All mammals can swim. Even cats. I remember learning this in grade school as part of our introduction to the natural world. In fact, there are very few animals that cant swim in one way or another. Many dont, or at least not often, but they are able should the need arise. Yet, Im always surprised by the number of people, both children and adults, who tell me they cant swim. Included are members of island communities, passengers on cruise ships and others surrounded by water. Either they never had an opportunity to learn, were understandably afraid of the water or never felt a need to know.
I was lucky. Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, I had opportunity, motivation and instruction at an early age. Simply learning to swim as a child has altered my life in countless positive ways and for this Im grateful.
Even though our first home in Southern California was only a few miles from the sea, my first memories of swimming are indelibly linked with the smell of chlorine, stinging eyes and whistle blowing instructors yelling, Kick from the hips! This was not fun. Indoor pools with heated water that left little boys and girls shivering, followed by equally chilling compulsory showers, were the domain of swimming lessons. I was not there by choice. My parents made me go. Today (as they told me I would), I thank them. What I didnt realize at the time, as few kids do, is that it was just as much for their own peace of mind as it was for my skill development.
Having the ability to swim not only led to adventures beneath the sea but also allowed my parents to remain at ease when I hopped on my bike and headed for the water. We had the ocean nearly in our front yard so learning to swim was an essential component of enjoying the neighborhood. A walk around the block was a walk to the sea.
Clearly, the ocean doesnt lap at the shores of everyones neighborhood. However, roughly 75 percent of our planet is covered by water. Rivers, streams, lakes and, if not those, then swimming pools are abundant. In todays world, we enjoy unprecedented mobility. Surely at some point nearly everyone will encounter a large body of water and have either the invitation or potential to dive (or fall) in. Just as learning to walk is a totally natural and expected skill to give young ones freedom on land, learning to swim allows freedom in the water. No matter where a family is raised, issues of personal safety and parental responsibility dictate teaching ones children to swim.
In most communities there are numerous opportunities for developing your childs skills in the water. Some public schools still offer swimming lessons as part of a physical education program but, with fiscal cutbacks, this is not always the case. However, most Red Cross organizations and YMCAs offer lessons at modest cost.
There are many opinions concerning the ideal age to immerse children in water. Some experts say as early as 18 months (or even younger), while others believe kids will benefit more after they are confident on their feet, say between two and five years old. One of my first jobs as a young college student was teaching swimming to this age group and, without exception, they took to the water very successfully. And, at this age we could also talk to each other, which proved beneficial most of the time!
Its also important to understand that learning to swim refers to a broad range of skill levels. Mastering complicated strokes and coordination is not critical. Most importantly, kids should learn to feel comfortable and relaxed in the water and, at the very least, know how to float. Not only will this help prevent drowning, injury or intimidation, its also the most significant step in planning your familys next snorkeling holiday; a topic you can read more about in this months Tips & Techniques.