How Quickly Can You Teach a Child to Swim?

father and daughter swimming in a pool underwater
(Mutlu Kurtbas/Getty Images)

How fast can you teach a child to swim? Start by asking you these three questions: How fast does a child learn to walk? How fast does a child learn to talk? How quickly does a child learn to read? Learning to swim is really not much different. It is a process, not an event. Can you remember when you were teaching your child how to walk or talk? Do you remember how encouraging and how excitable you were as your child made even baby steps of progress?

It's important that you give the same unconditional support and patience when your child is learning to swim. With that said, there are a variety of things to account for when determining how quickly you can teach a child to swim:

  • Your definition of swimming
  • Age of the child
  • Experiences
  • Natural ability
  • Individual's focus, effort, and motivation level
  • Instructor's level of teaching expertise

Your Definition of Swimming

Ask 10 different people this question and you may get 10 different answers. Here is a set of benchmarks that define what children are capable of performing in the water, within reason:

  • 3 months: Baby is capable of happily having water gently poured over the head.
  • 6 months: Baby is capable of performing a brief underwater pass.
  • 12 months: Baby is capable of a brief underwater swim.
  • 18 months: Toddler is capable of maneuvering himself through the water for 3-5 seconds using the legs for propulsion (independently).
  • 24 months: Toddler is capable of getting back to the side of the pool from a sitting entry.
  • 30 months: Toddler is capable of swimming with face in the water for 7-10 feet.
  • 36 months: Toddler is capable of getting back to the side of the pool from a standing entry.
  • 3 ½ years: Child is capable of swimming with the face in the water and breathing as needed using a pop-up or roll-over breath.
  • 4 years: Child is capable of swimming freestyle with the face in the water for 20 feet.
  • 5 years: Child is capable of swimming freestyle with side breathing and backstroke for 30 feet.
  • 6 years: Child is capable of swimming a 100-yard individual medley (25 yards of each stroke: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) competently.

Some teachers would argue that everyone should be able to master the 5-year old benchmarks at minimum (freestyle with side breathing and backstroke for a minimum of 30 feet), and preferably the 6-year old benchmarks (100 yard swim, 25 yards of each stroke). Those are the basics of swimming. At the same time, it's also important to realize that younger children, for example, aren't physically capable of those strokes yet.

Age of the Child

A child's motor skills, or what the child is capable of in terms of their development, will play a critical role in the student's progress. How quickly a child learns any sports skill is limited by their motor skill development. Naturally, as children get older their motor skills improve. So while a 3-year old may be able to learn to swim a distance of 15 feet with their face in the water in 25-30 lessons, a 6-year old may be able to learn the same skill in 10-15 lessons, simply because the 6-year old's motor skills are further developed.

While there are advantages in starting later (for example, a 6-year old child may learn twice as quickly as a 3-year old), there are also disadvantages too, i.e. the child who learns at a younger age is usually "more natural and comfortable" in the water.

Experiences, Frequency, Longevity, and Duration

Previous positive experiences in the water and additional practice opportunities will increase the child's improvement rate, while any previous negative experiences can certainly hinder the child's ability to progress at a normal rate.

The frequency or the number of classes per week can also be a significant role in progress. For young children, two to three sessions per week are superior to one lesson per week, unless, of course, you discontinue lessons after two - four weeks. If your child is enrolled in swim lessons for 4 months per year, at an average of two times per week, that would equal 32 lessons.

Those 32 lessons at twice per week will be more effective than 32 lessons in a once per week or four days per week scenario.

Duration of a young child's class (especially 6 and under) should be kept to 30 minutes or less. 60 minutes of lessons per week divided into 2 classes is much more effective than 60 minutes per week all in one day. Not only is this true from a physiology standpoint, but also from a motivational one.

Natural Ability

Natural ability, or one's genetic and physical makeup, can certainly decrease the length of time it takes for one individual to learn to swim, while it may increase the length of time it takes another individual. It's important for parents and swimming instructors to understand that every child can learn to swim despite a lack of natural ability. Avoid making comparisons at all costs, especially in front of a child who appears to have a lesser ability. Nothing will hinder a child's progress more than a lack of self-confidence, which is directly associated with learning "they aren't as good" as their peers.

Focus, Effort, and Motivation Level

A child who is focused, has great effort, and is highly motivated can quickly overcome a lack of natural ability, which reinforces the reason to do whatever you can to help increase a child's confidence, not tear it down. By the same token, a child who is blessed with superior talent will progress at a slower rate if he/she is not motivated to learn or give a focused effort.

Instructor's Level of Teaching Expertise

While every instructor and coach's effectiveness is limited to some degree by many of the factors mentioned above, a swim teacher with a bag full of tricks and solid teaching fundamentals can make a significant difference in how quickly a child learns to swim.

How Quickly Can a Child Learn To Swim?

Infants and toddlers can make great progress toward learning skills that will make them more "skill ready" to master more advanced swim skills, and even learn safety skills that save their life. However, because their motor skills are not as well developed, learning advanced swimming skills takes considerably longer than it does for older children to master similar skills.

Infants (between six and twelve months) can learn to hold their breath long enough to buy a parent a few valuable extra seconds in the case of an accidental water entry. By nineteen months, a toddler can learn to return to the side of the pool, and by twenty-four months, the skill can be executed with ease if you've kept your young swimmer exposed to swim lessons.

It takes most 3-5-year-old students 20 to 30 lessons to swim well enough to get across a small pool (15 feet wide) and perform basic safety swimming skills. For a 6-9-year-old, it usually takes anywhere from eight to 20 lessons. Again, these are both just estimates with a number of variables that must be considered (as mentioned above).

Learning to swim formal strokes, such as freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, sidestroke, and elementary backstroke can take longer, depending on the child's age.

While many instructors feel it's extremely important that children ages 6 and under learn formal strokes, the formal strokes are complex skills that require more coordination than does a paddling stroke or underwater swim with a pop-up or rollover breath.

While those basic swimming skills may be the most important ones for a young child for basic water safety, mastering the freestyle, backstroke(s), breaststroke, and sidestroke are nearly as important if a child found herself in a more challenging situation, such as in the middle of a lake from a capsized watercraft or in a river with moving water.

This brings us to one more important consideration. What is the best age to start learning to swim? Any age! It's never too late or too early to learn how to swim!