Are swimming lessons necessary?

Living in Central Texas, getting out to water is a necessity for surviving four or five months of heat.  Fortunately, we have a variety of amazing swimming holes here in the Austin area. That also means there is a lot of pressure to learn to swim early. There are baby swim classes for kids as young as 2 months old. By the time your kid is a toddler, it seems like everyone lists a swim class or two on their tot resumes.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking swimming lessons. Some kids love swimming lessons and take to them like fish in the water. Great!

Some parents feel more comfortable knowing that their kids have some basic swimming ability at a young age. Fantastic! (But read on.)

Knowing how to swim is an important safety skill as kids move into older childhood and then adulthood. But as a wildflower parent, I’m naturally skeptical about the necessity of formal instruction to pick up skills that usually develop naturally, given some freedom and opportunity to explore the world.

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Last summer we spent most our days practically living in the water. My 5 year old loved diving for rings. My 3 year old happily splashed around in her floaties. What a difference a year makes. At the beginning of the summer before, I had a 4 year old who wasn’t swimming yet and a 2 year old who not only refused to set foot in a pool, but also wouldn’t keep a swimsuit on once it was wet. But why let that stop us? Armed with life jackets and understanding friends who don’t bat an eye at a skinny-dipping toddler, we spent our days at swimming holes and pools.

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One hot summer day we were hiking down to what I thought was a little creek. Trying to travel light and thinking there wasn’t much water, I didn’t bring the life jackets. After seeing the gorgeous water, my 4 year old was angry at first.

Moooooooooom, why didn’t you bring the life jackets??

But then she waded in. She splashed in the waist-deep water with a friend while I watched nearby. About a half an hour later, she announced that she could swim. And she did! She swam a foot or two and then stopped. Over the next few days, she gradually started swimming longer and longer stretches. She was bursting with excitement and pride.

 She started swimming on her own, just like she learned to walk on her own.

Just like she learned the letters of the alphabet on her own.

Just like she learned to ride a bike on her own.

Just like she learned to write her name on her own.

She was ready.

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Does this mean no child should take swimming lessons? Of course not. Like any class, it can be an enjoyable way to learn a valuable skill. Swimming is particularly valuable as a safety skill, given that drowning is the leading cause of injury death for children ages 1 to 4.

However, a recent study showed that parents whose children were enrolled in swimming lessons were more likely than other parents to believe that toddlers could “learn how to save themselves if they fell into the water” (Moran & Stanley, 2006). About one third of parents, regardless of swim lessons, also believed that teaching toddlers to swim was more effective than close supervision to prevent drowning – a dangerous misconception. The potential risk with swimming lessons is that they can lead parents to overestimate their child’s ability to swim. As lessons progress, parents become so aware of small increments of improvement in their child’s swimming ability that they develop a false sense of security about how well their child can swim, and do not believe they need to supervise as closely (Morongiello et al., 2013).

The bottom line is that lessons can be a helpful way to improve swimming skills and techniques, but if your goal is simply to have fun in the water and stay safe, a great approach is to let your kids go at their own pace and enjoy themselves while you keep a close eye on them at all times.

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