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One of the alarming trends I’ve seen in the past decade is a willingness, even eagerness to label a very young child as water safe simply because that child can swim short distances by herself. Often, this modified dog paddle is achieved through intensive swim programs that guarantee your child will be swimming in one week or ten days.
While I understand the desire to get a child swimming as quickly as possible, especially in places like L.A. where pools and pool based activities are a part of life, its important to realize that in order for a child to truly be water safe, they need three components to work together and none of them are enhanced by a ten day intensive swim program.
At What Age Is a Kid Water Safe?
Water safety is achieved through physical, mental and emotional maturity and for these reasons, if someone asks me the question ‘when will my child be water safe?’ and they are looking for an actual age, I would say, safely not before seven or eight years old.
Water Safety – Physical
Physically, a child’s body is not developed enough – particularly their core muscles – at three or four to handle certain elements of swimming properly and their bodies tire more easily. Usually by age five, if a child has been swimming for several years, you will want to start seeing real stroke work, improvement, confidence and strength.
Water Safety – Mental
Mentally, a young child is just in the beginning stages of processing larger amounts of information and trying to figure out how best to use what they are learning. I like to spend a lot of time working with very young children in and around the steps of the pool because that is primarily where they will be hanging out and they need time to safely explore what happens when they move around on the steps. In fact, I have seen more potential drowning situations occur when children are told to sit on the top step and then slowly but surely, their bodies move further into the water off the steps and before you know it, they have gone too deep and are under.
Learning to swim takes several years to process all the nuances of stroke work and safety and its important not to rush through, ignoring your child’s developmental stages. In the short term it may seem slow and tedious, however, by age six your child will be swimming confidently, properly and safely and the three or four years that you as the parent needed to be hyper vigilant are worth the investment.
Water Safety – Emotional
Emotional maturity is perhaps the most important component for water safety as it effects the other two and can determine how a situation is handled. A child who has spent a fair amount of time in the water becomes more relaxed and confident about his abilities and this reduces anxiety, allowing your child to make decisions when confronted with variables that might create a potential drowning risk. At the end of it all, panic is what helps to facilitate drowning. Panic is emotion overriding thought and when rationale is lost, a young child in the middle of a crisis will not think clearly enough to save himself – even if he knows what to do normally.
The only way to truly enhance your child’s confidence in the water is through long term exposure and effective, positive experiences with swimming and swim lessons.
Water Safety Tips
The best way to assure your child’s water safety is to follow this basic prescription;
- Begin to expose your child to water and swim classes as an infant and keep their exposure to this environment as consistent as possible
- Begin actual lessons (one-on-one is truly the best way to start this process if you have access to these kinds of programs) by age 2.5 or 3 and plan to incorporate swimming into their summer activities. One or two weeks is not enough time for children to explore and learn about an entirely new environment. It is also important to remember that a child’s long term memory is not well developed at this stage either and they can forget EVERYTHING they learned if taken out of their environment for as little as one month. That’s why consistent long term exposure is so important at this stage.
- If weather permits, begin their lessons in the spring, before summer which gives your child time to re-acclimate to swimming, so when summer arrives they will be prepared and confident
- Continue their lessons through age eight. Even a child at seven or eight years old needs some stroke work, reminders and instruction. This can be done now in a group setting or perhaps just an occasional one-on-one.
- Most importantly, when you as the parent are with your child, it is best to be in the water with them, playing, hanging out and watching them – this more than any other factor will motivate them to want to swim.
Now a note about “Dry Drowning” since it’s a common topic around the water these days…
Dry drowning is such a rare occurrence that in all my years in aquatics (over 30) I have NEVER experienced a single incident. Additionally, my friend who is a pediatrician had never seen an incident of it either. For a very clear definition about dry drowning, click HERE.
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