May marks National Water Safety Month and with the start of summer right around the corner, there’s no better time to make sure both you and your child are prepared with some serious swim smarts. As fun as splash season can be, it’s important that everyone is armed with the skills and caution necessary to make it a safe summer.

“Drowning is the leading cause of death for young children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of 13,” says Korrinn Lubarsky, aquatics director at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center and director of the JCC’s Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy. “Since drowning statistics have been on the rise, it makes it imperative for children to learn what to do in the water.”

Kids aren’t the only ones who should brush up on swim safety. Parents should pause to take note as well and keep a watchful eye on pool play.

“Parents often think that once their child gets to an upper level swim class that she is safe in the water,” says Lubarsky. “Sometimes they assume the lifeguard is responsible for watching their child. Yes, lifeguards are there to watch over the pool and be proactive to prevent emergencies. However, ultimately the parent or caretaker should be the one solely responsible for their child while she is swimming.”

The Fear Factor

If your child is struggling to get comfortable in the water, relax – pushing him will only make him more anxious.

“It is important to develop trust and comfort with fearful swimmers,” says David Witkus, assistant manager of aquatics at the Boston University Fitness and Recreation Center. “This can take more time and, as instructors, we often have to adjust our strategy. We must continue to encourage progress without pushing too hard. The last thing we want is for a child to give up swimming. Fear is why we encourage swim lessons starting at an early age. To reduce fear the swimmer must gain comfort and confidence around the water. We often encourage parents to take their fearful swimmers to open swim times for fun and to practice skills like blowing bubbles. Parents must also remember not to push too hard; your job is to encourage and be your child’s partner in the learning process.”

Basic Pool Safety Rules

• Witkus offers these guidelines that all children should know:

• Never swim alone. Swim with a buddy and with your parents’ permission.

• Know how to call for help.

• Look before you leap and jump feet first.

• Follow pool rules and listen to the lifeguard.

• Don’t eat food or chew gum while swimming; it’s a choking hazard.


You don’t have to wait long to enjoy water play with your little one. In fact, there are programs available for children as early as 3 months old.

“Children should start getting orientated and comfortable with the pool environment between the ages of 6 months and 3 years,” says Witkus. “I recommend swim lesson programs that offer parent and child swim classes.  This is a great way for children to have fun and get used to the pool while parents are educated on water safety. Statistics prove that when a child is in formal swimming lessons the risk of drowning is reduced by up to 88 percent.”

Lubarsky agrees, noting that babies are much more receptive to swim lessons than many people think.

“Some parents think they should hold off on swimming until their child is a little older because they don’t think they will learn much at that young age,” she explains. “They say, ‘How much can babies really learn when they are 3 months old?’ You would be surprised! Little ones will start by getting used to being in the water and learning to float.”


While all children respond to lessons differently, generally the milestones you’re trying to hit in the water between 6 months and 3 years are comfort in the water on the front and back sides along with feeling at ease working with a swim instructor and increased water safety knowledge, explains Witkus.


Even at a young age, don’t underestimate the importance of learning technique. As Kubarsky will tell you, it’s incredibly important and something she stresses to students.

“Parents have this notion that endurance is essential in learning how to swim,” she says. “Parents will push for their children to learn how to swim the whole length of the pool even when their technique is poor, just to say that they swam the length of the pool. If the foundation and technique are not taught, it doesn’t really matter how far they can swim. I would always tell my swimmers, ‘You don’t want to swim long, wrong.’”

Witkus notes that while kids’ skill levels vary greatly because some may have started swim lessons as babies while others are only just beginning, from 3 to 5 years you can generally expect a slow progression from assisted skills to independent swimming.

“In the end children will be swimming distances of 15 to 40 feet independently on their front and back along with an understanding of all water safety rules,” he says.

Elementary Schoolers Through Teens

If your child is at ease in the water and has been taking lessons for some time, Witkus says children ages 6 to 14 years will generally be swimming all strokes confidently, swimming distances over 25 yards, feel comfortable diving, tread water and execute flip turns.

While diving may seem like the next logical step for a strong swimmer, it’s not imperative for a child to learn (a sigh of relief for parents who remember this somewhat traumatic rite of passage from our own childhoods).

“A child can be a great swimmer and never step foot on a diving board,” he assures. “Most swim lesson programs teach jumping and diving from the side of the pool and that covers the required skills that help children to be safe around the water.  I think springboard diving is an amazing sport when taught by an experienced coaching staff and run out of a safe facility.”

You’ll probably also notice fewer diving boards around public pools these days; Kubarsky explains why.

“Diving boards are not as common as they were five to eight years ago,” she says. “Most newly built pools do not have diving boards because of the insurance liability they possess. Insurance policies required when owning a diving board are frequently prohibitive.”

Diving Do’s and Don’ts

If you do find yourself with a diver on your hands, be sure to instill these safety practices:

• One diver on the board at a time.

• Look before you leap. The dive well must be clear before the next diver begins their dive.

• One bounce only.

• No running on the diving board.

• No hanging on the board or grabbing it.

• Dive off the end of the board, never the sides.

• Do not dive from the board with loose clothing or equipment.

• Springboard diving should be supervised by a coach or instructor.

Now that you’re armed with swim knowledge, get out there and enjoy! You can find a plethora of pools and water parks on our website:

For where to take swimming lessons in Massachusetts, visit



Kelly Bryant is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper