An introduction to swimming for children
Learning to swim is a memorable experience – for both children and parents. It can be nerve-racking if your children aren’t confident swimmers. But once they start improving their skills, swimming is rewarding. Indeed, it’s considered an important life skill. 70% of parents think swimming is the most important sport for children to learn, according to The Swimming Teachers Association (STA).
Being comfortable in and around water can maximise safety. Yet one in three children between the ages of 10-16 can’t swim. The 2017 report, again from STA, highlighted how parents struggle with a lack of time and money to teach them. But did you know swimming is on the National Curriculum?
With more than 700 people drowning in the UK and Ireland every year, it’s no surprise that swimming is a priority for the government. But with targets falling behind, what can be done? In this guide, we explore the importance of teaching children to swim and how to improve safety and hygiene.
Why should your children learn to swim?
First and foremost, swimming is fun. Most children love getting in the water and for people of all ages, it’s an enjoyable leisure activity. But there’s another important reason why everyone should be given the opportunity to learn: swimming is one of the only sports which can save your child’s life.
According to Swim England, drowning is still one of the most common causes of accidental death in children. Learning to swim can be lifesaving. Yet a surprising amount of people reach adulthood with restricted skills. As part of Drowning Prevention Week 2019, research from The Royal Life Saving Society UK found that:
- Nearly 30% of people surveyed said that their swimming abilities limited the activities they could do
- 20% admitted they couldn’t swim at all
You don’t want your child to grow up not knowing how to swim, or potentially being fearful of the water. Swimming is something that children of any age or ability can get involved with – in fact, it’s one of the most accessible sports for anyone with additional needs.
Here are some of the other benefits of learning to swim:
- Swimming is a great cardiovascular workout and burns calories without putting strain on the joints
- When learning, key accomplishments are rewarded, and it can encourage self-confidence in children
- It opens up the opportunity to take part in other sports, such as kayaking, surfing or triathlons, which require swimming skills
In the UK, most of us – children and adults – don’t meet the national recommendations for physical activity. In fact, there are growing concerns about how sedentary behaviour can affect us. It’s all too easy to stay glued to our screens, whether that’s the TV, a laptop or our phones. It’s something all of us can relate to, which is what makes the health benefits of swimming for exercise some of the most persuasive.
For children and young people (aged 5-18 years old), it’s recommended you should be physically active for an average of at least 60 minutes a day. For adults, as well as strengthening activities, at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week is recommended.
Yet few of us are achieving the recommended amounts of exercise, as Sport England reports:
- 90% of 2- 4-year olds
- 80% of 5-15-year olds
- 39% of adults
So, why swim? Of course, any exercise is beneficial. But swimming is great because it can:
- Lower stress levels
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Improve sleep patterns
- Improve heart health
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve lung capacity
- Increase bone strength
Source: The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming report, June 2017
There are positive statistics about swimming participation. The graph below shows the share of children participating in swimming, diving or life-saving activities in England. Children of different ages are getting involved with swimming – in fact, it’s the most popular sport among 5 to 10-year olds in England.
What age should children learn?
There is an argument that positive swimming experiences in childhood reduce the likelihood of developing a fear of water later in life. Whatever your take on that, it’s an optimal time to start gaining good experiences. In general, children and young people tend to have higher participation rates in swimming. The earlier you can start encouraging healthy habits, the better.
Taking babies swimming
Despite what many people believe, babies can go swimming immediately. According to NHS guidelines, there’s no need to wait until your baby has had their first immunisations. However, a lot of baby classes won’t take newborns until they’ve had these injections, so be sure to check with your local pool.
You can take your baby outside of a dedicated class too. Just make sure to familiarise yourself with the facilities – in particular, what temperature the water is. It needs to be at least 32°C for babies under three months. For anyone starting to take their baby swimming, here are some tips to help familiarise your child with the water:
- Keep your baby facing you the first few times
- Hold your baby safe in the cradle position
- Encourage your baby to experience buoyancy
- Get your baby’s face wet
- Get your baby used to their ears being underwater
- Give your baby freedom in the water and play games
- Sing nursery rhymes
Swimming with young children
Children develop at different rates. But while there’s no ‘correct’ age children should be able to swim by, it’s an important life skill. When thinking about when to start lessons, consider your own child, their maturity, physical abilities and how comfortable they are in water.
