Daniel Bailey was at his grandmother's house in Florida last winter when he saw his 9-year-old brother, Bradley, jump in her swimming pool and start swimming.
Daniel, who is 3 1/2 , jumped in too. He couldn't swim.
His mother, Deanna, who had been watching the boys from the side of the pool, scooped her son out of the water before he was injured. Her conclusion: "I knew it was time for swimming lessons," the Towson resident said.
Daniel began learning to swim at the Towson Aquatic Center in January. At first, he was afraid of the water, but now none of that fear is apparent. He jumps in the water into the arms of his swim instructor, paddles the width of a lane and back. He scrambles out of the pool, smiles happily and eagerly waits his turn again.
As many public and private pools open for the season this weekend, parents find themselves thinking about swimming lessons for their children. But when are children ready to learn to swim? And what should one look for in a learn-to-swim program?
Although many children start swim lessons between the ages of 3 and 4, Peter Eddy, aquatics director of the Arundel Olympic Center near Annapolis, stresses the importance of not pushing a child into lessons before he or she is ready.
"Children will set their priorities as to how important it is to them to learn how to swim," said Eddy, who has been teaching swimming for 30 years.
Plus, starting children early could be more harmful than helpful.
"Research has shown that pushing children early into swimming may even make it more dangerous," Eddy notes, because it can give them a false sense of security. "I don't think you can truly make [children] water-safe until they are able to make decisions on their own."
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that children are not developmentally ready for swim lessons until after their fourth birthday. In addition, swim programs for children under age 4 -- such as parent-child water-play classes -- should not be seen as a way to decrease the risk of drowning, which is the leading cause of unintentional injury and death among children.
"Children just don't seem to be developmentally ready to learn basic strokes until around 4," explains Dr. Steven Anderson, a Seattle pediatrician involved in issuing the policy statement. "And while so called 'drown-proofing' programs may be worthy and effective for older children, children under 4 just aren't old enough."
Last year more than 21,000 people enrolled in Red Cross Learn to Swim programs in Central Maryland, according to the American Red Cross of Central Maryland.
For children who are ready to learn to swim, parents need to make sure the swim instructor is certified in water safety instruction, says Colette Kelly, aquatic director of the Towson Aquatic Center, who teaches swimming and water-safety instruction. Also important is choosing a class where there are no more than five students per teacher.
Look for a program where the instructors are patient and offer lots of encouragement to the children, adds Brenda Detweiler, a Parkville mother whose 4-year-old daughter Kelly takes lessons at the Towson Aquatic Center.
"When I took swimming lessons it was eight kids to one instructor, and all we did was independently swim laps," Detweiler said. "Here the encouragement is really great and the ratio is wonderful."
Finally, recognize that no amount of swimming instruction means that adults don't need to closely supervise children when they are swimming.
"Kids with swim lessons still drown," says Anderson. "Kids with flotation devices still drown. It seems the only kids who don't drown are the ones with parents an arms-length away who are constantly vigilant as they swim."
Here are a few pool safety tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Never leave children alone in or near the pool, even for a moment.
Make sure adults watching children in a pool know CPR and can rescue a child if necessary.
Avoid inflatable swimming aids. They are not a substitute for approved life vests and give children a false sense of security.
For more summer safety tips, check the American Academy of Pediatrics' Web site at www.aap.org
For more information about swim lessons in your area, contact your local parks and recreation department, or contact a YMCA near you.
For referrals to lifeguarding programs, call the American Red Cross of Central Maryland at 800-787-8002.