As I continue working with parents to create a joyful, comfortable space for our swimmers to develop water safety skills, I’m asked about progression quite often. Questions about when children begin swimming on their own and at what age do they develop their strokes pop up in class almost every day and I’d like to address it here.
A child’s progression in the water is influenced by several factors – the type of class your swimmer is in, their comfort level, and the ability of your instructor to push without being overbearing. In my experience, if a child is comfortable from the beginning and the classes they’re in are challenging, but fun, they’re capable of becoming water safe by 1 ½ to 2 years old and can begin strokes by 3. That’s not to say that starting lessons earlier isn’t important. Swimmers that begin lessons at 6 months are generally more comfortable and learn faster than those that wait because they’re exposed to the skills and language at a point in their development where they’re taking in information like a sponge and retaining it based on survival needs.
So, how does each factor influence progression?
The type of class or program that your child is enrolled in is the overall base for how they’re going to progress because it’ll play a role in swaying their comfort level and determining who they’re going to be swimming with (whether it be in a drop off group setting, parent/child group, or private lesson). Generally, kids learn faster in private, one on one lessons, however that doesn’t always accommodate the needs of every child. Check out my thoughts on the pros and cons of private and group lessons here. So long as the program your child is enrolled in is consistent with their exercises and language and can create a space of excitement for everyone, you should begin to see some form of progress within the first two to three lessons. That progress can come in the form of more confidence around the water, being more willing to participate, performing skills or responding to verbal cues more efficiently or simply just showing less resistance towards coming to lessons (if there was resistance to begin with, of course).
Your child’s comfort level from the beginning of their journey towards water safety hones in on their willingness to take in what we’re trying to teach them. If a swimmer is resistant towards coming to lessons, or shows extreme aversion towards what we’re doing in class. The main focus for them during each lesson is going to be more about encouraging them to find joy in the work that we’re doing, rather than force feeding them water safety skills that they’re not open to learning to begin with. If this is the case, progression around their ability to swim will be slower than children who come in excited to participate and play in the water. Oftentimes, resistance or fear around water stems from parents overprotective, “helicopter-like” behavior which only ever reinforces the idea that something “bad” might happen in whatever environment the child is being exposed to that kind of parenting. This is why instructors may ask parents to leave the pool area during lessons, or instruct them to use certain language when discussing the activities being performed in class. This help facilitate a more comfortable, confident response to the drills we’re working on.
The instructor leading the lesson, whether it be a private or group setting is the focal point to what your child will learn each time they enter the pool and I suggest putting a lot of time into getting to know who’s working with your swimmer. If the classes your child is enrolled in are consistent with drills and activities and they’re comfortable in the water, but for some reason, you’re not seeing and progress, take a look at how your instructor is talking, behaving and pushing your child to grow as a swimmer. If you’re experiencing a lesson where your child isn’t laughing and seems to be doing the same thing over and over without any fluidity in the skills being worked on, there’s a chance that the instructor is hindering your child’s ability to learn and progress. Swimming is a very repetitive process and going over the same skill throughout a lesson is not only common, but good to see, however, if the instructor is asking your child to do the same drill consistently without any creativity to keep it interesting, nothing is going to change. A lesson should consist of laughter from the swimmer and a balance of repetition and creativity from the instructor. From the perspective of our children, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. We all want to have a great time and there’s no reason why learning the life saving skills we teach everyday, can’t be exciting and fresh.
As parents, we want to see our children grow and develop into confident, capable swimmers and visible progression is always exciting to experience. Take a look at the program you want your child to be a part of, talk to the staff about their comfort around the water and what you can do to encourage them to feel good about it, and be aware of how your instructor approaches each lesson. These three factors are the key to seeing our children grow into the powerful swimmers we want them to be.