SPLASHDOWN!Getting in the Swim, Safely

School’s out — or will be soon — and kids are ready to hit the pool. But water safety begins with your child — and his or her swim skills. When should kids learn to swim, and what’s the best approach? We went to the experts for the answers...

What age should children begin swimming lessons?

“I would recommend as early as 6 months, because an early start gets them used to the water,” says Linda-sue Sutherland, senior aquatics coordinator at the American Red Cross of Greater New York. “We do Parent-Child Aquatics classes; they’re one-on-one baby to parent/caregiver, and the idea is to get little ones comfortable in the water.”

At the YMCA of Greater NY, swim programs begin at 6 months. “Water adjustment, safety and basic swimming skills can be taught at any age,” says Mary O’Donoghue, aquatics specialist for the YMCA.

What about the concept of getting babies into the water from infancy?

“Under 6 months, I wouldn’t recommend swim classes because infants are more sensitive to germs, and also, you don’t want to frighten an infant,” points out Sutherland, adding: “The Red Cross doesn’t believe in ‘drownproofing’ babies at a very early age. We teach the building blocks of water safety and water adjustment.”

O’Donoghue agrees, saying that 6 months is around the age babies can control their head movements, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics also uses 6 months as a guideline. She does encourage parents to check first with baby’s pediatrician.

“We do not put children under the age of 6 months into classes,” says Jim Spiers, owner of SwimJim, Inc. “We want the child to be able to hold their head up independently so that they will not drop their mouth into the water. There is a condition called water intoxication where children under the age of one can drink too much water and it throws off their electrolytes. All of my staff has at least a year of training before they are allowed to instruct a baby class on their own.”

How should children be taught to swim?

“Through games and songs, and these should always be fun. You should always judge their comfort level and not exceed that. You want a child to have a good experience,” Sutherland stresses.

At YMCA swim classes, the Parent/Child program focuses on water enrichment and aquatic readiness. Their Preschool program focus is on water adjustment and basic swimming skills, while reinforcing safety in and around the water.

How should swim instructors deal with children’s fears?

At SwimJim, swim beginners learn through songs and fun games . “Children should be encouraged to challenge their fears,” Jim Spiers believes. “With the help and support of the parent, the instructor can guide a child to an emotionally happy place in the water.”

O’Donoghue agrees. “Children’s fears can be overcome with encouragement and patience of the instructors, in various ways,” she says. “Breaking the skill down to smaller increments; for example, having the child put their chin in the water and adding one ear or a nose rather than putting their whole face in. Perhaps watching their peers before doing the skill themselves.”

Ease in gently, Sutherland agrees. “It helps when the parent/caregiver is also in the water, and everyone should always be patient and not push the child. If they have a bad experience, they may not want to go back in.”

It might also be something as simple as water temperature. Between 82 and 86 degrees is considered optimal to keep children comfortable in the water.

What about swim aids?

The YMCA uses swim aids as teaching tools; these include backpacks, kickboards, noodles, barbells, and life jackets, bubbles, balls, floating and sinking toys. The Red Cross classes teach kids how to blow bubbles by having them blow a ping pong ball across the pool.

At SwimJim, “We believe that swimming aids give the parents and child a false since of security. We use barbells for kicking but it is with an instructor and only for a short time. The rest of class the child is learning to be in the water by themselves and be responsible for their own actions,” says Spiers.

How do parents find a good swim program?

“Look for a certified instructor from an organization like the Red Cross; we require instructors to take Parent-Child Aquatic training for certification. Our website

(www.nyredcross.org) has a list of instructors and facilities all over the New York area. Instructors should have a water safety instructors’ certificate; ask to see it,” says Sutherland.

The YMCA runs swim classes for all ages at 15 branches throughout the city. They welcome parents to come and view their programs in action, and to take note of the following: A lifeguard should always be on the pool deck; the facility should be clean; the instructor should be friendly and knowledgeable; the class schedule should fit your child’s schedule/nap time.

Adds Spiers at SwimJim: “Be sure to bring the child with you so that they can see what will be expected of them and it will not be a surprise on their first day.”

How many lessons per week should children have?

Once a week is good to start, say both instructors, adding that in between classes, kids should take to the water if at all possible — to splash and have fun, and to practice what they’ve learned in class.


The Red Cross also has out-of-water safety education programs geared to kids ages 4 through third grade, which they recommend children take in the spring before swimming season begins. Through videos and worksheets, Longfellow’s Whale Tales (Water Habits Are Learned Early) teaches such concepts as: ‘Be Cool, Follow the Rule’ and ‘Swim with Buddies in Supervised Areas’. Their boating safety program uses the theme, ‘Don’t Just Pack It, Wear Your Jacket’. These programs are available citywide. For more information, go to www.nyredcross.org and key in “Whale Tales”. Or call 1-877-REDCROSS.

Three ‘S’s for water safety

Jim Spiers is a board member of the Swim For Life Foundation, a not-for-profit, drowning prevention organization. Its message, says Spiers, is ‘the safer three’:

• Safer Water refers to the protection against an unauthorized entry to a pool or spa by a child who has little or no swimming skills. There are many types of protection available, including barrier fencing with latching gates, alarms, door locks and pool covers.

• Safer Kids involves both caretaker and the potential victim, the child. Constant adult supervision by an adult with swimming ability, swim skill attainment through ongoing lessons by qualified instructors, education of both parents and children as to proper behavior in and around the water are key components.

• Safer Response is preparation in case of a drowning accident. Rescue techniques such as CPR and rescue breathing should be learned and reviewed. Developing an action plan and having rescue equipment on hand are also important. Everyone should be familiar with the 911 emergency phone number and a phone should be at pool side.