With younger children, it can be beneficial to start with classes that are designed for both parent and child. It’s a good way to get them used to, and excited to be in the water. After all, it’s got to be fun.
However, by the time they reach around 4 years of age, swimming lessons become more important because children can start learning skills which are vital for safety. This includes floating, treading water, getting back to the surface from underwater and propelling themselves forward.
Children with a fear of swimming
Not everyone loves being in the water. All it takes is one bad experience to become afraid of swimming. For some children, they have to gain confidence from the beginning; after all, water can be scary for little ones. Some of the most important things to remember as a parent include:
- Don’t rush it. Try and be patient. Swimming should be fun, so piling on the pressure to get in the water may make things worse.
- Get them used to their surroundings. Pools can be noisy, busy places. You could start with non-swimming visits to build up their confidence in the environment and work up to spending time on the pool edge. The first step is getting their feet wet, so you could encourage them to play with some water toys while sitting on the side.
- Set an example. Some adults are also nervous of the water, but you don’t want your child to pick up on the fact you’re not happy in the pool. Stay calm and relaxed, or let your child go swimming with someone who is.
Essential purchases for swimming with children
Depending on the age of the child you’re taking swimming, this list may vary. But it can help as a starting point when you’re packing for your child’s first swimming lesson:
- Swimming costume or shorts
- Swim nappies
- Arm bands or a float jacket
- Swimming caps
- Shower gel, shampoo and conditioner
- Hair bands
- Coins for the lockers
Swimming at school
According to GOV.uk, swimming instruction should be provided in Key Stage 1 or 2. Pupils should be taught to:
- Swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres
- Use a range of strokes effectively
- Perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations
You may remember learning to swim in primary school. But it’s becoming less common and almost one in four cannot swim the statutory 25m when they leave primary school. This isn’t surprising, as only 8% of the parents surveyed by STA said that their child has swimming lessons through their school.
Without dedicated time, primary school children are failing to gain the skills necessary. A lot of the pressure is falling on parents to ensure their children can swim safely. But this isn’t without its challenges, as parents report problems with time and money, citing membership costs and inflexible pool opening times as the main reasons for not taking their children swimming regularly.
The Swim England Learn to Swim Programme is the national syllabus used to help teachers deliver swimming lessons. According to their Swim Census 2018, 1.18 million children learn to swim on the programme – but that’s across all sites, private swim schools and aquatic clubs.
It’s no surprise the government has supported a drive to ensure all children can swim by the end of primary school, offering extra support and improved guidance to primary schools in England. Launched in spring 2019, it’s part of the government’s sport strategy ‘Sporting Future’ and will have access to a £320 million PE and Sport Premium. It’s hoped this will give more children the opportunity to learn to swim at school.
Swimming pool safety
If you’d like to dedicate more time to taking your children swimming, you’ll want to do it safely. One of the most important things for families to ask about is the adult and child supervision policies – to maximise safety, children need to be watched at all times.
Every pool has its own policies, but The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) – the leading national professional body for sport and recreational management in the UK – says it’s likely the following is true:
- If the children are in a designated area for non-swimmers and can swim (or will be wearing armbands), one adult can look after:
- Two children under the age of three
- Three children aged between four to seven
Policies tend to be based on age because it does influence swimming ability and the child’s understanding of risks. Factors such as height, maturity and behaviour should also be considered.
If you’re looking to encourage improved skills or behaviour, you might also want to research private swimming lessons. Good programmes should tick all the following boxes:
- Have qualified instructors. Check for certifications from nationally recognised swimming bodies.
- Teach additional safety skills. As well as guidance on swimming strokes, skills like rolling over, floating and treading water are all essential for safety. Good lessons should cover these.
- Encourage good habits around water. When teaching children, instructors should encourage good practice – for example, asking for permission before entering the water.
- Prepare children for being in water unexpectedly. Part of being competent in water is learning to deal with the unexpected. Usually only suitable for older children, good lessons can provide guidance and practice for falling in and swimming with clothes on.
Understanding the signs
Most pools use the same signs, as there are certain requirements to make sure everyone understands the message. Signs are used to display vital safety information in a suitable and well-positioned way. With swimming pools, some of this information includes:
- Sudden changes in depth – for example, shallow and deep ends of the pool
- Where it is unsafe to swim or dive
- Instructions on how to use any equipment – for example, slides
Regulations for signs in the UK require them to be pictorial, clearly visible and kept in good condition. Where necessary, signs are supplemented by text.
Different signs are used to communicate various warnings, as seen below:
|Water Safety Signs|
|Signs that warn you of danger||Signs that mean you should not do something||Signs that mean you should do something|
Yellow background, with black symbols
They are placed to help you spot a hazard that is not always obvious
A red ring shape, with a line running through
White background, red line and black symbols or shapes
They inform you of things you are not supposed to do
Blue and circle shaped
White symbols or shapes
They inform you of things you need to do
|They mean that you should be aware of something.||These signs tell you that it would be dangerous to do something or go in that place.||These signs tell you that you should do something to be safe.|
Always pay attention to these signs, as they are there for everyone’s safety. Ignoring safety recommendations can put everyone at risk.
Supervision at pools
In addition to safety signs, poolside supervision should be provided. Depending on the size of the pool, there should be a sufficient number of trained lifeguards. The table below provides some guidance on the recommended number, but it doesn’t account for diving boards or any specialised equipment. If a pool has any slides, rapids, diving areas or uses inflatables, expect more lifeguards.
|Approx. pool size (m)||Area m2||Minimum no. of lifeguards||Recommended no. in busy conditions|
|25 x 10||250||1*||2|
|25 x 12.5||312||2||2|
|33.3 x 12.5||416||2||3|
|50 x 20||1000||4||6|
*If you have one lifeguard you must ensure they have means of calling for assistance in the event of an emergency.
Source: Guidance on the operation and use of small swimming pools, Lincolnshire Health & Safety Liaison Group
Lifeguards are there to keep everyone safe and as such, should hold a qualification from a relevant organisation (such as The Royal Life Saving Society UK), as well as a first aid qualification. That’s because it’s one of a lifeguard’s main responsibilities – to give immediate first aid when needed.
To maintain safety at pools, you can also expect lifeguards to:
- Observe the pool and anticipate any problems
- Stop any unsafe behaviour
- Communicate effectively with all pool users
- Effect rescues when needed
Water safety tips for all ages
Water safety isn’t all down to the lifeguards. Everyone should behave responsibly – and for parents, that includes encouraging your children too. Some of the key lessons to learn include:
- Walk around the pool. In all the excitement, it’s tempting for children to rush around. But running on surfaces that are potentially wet and slippery is a risky move. Always take care and walk, encouraging your children – no matter their age – to do the same.
- Stay within your abilities. Swim where you are comfortable – don’t try and go out of your depth without the right supervision. Of course, children are going to be more adventurous as they’re learning to swim and improve their skills. But new depths and lengths should be introduced slowly. And if you’re a nervous swimmer as an adult, remember you can always take lessons too.
- Get in and out of the pool carefully. This can be hazardous if you don’t take care, as many people ignore the steps and just get in the pool from the side. This can make it difficult for other swimmers to know where you’re going. Always use the steps and handrails where possible.
- Be wary of your surroundings. Many pools have a dedicated time for both ‘lane swimming’ and ‘family time’. Pay attention to this, as it’ll mean swimmers will behave differently. It’s unlikely you’ll have the pool to yourself, so you have to be conscious of what others are doing. Familiarise yourself with the pool too – including any slides, steps and so on.
- Encourage friendly play. Children like to play. But there’s additional risks in and around the water. Everyone has different swimming abilities so children may put each other in danger if they push each other beyond where they’re comfortable. Pushing, shoving and splashing can all be risky.
- Don’t drink alcohol. If you’re supervising children around a pool (or any body of water), it’s important to stay alert. It’s also not safe to swim yourself while under the influence of alcohol.
