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What is the best first sport for kids?

W. Steen James, MD, FAAP


This is something I talk about with parents a lot. I always tell them that, for many reasons, swimming is the best sport for kids to learn first.

Swimming is a fun, relaxing activity that fuels brain health and builds strong bodies. It's great for growing children, since learning to move in the water improves coordination and flexibility. With indoor pools, swim clubs and water fun parks in many communities, families often enjoy swimming year-round.

Benefits of swimming for kids & why early lessons are important

But there's a more important reason I urge parents to enroll their kids in swim lessons—well before other sports like t-ball, basketball and soccer. Beyond the fun and fitness it provides, swimming is an essential life skill that can help protect your child from drowning.

Drowning is the #1 cause of death among children aged 1 to 4. But research shows that teaching them to swim early in life is a key layer of prevention that can help avoid tragedies around water. Swimming is the only sport that can save lives.

Water is fascinating for children—and dangerous, too

Drowning can happen in seconds, and is often silent. My family knows first-hand how quickly a child can go under, whether it is swimming time or not.

When my son was a toddler, we moved into a home with a backyard pool. As parents, we talked extensively about water safety and the need for constant supervision. But one afternoon when we were outside my son tumbled into the pool and went under.

"It happened right in front of my eyes," my husband remembers. "I was only a few feet away, but it only took a split-second for him to fall in."

He pulled our son out by his ankles, and we were so relieved to find he was all right. Still, I was shaken. I worked in a regional hospital where young victims of water submersions came in all the time, and I knew how easily my son could have been permanently injured or even died that day.

For many children, swim lessons can start as early as 12 months

Children develop at different rates, so there's no hard-and-fast rule about when they should learn to swim. Emotional maturity, physical development and any special limitations will all come into play. Talk with your pediatrician about water safety and ask for advice on when it's best to begin teaching your child to swim.

Don't feel pressured to start lessons before your child's first birthday, since infants can't raise their heads out of the water well enough to develop swim breathing techniques. Even so, a water play class will get your little one accustomed to being in the pool—so if it seems like a fun option, go for it! You can follow up with formal lessons later on.

By age 4, nearly all children are ready for classes that help them build confidence and water safety skills. They will learn to float, tread water and find an exit point. By age 5 or 6, most can master basic swim strokes like the front crawl. (See "The 5 water safety skills that reduce drowning risks," below.)

Helping special-needs children become confident swimmers

Some parents worry that their child can't learn to swim alongside other kids. For example, if your child lives with autism, you might feel reluctant to start swim lessons. These concerns are understandable, but keep in mind that children with autism spectrum disorder are much more likely to drown or suffer water-related injuries than their peers. Risks for children with Down syndrome and other developmental conditions can be high, too—which makes water safety a must for these children.

The good news is that swimming can be very beneficial for special-needs kids. As they gain skill and confidence moving in the water, they may achieve better coordination, balance, muscle tone and stress relief. Many swim schools have sessions designed for special-needs children, taught by trained instructors with specialized skills. Ask your pediatrician and fellow parents for recommendations.

Resources for parents who want to build their own swim skills

According to an American Red Cross survey, at least 15% of people in the U.S. say they cannot swim. This includes people from all backgrounds, but culture, race and income do play a role, affecting access to quality swim lessons.

Learning to swim: overcoming barriers

For example, systemic racism that led to segregated pools and beaches kept generations of African American adults from becoming strong swimmers. (See the video, "Racism & Drowning: How the System Fails Black Youth & 3 Ways to Improve Water Safety," below.) And nearly 80% of children from households earning less than $50,000 lack good swimming skills, often because their parents never learned.

Parent-child swim classes

Your child will be safer and more confident near water if you can swim together as a family. Plus, swimming together is a great way to spend time and build bonds with your kids. If you're not a confident swimmer yet, parent-child swim classes might be a great place to start. U.S. Masters Swimming, a nonprofit organization that supports swimmers aged 18+, has resources for adult beginners, including a search tool to help you find adult classes near you.

Finding budget-friendly swim lessons near you

Private swim lessons can cost a lot, but there are many affordable options for families. Check with public pools, including local high schools, colleges and universities, which typically offer group classes at modest rates. Many YMCAs have sliding-scale discounts, and some swim centers offer special rates for siblings who enroll together.

Wondering how to evaluate swim schools and programs? Use this checklist of what to look for in a safe, quality program.

The 5 water safety skills that reduce drowning risks

The goal here isn't to shape every child into a future Olympic swimmer. What kids really benefit from is an early start in building the 5 basic water skills the American Red Cross says everyone needs to prevent drowning and other serious water-related injuries.

To be safe near water, people of all ages should be able to:

  1. Step or jump into water that goes above their head

  2. Come back to the surface and float or tread water

  3. Turn around in a full circle and find a way out of the water

  4. Swim at least 25 yards to the exit point

  5. Climb out without help, even if there is no ladder

How swimming can help your child in school, sports and more

Good swimming skills open a world of healthy social opportunities for your child. They'll feel confident saying "yes" to poolside parties, beach outings and waterside vacations with family and friends. Even if they never join the swim team, spending time in the water can help them build the stamina and strength needed to excel in other sports. And because it can be calming and relaxing, swimming can help your child develop resilience in the face of everyday stress.

Maybe that's why so many adults consider swimming a lifetime sport, something they loved as a child and continue to do wherever life takes them. I encourage you to take the plunge with your little one—and whenever you're worried about any aspect of water safety and health, ask your pediatrician.

More information

W. Steen James, MD, FAAP

W. Steen James, MD, FAAP, is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. James earned her undergraduate degree in early childhood development from Howard University and her medical degree from Emory University. A practicing pediatrician for nearly 40 years, she is the founder of Pediatrics Village, P.C. in Peachtree City, Georgia, just south of Atlanta.

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American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2023)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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