Teaching your child to swim

Mum and daughter at the swimming pool
Learning to swim is fun – and great exercise for your child. Kath Stathers looks at the ways you can support their learning of this essential life skill.

Swimming at all ages

Swimming is on the syllabus for all children in the UK, and they have to be able to swim 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. But having the ability to swim one length when they're 11 isn't too useful when they're five or six and on holiday by the sea in Greece. This is why many parents supplement school swimming lessons with trips to the local pool.

It is never too early to take your child to the pool and many public baths run courses for babies and toddlers. “We have lessons for one month olds upwards,” says Gail Butlin, the swimming lessons coordinator for Castle Vale Swimming Pool in Birmingham. Up until the age of four it's more about gaining confidence rather than learning strokes. “For the younger ones we do exercises with nursery rhymes,” she says. “The important factor is to make the water fun for the kids.”

Finding a swimming class for your child

Leisure centres are the obvious place to start when looking for swimming classes for your child and Roger Millward, chief executive of the Swimming Teachers' Association, believes all children should be taught by trained instructors: “A great deal of damage can be caused if children aren't taught by professionals, from muscle injuries to, of course, submersion.”

Submersion is the technical term for drowning and, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 40 under-15s died from drowning in 2002, making it the third most common cause for accidental death in this age group. It's certainly a compelling reason to make sure your children learn to swim – and are taught properly.

Positive approaches to swimming

Swimming lecturer Rosemary Fletcher-Turk believes parents have a duty to approach swimming positively. “If a parent starts the lesson by saying, ‘If Tommy doesn't like it, just call me’ then Tommy is immediately going to think there's something not to like,” she says. “Whereas if a parent shows their child that swimming is fun and takes them to the pool for outings, not just for lessons, then the child is going to enjoy swimming.”

Learning to swim – the methods

“If a child starts swimming without armbands when they're too young, say two or three, they'll swim with an arched back. They don't have the muscle control to stay straight, and that's not good for their swimming or their development,” says Rosemary. She suggests that children learn to swim using the pool bottom, a parent, a teacher, floats and armbands – that way they never become too dependent on one method.

It's not just swimming ability that will help a child if they get into difficulties in the water – it's breath control and floatation, too. These are skills that a swimmer needs to learn whatever age they start, and although children pick them up more intrinsically the younger they are, they will learn them whatever age they start.

Child swimming need-to-knows:

  • Look for the swim21 accreditation scheme at a swimming pool. That way you'll know teachers are qualified and the premises are also regularly inspected.
  • Never choose a class with more than ten pupils in it.
  • Classes can cost anything from £3-£5 an hour. They often come as part of longer courses and some pools offer free swimming between lessons for the duration of the course. 
  • Cameras are banned from public swimming pools.
  • All certified teachers working with children must go through the usual police and vetting checks.
  • All public swimming pools have trained lifeguards.
  • Guidelines ask one parent to accompany every child under four, and no more than two four to seven year olds.
  • Many public pools don't allow under-tens in unaccompanied.