Water safety in other bodies of water
Outdoor swimming continues to grow in popularity. Between November 2017 and 2018, research from Active Lives Survey showed that more than 4.1 million people swam in lakes, lochs, rivers and seas. Memberships at outdoor swimming clubs are booming and more events and competitions are cropping up around the country.
A refreshing and invigorating experience, outdoor swimming is possible across the UK. But unlike swimming pools, where swimming is in designated areas supervised by lifeguards, a lot of outdoor swimming spots are unsupervised.
If you – or your children once they’re advanced swimmers – want to try swimming in rivers, lakes or in the sea, it’s recommended that you go to dedicated open water swimming venues or areas of beach which are patrolled by lifeguards.
Thanks to its growing popularity, there are venues which offer induction and training sessions for beginners. Swimming outside in natural bodies of water is completely different to the warmth and comfort of a swimming pool, so it’s a good idea to have your first go under the watchful eye of an expert.
Plus, outdoor swimming can be a very social sport. You’ll be able to find other swimmers to socialise with at swimming clubs and from Facebook groups. One benefit of this is sharing recommendations for safe swimming spots.
Other tips from RLSS include:
- Enter the water slowly, letting your body acclimatise to the temperature. You might feel your breathing increase as you adjust. Water in the UK isn’t warm, and it can be quite a shock if you jump in.
- Similarly, if you’re new to outdoor swimming, start with short swims. As you become more experienced and tolerant of the new conditions, you can start spending longer in the water.
- Make sure you’re visible by wearing a brightly coloured swimming hat. You can also buy inflatable tow floats that attach and trail behind you in the water. Any other water users will be able to see you from a safe distance.
- Stop swimming when you feel yourself getting cold or tired. It’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you, because your core temperature can drop. Always make sure you’ve packed warm clothes and a hot drink for when you leave the water too.
Swimming pool hygiene
We all want to swim in a clean pool. A lot of work goes into maintaining a clean and hygienic environment for swimmers. But not all pools live up to the same standards. If you spot any of the following warning signs, it’s probably a pool you want to avoid:
- Cloudy or dirty water. You should be able to see the bottom of the pool clearly.
- Slippery surfaces. Have you ever felt a slimy texture under your feet? That’s not a good sign of cleanliness. At a pool, surfaces should feel smooth and clean.
- Anything broken or missing. Proper maintenance contributes to hygiene standards. Pools have filtration systems, pumps and cleaning equipment. You might not be able to tell how these are working, but you’ll be able to notice if the pool is being looked after elsewhere.
Key hygiene risks
Sometimes germs can be spread around swimming pools, but it’s important to take a realistic look at the risks and what you can do to maximise hygiene. Any warm and damp environment can provide the ideal conditions for bacteria to multiply, but pools follow stringent regulations to ensure cleanliness is maintained. There should be nothing to worry about.
The aim is to avoid the spread of any recreational water illnesses (RWIs). This is the term used by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the leading national public health institute in the US, but can be applied to any country. It refers to any illness that can be spread at recreational water facilities, including swimming pools, hot tubs and spas. These illnesses include:
- Diarrhoea or gastrointestinal infections
- Skin infections
- Eye and ear infections
- Respiratory infections
- Infections of wounds and injuries
Verrucas are spread by contaminated surfaces or through close skin contact. According to the NHS, they’re more likely to be spread if the skin on the soles of your feet is wet or damaged – so swimming pool surrounds and changing areas can be a source of infection.
To prevent the spread of verrucas, the NHS recommend:
|Wash your hands after touching a verruca||Do not share towels, socks or shoes if you have a verruca|
|Change your socks daily if you have a verruca||Do not walk barefoot in public places if you have a verruca|
|Cover verrucas with a plaster when swimming|
Also referred to as plantar warts, verrucas are warts on the bottom of the foot. But how do you know if you have a verruca? The following characteristics are common:
- Verrucas range in size from 1mm to over 1cm in diameter
- The skin appears flat and thick, with a harder, raised edge and a softer centre
- Verrucas have a rough surface
- You may be able to see small black spots in the verruca (this is caused by bleeding in the verruca after standing and walking on it)
- Verrucas can cluster together
Verrucas can clear on their own without treatment, although this can take weeks or months. Because they can be unpleasant and painful to walk on, you may want to get them treated. You can buy gels, creams, plasters and sprays from pharmacies to get rid of verrucas.
