Swimming is an enjoyable aerobic activity that can help children develop strength, flexibility, and endurance. A 1991 study found that the hundreds of thousands of young people enrolled in organized swim programs throughout the United States are thinner, stronger, and in better health than their nonswimming peers in a nation where 34% of children are reportedly overweight and up to half do not receive enough aerobic exercise to maintain adequate cardiovascular fitness. Participation in swimming programs also promotes self-discipline and responsibility and develops regular exercise habits that can benefit children throughout their lives. Swimming is especially well-suited for children because it results in fewer injuries than any other sport. It takes place in a safe environment and does not place undue stress on growing tendons, joints, and bones. The rhythmic breathing and lung expansion involved in swimming provide relief for children with asthma, and swimming can be an important form of exercise and a valuable source of accomplishment and self-esteem for young people with a wide range of physical disabilities.
Although there is universal agreement that swimming is beneficial for children, opinion is split when it comes to the value and advisability of swim lessons for infants and toddlers. This issue has caused controversy as the number of infant swim programs has increased in recent years. Proponents of teaching infants to swim have claimed that babies as young as six months old can be taught to swim sufficiently to be considered "pool safe"—able to swim to the side of a pool unassisted if they accidentally fall into the water or mistakenly jump or wander into deep water. It has also been claimed that early swimming advances a child's motor development and promotes good health. Proponents of early swimming point out that very young infants placed in water will automatically keep themselves afloat by paddling and that early lessons take advantage of this "swimming reflex," which disappears after about six months. Opponents of infant swimming say that this type of paddling isn't really swimming, and that an infant who engages in it could actually drown at any time. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against swimming lessons for children under the age of four, claiming that children this young will forget their training in an emergency
Whether actual swimming lessons are pursued, infants and toddlers can become comfortable in water through games played in the bathtub or shower (with careful adult supervision) and water orientation classes with their parents at a local community pool or YMCA. Phillip Whitten, author of the Complete Book of Swimming, recommends beginning lessons at the age of four or five. Suggested criteria for choosing a program include instructor certification by the YMCA, American Red Cross, or National Safety Council; the presence of a lifeguard during classes; and a comfortably low ratio of students to teachers (six to one for beginners; ten to one for intermediate and advanced swimmers). Early swimming skills for young students include kicking while holding onto a kicking board; dog paddling and blowing bubbles; learning to float; opening one's eyes underwater; and kicking while floating on one's back. Once they have mastered these early steps, children are ready to learn the proper arm and breathing techniques for free-style swimming and, later, the strokes used in competitive swimming: the butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke.
There are currently over 220,000 young people between the ages of 8 and 18 enrolled in the United States Swimming (USS) competitive age-group program, as well as hundreds of thousands more participating in similar programs through a variety of local organizations, including YMCAs, Jewish community centers, and country clubs. In addition to the immediate and long-term benefits to the young people who participate, these programs have helped make the United States a top contender in competitive swimming at the international level since the 1950s. There are five standard age groups in the USS program: 10 and under, 11 and 12, 13 and 14, 15 and 16, and 17 and 18. (Many areas also have an "eight-and-under" group.) Boys and girls train together but compete separately, and they are rated separately for every event according to national standards ranging from C (lowest) to AAAA (highest). Within every age group, children and adolescents compete against others in their own rating group. The top swimmers at the local level go on to compete for championships at the regional and junior national levels, and the top swimmers in the oldest group are also eligible for competition in the senior national meets. The United States Swimming program has produced world and Olympic champions such as Mark Spitz, Janet Evans, Jenny Thompson, and Pablo Morales.
Competitive swimming promotes physical fitness, independence, and self-confidence, as well as a comfortable, healthy relationship with members of the opposite sex. Even though swimmers have less time for schoolwork, their training makes them able to focus better, and they can usually get more done than their peers in a shorter amount of time. However, swim competitions also involve inevitable disappointments, and attendance at training sessions and meets requires a substantial commitment of time and effort by both children and their families and impinges on the time available for normal socializing. In addition, parents can become overly caught up in the competitive aspect of the sport and place undue pressure on their children to perform well.
Children's participation in all water activities requires safety precautions by both children and their parents. Every year, drowning takes the lives of approximately 600 children in the United States under the age of five and about 220 children between the ages of five and nine. (The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that about one-fourth of the older children who drown know how to swim.) The single most important safety precaution is making sure that young children playing in or near water are watched continuously: a child can go under in 10-20 seconds without making a sound. In an emergency, anyone who is not a strong swimmer should run for help rather than attempting a rescue on his own. General water safety measures also include never diving into water without being sure of its depth; never pushing anyone into the water; and keeping children from running, fighting, or riding tricycles at the edge of a pool. It is also important to keep the gates to backyard pools locked when children are not supposed to play there. Other ways to make a backyard pool safer include leaving kicking boards and buoys in the water around the clock; keeping a telephone with emergency numbers near the pool area; and keeping the water clean with pool-cleaning equipment to reduce the health risk in case water is swallowed during an emergency.
One traditional safety precaution that is now largely discounted is the popular prohibition on swimming within 30 minutes after eating. Many physicians now say that it is no more dangerous for children to swim after eating than it is for them to engage in other active pursuits.
Bory, Eva. Teach Your Child to Swim: An Instructional Guide to the Basics of Swimming. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Delzeit, Linda. Swimming Made Fun and Easy: Step by Step Advice for Beginning and Advanced Swimmers. Dubuque, IL: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1991.
Langendorfer, Stephen, and Lawrence D. Bruya. Aquatic Readiness: Developing Water Competence in Young Children. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 1995.
National Swimming Pool Safety Committee. Children Aren 't Waterproof. National Swimming Pool Safety Committee, U.S. Product Safety Commission. Washington, DC, 1987.
Whitten, Phillip. The Complete Book of Swimming. New York: Random House, 1994.