with good arm bands, but if they are very young, don't move out of arm's reach - they'll need to know you are there.

If they are really young, help them practice putting their head under water by bouncing them 1, 2, 3 times and then dropping down just under the surface with them for a half a second works. A quick blow of air on their face makes them automatically hold their breath.

With you and a partner standing close, throw the child for the other one to catch, so that their feet make a splash. Over time, catch them lower, or move further apart.

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One thing no-one's mentioned is vaccinations. The recommendation in the UK is to wait till your child's been vaccinated, as pools are obvious places for diseases to breed (warm, wet, full of children). If you're using a private pool, the risk of infection is lower, so the restrictions are less critical. After that, you can start as soon as you like.

If you're not having your child vaccinated, then obviously infection is the risk you take, so consult your paediatrician.

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I don't suppose your kid likes money? I taught both of my kids to swim by throwing like, 20$ worth of quarters in the 9 foot deep end and telling them that what they get, they keep. Also helped by showing them that when they panick, they sink, but when they TRIED to go under to get the money..they floated! All a difference in mental attitude! Once I pointed that out, a light went off in their heads and 2 days later they were not only swimming, they were diving!

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We started taking my daughter to swim class when she was 3 months and has been in swim class ever since. This teaches them to not fear the water and its a lot of fun.

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