But how do germs get into pools and the surrounding areas? Swimmers are actually one of the main ways contaminants get into pools – this could be via sweat, cosmetics, sunscreen, saliva etc. Other sources could be from dirt, food or any other solid that ends up in the pool. It’s easy for this to happen when people don’t follow the guidelines.
How swimming pools are kept clean
To maximise hygiene standards, proper sanitation is required. To control the risks of bacteria and germs spreading, filtration and disinfectants (most commonly chlorine) are used. These systems and chemicals are needed because completely preventing contaminants entering the pool is impossible.
Chlorine is quite a recognisable smell, but did you know a strong smell doesn’t indicate cleanliness? In fact, properly treated pools shouldn’t have a strong smell of chemicals. When chlorine mixes with contaminants in the water, the irritants produced are called chloramines – and that’s what smells.
But with a well-maintained system of pool filtration and recirculation, contaminants that are large enough to be filtered out can be removed quickly. Then a disinfection system is also needed to kill any pathogens and help to prevent those RWIs spreading. It is down to the pool to maintain the right level of chlorine or other disinfectant.
Keeping the pool clean should be one of the top priorities for pool managers. Protecting against the spread of germs is best achieved by routine monitoring and maintenance of chemical feed and filtration equipment.
Accidental and extreme contamination of pool water can’t be treated or controlled using the same methods. Pools normally have to be vacated and sometimes drained too.
Essential good practice for parents
We can all contribute to good standards of hygiene when swimming. After all, we all share the same water. It’s everyone’s responsibility to stick to good practice. This includes:
- Pre and post-swim showers. Most people know they’re supposed to have a shower after swimming. But it’s also important to shower before you enter the water.
A pre-swim shower gets rid of a number of germs on our bodies. The cleaner we are, the cleaner the water is. And for parents, it’s your responsibility to make sure the whole family showers before swimming.
- Go to the toilet before swimming – and showering. It’s best to use the toilet facilities first.
- Not swimming after diarrhoea or any gastroenteritis illness. One of the main germs causing gastrointestinal infection is cryptosporidium, which is resistant to chlorine. This makes it vital for anyone who has been ill to stay away from pools for at least a week.
- Don’t swallow pool water. This one can be trickier for children who might get water in their mouths, but it really does minimise exposure to pathogens. Encourage your children to learn to swim with their mouths closed.
- Be cautious with young children. For any children that aren’t yet toilet trained, it’s best to get them to wear leak-proof swimwear where possible. Some pools might also recommend staying within smaller pools. That’s because if an accident happens, the pool can be drained.
- Don’t swim if you feel sick or have open wounds. Swimming with a suppressed immune system won’t do you any favours and could spread germs to others too. Similarly, wounds will not only be susceptible to infection, but will spread germs.
- Take care if you wear contact lenses. No swimmers should get water in their eyes, but extra precautionary measures should be taken by contact lens wearers. This could include removing lenses, wearing goggles or using daily disposables.
- Consider your footwear options. All pools should ban outdoor shoes from the poolside and shower areas (or provide plastic disposable shoe covers). But policies on indoor sandals and flip flops will vary from pool to pool. Many people like to have dedicated shoes to wear in the showers and around the pool, but these must be clean to prevent the spread of germs. The best option is to have well-positioned showers so everyone has washed their feet before going to poolside barefoot.
Footbaths are also a common sight, but they can be a barrier for disabled people. Another effective method of cleaning feet is the use of foot sprays.
By taking extra care, you can avoid key hygiene problems and contribute to a safe, clean swimming environment for everyone.
Swimming Safety Tips
The Outdoor Swimming Society: is it safe?
Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments
Swimming Pool Hygiene
The A - Z of Why Swimming Is Great for Kids
Why Your Child Should Learn to Swim