Learn to Swim Safety Skills and Expectations by Age

Learn to Swim Safety Skills and Expectations by Age


What do you think of when you think of a child ‘learning to swim’? Is it being able to keep their head up without struggling? Swimming underwater? Going into the ‘deep end’? The perfect freestyle? In my experience, most parents think of 'learning to swim' as either learning a particular stroke or being able to be independent of an adult in the water. They want their child to be able to be free and safe to play in the water without distress or struggling, or perhaps learn strokes for exercise or to become competitive swimmers.

When I am talking with a new client about their expectations and goals for lessons, they rarely mention the need for learning any particular safety skills, besides the all-encompassing ‘not drowning’ or ‘being independent’. I almost always need to tell parents that safety skills are just as necessary as technique for children of all ages. The pool is a constantly changing and unpredictable environment; and it is not enough for children to only know proper swim technique. If the goal is to learn how to swim, that includes being "safer" around the water (children are never completely "water-safe"). This means teaching skills for the situations that we hope will never happen, but are an unavoidable part of the risk of swimming. Kids need to be prepared for emergency situations, and have their first reaction be an ingrained safety skill, not panic. People who panic in the water do not fare well and will end up an active drowning.

Dependent on age, physical ability, and cognitive development, here is a list of basic safety skills you should expect your child to learn from an experienced instructor. (Note: Every child is different, and these are general guidelines).

Swimming Lessons for infants and 1-2 year old toddlers

Back Float - baby swim skills

At this age, children’s physical and cognitive processing development won't allow them to swim a stroke such as freestyle. Although it might seem passive or disengaging, the number one most important safety skill is backfloating. Because these young children do not have the physical capability to lift their head to take a breath, being able to flip over or come up from under the water and be on their back is life saving. If they are on their back, they are not using up energy stores thrashing or kicking, and the water is clear from their face. They are able to scream or cry for help; which is imperative considering that most drownings are silent and quick, and occur with adults nearby.

When I teach infants and toddlers to backfloat, we practice various scenarios, including swimming out into open water and turning over, ‘falling’ in and going right on the back, and going face first into the water and going right onto the back. From there, (after age one when the student is walking), students learn to kick back to the nearest wall and/or call for help. A good instructor will practice these skills over and over again, so that they become reflexive, pushing the child to be more independent each time.

As the swimmer gets older and more comfortable, the instructor gives less help, until it gets to the point where the student can completely enter the water, turn over into a backfloat, and get back to the wall without assistance.

On another note, these water entrances mimic falling in, so it is crucial that students do NOT wear goggles. Goggles (all the time) before the age of 4 are a safety risk for children, because they become a crutch like arm floaties. If kids don’t have them that are used to wearing them all the time, they panic because they think they cannot swim. Babies and toddlers do not need goggles. In a real emergency, it is unlikely that a child will be wearing goggles, and they must know how to go under water and swim without them comfortably. Kids that are used to wearing goggles are reluctant to swim without them, so it is essential that they learn to swim without them to truly be safer around the water.

Swimming Lessons for 3, 4 and 5 year olds

At this age, there is tremendous physical and developmental growth that occurs, and children will vary widely in their skillset, capability, experience in the water, and learning pace. This is the absolute crucial and best age that students should be learning to swim. After 5, it is much more difficult for beginning students, as there is usually much more fear and psychological barriers to overcome.

Dependent on the child, back-floating is still key, but much more independent, and the emergency scenarios should be more realistic. Jumping in and turning over/getting back to the wall should be at a farther distance and without goggles, and less hands on assistance from the instructor. At this age, I can actually talk through situations with kids and ask them/practice what to do, and why it’s important. Around 4-5, kids will probably be swimming more independently, learning front crawl or gliding. It is also important that they are able to turn over onto back, and either float to catch their breath, and do a streamlined flutter kick on the back.

At Sunsational, we guarantee that your child (aged three or older) will be able to swim without help back to the edge of the pool after their instructor drops them into the water by the time they have completed their "Learn to Swim Guarantee" lesson package. With 12 private lessons, these foundational safety skills should be honed to a point where they can complete the "Sunsational Safety Sequence": Turn Around, Kick and Grab the Wall.

baby swim skills - grab the wall

I often tell swimmers of this age group that if they are ever tired in the water, it’s always okay to flip on your back, catch your breath, and float or kick. The minute they go vertical in the water, they are struggling and using a great deal of energy to keep themselves afloat. Another ‘resting’ stroke I teach for safety purposes is elementary backstroke, where they can use both arms and legs with minimal effort to get back to the side.

Swimming Lessons for 5, 6 and 7 year olds

kids swimming skills

Most children have had experience with swimming and are more independent in the water at this age (again, this varies widely, and is only a general guideline). For safety skills, instructors should continue with various strokes on the back that allow students to breathe more freely with their face out of the water, including backstroke. The danger at this age (even if kids can ‘swim’) is kids pushing themselves too far or too deep and not realizing the signs of exhaustion; which can lead to panic and an active drowning situation. Even if they have mastered the backfloat, it is important to practice the skill often and explain to students that this is what they need to do if they are too tired. I have found that purposeful explanation of why and quizzing them on scenarios really solidifies these concepts and subsequent actions if they ever find themselves in a dangerous situation.

Although it is fine for this age group to swim with goggles for play or when learning strokes and techniques, it is still necessary that they practice safety skills without them. They should be able to swim the same distance with goggles and without, and get themselves on their back and to the wall without trepidation or hesitation.

Swim Lessons for Older Kids and Teens:

In this age group (if they have experience swimming), the most risk is still pushing themselves too hard and becoming exhausted or panicked. I have found that creating little scenarios with them and having conversations about what to do is the most helpful. Things like,

- “if you are playing with your friends and they grab onto you in the pool where you can’t stand, what do you do?”

- “should we ever swim alone, and why or why not?”

- “what happens when you are really tired, but in the middle of the pool?”

- “How deep should the pool be to dive standing up?”

Embedding these real life situations into their consciousness and a plan of what to do is critical to saving lives.

Many instructors and swim programs also list treading water as a safety skill at this age. Treading water is very important, particularly in deep pools where swimmers can’t stand but often like to play and keep their head up. However, treading water takes a lot of physical energy and can exhaust even experienced swimmers quickly. It is integral to teach treading water, with the caveat of explaining that it is NOT a skill the swimmer should use when they are tired, because it will drain them and put them in danger. In those scenarios, swimmers should go to floating or kicking on their back until they can reach the side or shallow water.


I hope that you, as a parent or instructor, now have more insight into what safety skills are crucial in learning to swim. Sometimes it may seem like the child isn’t doing much during a lesson in safety, but proficiency in safety skills can mean the difference of another drowning. There is a symbiotic relationship between swim techniques and safety, and have patience that your instructor is not only teaching them to swim, but to save their own life in the water.

At Sunsational Swim School, we provide private at-home swimming lessons and bring the swim school to your pool! Learn more about our program and get started today!

Lisa Jablonski Clark’s bio:

Swim Instructor in San Francisco, CA

Hello! My name is Lisa. I've taught swimming for 12 years. I grew up in Arizona, I love the water, and when I moved closer to the ocean in California, I got my scuba certification. I have worked with fearful children and adults, stroke refinement, children w/disabilities, and babies. I have 11 years professional classroom experience as an art teacher & a master's degree in art education. The best part about teaching swimming is that it's a life-long and life-saving skill!

Call Us at 1-888-788-2140 to book your Swimming Lessons Today


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