How to Teach Your Child to Swim

Woman and toddler swimming.

Learning how to swim is an exciting time in a child’s life. Not only do they learn water safety basics, but it also sets the foundation for an active and healthy lifestyle. To help children develop the skills needed to be safe in the water, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends formal swim lessons as a layer of protection against drowning for children. 

And while the current guidelines from the AAP are considered best practice, not all families can afford swim lessons. Which means, parents and caregivers often need to step in and teach their children the basics on their own. 

Tips for Teaching Kids to Swim

When it comes to teaching your child to swim, the number one rule, of course, is safety. “At all ages, there are important safety rules to follow no matter what the ability level of the swimmer is,” explains James Collins, Vice President of Curriculum at Goldfish Swim School

His best advice? Always remember to go over water safety rules with your children. “Kids respond incredibly well to pictures and photos, so try finding a fun image to help them remember the safety rules,” says Collins. 

Introduce Them to the Water

If you have a reluctant swimmer or a kiddo that is afraid of the water, you can help prepare them for the pool without even dipping their toes in the water. 

  • Condition them for the water: Fill a small cup with warm water (not too warm) and pour a small, steady stream of water over your child’s shoulders and head. Collins says this will help them get used to the water and its temperature. 
  • Let them experiment: As your child begins to show interest in going into the pool, give them a pair of goggles to wear while in the tub or shower. Collins explains that this can get a child familiar with the benefits of using goggles, which can help to create a more positive experience at the pool.
  • Playtime in the bathtub: Another great way to teach them that water is fun is to blow bubbles and play in the bathtub. 

Make It Fun

Once you get them in the pool, there are several games you can play to get them excited about swimming. 

  • Blow bubbles: This activity may seem simple, but kids love blowing bubbles, and it helps them get used to being in the water. 
  • Get them used to goggles: “Goggles are a great way to make a child feel more comfortable in the water since they allow swimmers to see underwater clearly which takes away the fear of the unknown,” explains Collins. 
  • Play some fun games: As they become more comfortable, Collins says to play games with them, such as diving for rings (with your assistance) or kicking with a red light, green light game. 
  • Practice climbing in and out of the pool: Have your child practice holding on to the side of the wall and climbing out of the pool to safety. 
  • Use a lifejacket: Swimming with a lifejacket helps with movement in the water which Collins says can be very useful to develop effective pulling and kicking motions.

Guidelines for Babies

Now that you’re ready to jump in with your little one, it’s time to learn some guidelines and tips on how to expose your baby to the water.

“Introducing babies as young as four months to water is important since their relationship with water and making sure they are comfortable starts at an early age and can lead to quick development towards swimming effectively,” says Collins.

When at the local pool or in the bathtub at home, Collins says that parents can pour a small, steady stream of water on the crown of a child’s head in order to condition them to feel more comfortable with water in their face. "It’s important for parents to remain calm and celebrate when conditioning takes place to keep the experience positive,” he says. 

In the pool, have your child splash around as much as they can. This helps them get used to the resistance of the water. While standing in the water, place your baby on their back and allow them to experience the feeling of floating (with your assistance, of course) while you walk backward.

Guidelines for Toddlers

Blowing bubbles and looking for items such as rings or small pool-safe toy animals in the water is a great way for toddlers to get more comfortable with the water. That said, make sure to watch your toddler when close to any water source. “At this age, they are very curious, and this can lead to situations where water can become extremely dangerous,” Collins says.

When it comes to safety, it's not just swimming pools you need to be alert to. It’s also lakes, rivers, and even smaller unexpected sources of water like buckets or even toilets, which can be a risk for kids this young. 

When they are ready to advance, practice “swimming” with your child. This helps to familiarize them with floating and using their arms and legs. Start by having them hold onto the edge of the pool. Keep the distance between you and your child about an arm’s length away. Encourage them to let go and swim towards you any way they can. This may take the form of doggie paddling, and that is okay. The point is not to perfect a swim stroke, but to help them gain confidence and have fun. As they become more comfortable, increase the distance between you and the wall. 

Guidelines for Older Kids

Elementary age kids, such as kindergarten to second grade, are often young enough to still need you in the pool with them. Use pool time as an opportunity to talk to them about the importance of safety in and around water. “At this age, children tend to be rule followers and can comprehend what danger is,” says Collins.

When in the pool with your emerging swimmer, Collins says to give them small challenges like putting their face in the water, jumping to your arms from the side of the pool, and touching the bottom of the pool at the shallow end. And of course, always remember to celebrate. 

When your child reaches middle school age, Collins says they are often easily embarrassed about their lack of swimming ability, which makes this a great time for parents to have an open dialog about water safety.

Since teenagers are more rational, he recommends watching videos on water safety, especially since learning the facts about drowning can be a real eye-opener. At this age, most teens can stand up with their head above water in some parts of the pool. Once they find a water level they are comfortable with, Collins says to have them try to swim three feet, then five feet, then 10 feet, standing up when they need to.

A Word from Verywell

While teaching your child basic swimming skills such as kicking, moving their arms, the doggie paddle, and proper safety measures can help protect against drowning, it’s not the only way to keep them safe while in the water. To get started on the right track, you should also consider a few of the pool safety guidelines from the AAP.

  • Always be close by when your child is in the pool. If you do need to leave, take them with you. 
  • If the pool is at a residence, make sure the gates open out from the pool, and self-close and self-latch at a height children can’t reach. Also, ensure the gate surrounding the pool is at least four feet tall on all sides and completely separates the pool from the house and yard. 
  • The parent or caregiver that plans on teaching your child should also know how to swim and perform CPR. 
  • When working with your child, avoid using inflatable swimming aids such as “floaties.” If your child needs some type of flotation device, use a life jacket. 
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Swim Lessons: When to Start & What Parents Should Know. Updated March 15, 2019.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Drowning Prevention. 2020.