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Toddler Swimming: I Want Him [Her] To Swim By Christmas

A parent comes to you at the start of term three (July in Australia) with a child who has had no aquatic experience and requests the following from you:
"I want my three-year-old Toddler Swimming by Christmas, because we are going on a houseboat for two weeks and the child will need to know how to swim, so we can all enjoy the holiday".

How Would You Answer?

Wait... Get Your Lesson Plans Here

My first response is to say: "well let's see how we go but I cannot make any guarantees". I would take some time to explain that there are lots of factors that will affect the child's progress and I would happily refer them to this article "How long will it take for my child to learn to swim?".

Realistic Toddler Swimming

But let's take a look at this "Request" From a realistic perspective.

The behaviour of toddlers at this stage is more relaxed and autonomous. In this age group, they are beginning to negotiate and reason, although their limited capacity for personal understanding and language and their tendency to focus on one aspect of a situation make them appear one-sided and dogmatic.

This has the effect of a child’s agenda not necessarily being ours. That is if the child decides or is convinced by someone else that they are keen to develop aquatically they will do just that to the best of their physical ability. However, they may decide that they are only interested in something else entirely. They may, for instance, choose to only develop to where they want to or they may want to do things in their own way.

Image of an upset toddler and his teacher in the water: This article is about Toddler Swimming
Learning To Swim Is Hard

First of all, let's consider the psychological development of the 3-year-old child and implications in the aquatic environment.

In real life I have asked children to do a particular task to which they reply, “I can do it”. However, it has taken time to convince the child that because they believe that “they can do it” doesn’t necessarily mean their way is the best way and that they may, in fact, be better able to do “IT” another way.

Also, this potential and apparent strong-willed nature of the child will mean that in the environment of a boat on a river the child will have to be observed at all times; whether or not they are aquatically competent for their age.

Put another way even if they can swim like a fish you still have to watch them. Not only because of the potential for accidents that are typical of this age group, but also in case they get into their mind that they "can do it", when in fact that “IT” is something that is dangerous for them to do.

Physical Development Of Toddlers(36-42 months)

And The Implications In The Aquatic Environment

Toddlers can now organize their movements into more complex patterns such as those needed for galloping and hopping and show more rhythmical organization.

They are able to propel themselves successfully through the water and coordinate limb movements with their breathing in patterns for swimming. However, this does not mean that they are capable of swimming at a very high standard. That is, the expectation of a child being able to do laps in a pool is not a realistic one. More than this a river is not a pool environment.

The pool is a relatively controlled environment:
  • A relatively constant temperature;
  • It is supervised at all times and
  • The only currents are those caused by other swimmers
In contrast, to this a river environment has constantly changing temperatures, is often fast flowing and has many eddies and snares to contend with. Just to mention a few of its differences. A child of this age who has been learning swimming skills long enough may, in fact, be able to negotiate their way to safety but it is not a sure thing. A child of this age who has been learning swimming skills long enough may be able to play in a controlled river area but only with the assistance of a watchful parent who is in the water with them.

Is The Request Reasonable and Achievable?

Basically, there is insufficient information: What does the parent understand by Swimming? Is it intended that the child should be swimming in the river as part of the recreation (in which case apart from the above considerations issues such as hypothermia need to be considered)?

Prodigy Swimmer

If the parents understanding of swimming is a prodigy swimmer able to do laps, swim freely in a river or even be guaranteed to get themselves out of trouble should they fall off the boat into the water? My answer would be “NO”.

Would the child be safer having done lessons before the trip? Yes, but more because they have a better awareness of water than because of their capacity to get themselves out of trouble. I concede that they would have more of a chance of recovering safely with the lessons than not. But surely it is better to never let it happen than find out.

Age Appropriate Swimmer

On the other hand, if the parent’s understanding is of a more age appropriate swimmer; being able to play in a controlled area but only with the assistance of a watchful parent. My answer would be “Yes, maybe”.

The skills a child of this age can learn should hopefully be able to manage themselves well enough for a parent to be able to assist them should they get into difficulty even in a river environment. But it is both unsafe to rely on it and an unrealistic expectation to be placed on a child of most ages.

By a watchful parent, I mean a parent who is in the water with the child at all times and who has knowledge of what to look out for in that environment. Knowing what to look out for in this environment should include knowledge of water dangers such as hypothermia and sunburn as well as local knowledge of the swimming area itself.

The clear implications are that on a boat on a river a child would need to be under constant supervision regardless of how much swimming experience they had. I know nothing about boats on the river however it would seem to me that it would not be a place where a child could play freely. Limitations would have to be set. The river environment is a challenge to even the most experienced of swimmers. A parent should make themselves aware of the boat and the river environment, making sure that there are reasonable safety rules possible for this age child and equipment in place before embarking on such a trip.

My Conclusion

If the parent that came to me asking this question was hoping that they could go on a boat trip and be carefree on the boat then they are not being realistic and should be told that. But I'd still teach the child to swim because it is safer for them to have the skill however rudimentary than not.


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