How to choose the right swim school for your child

by | Aug 26, 2020

Learning to swim is a vital skill for your child to learn. But how do you choose the right swim school? Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jo-Marie Bothma has some helpful advice.

Teaching your child how to swim should never be regarded as just a fun sporting activity to fill a gap in an extramural schedule. In South Africa, where our weather and lifestyle lends itself to a large range of outdoor activities around water, it makes sense that learning how to swim should be prioritised as one of the most important life skills a child should learn.

The fatal drowning burden in South Africa is at approximately three per 100 000 population, but is increasing as a proportion of non-natural deaths. This is according to an article published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) in 2018. Drowning mortality rates are high in children younger than 15 years of age, particularly in those five years and younger.

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) used to not recommend swimming lessons for children younger than four years, because there was little evidence that lessons prevented drowning or resulted in better swimming skills. There was also the concern that parents would become less vigilant about supervising a child who had learned some swimming skills. The AAP has since reviewed its policy and is now more open toward classes for children younger than four years old.

New evidence shows that children ages one to four may be less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming instruction. The AAP still does not recommend formal water safety programmes for children younger than one year of age as no or limited scientific studies have yet demonstrated that these classes are effective to prevent drowning.

The ideal would probably be to enrol a child from a young age in a reputable swim school where they can learn a wide range of water-related skills, such as confidence in the water, how to interact safely with others in the water and how to stay calm in a difficult situation. All of these skills should be learned in addition to being able to swim unaided.

But choosing the right swim school for your child can be tricky. Location is obviously a very important consideration, but should not be the only one. Here is a list of key quality indicators that parents should look out for when choosing their child’s swim school.

Clean facilities

The health and wellbeing of your child needs to be ensured throughout the swimming journey. A swim school that does not take care of its facility or the water quality should not be considered.

Arrange a time to visit the swim school outside training hours when staff will have the opportunity to show you around and answer your questions about their filtration system and protocol regarding hygiene in general. You should be allowed to ask how often they check the water quality and the status of the last quality check.

Some swim schools also have strict rules when it comes to basic hygiene and insist on each child wearing the appropriate swimming costume, their own swim cap and goggles. Ask if the swim school prefers that your child quickly showers before entering the pool so that you can plan your time accordingly.

Check their reviews

Advertisements, or flyers that you get from the school, don’t tell you nearly as much about that business’s reputation as word of mouth does. Enquire at your child’s school, ask at the local hospital or medical doctor and find out from professional swimmers in your area who they would recommend.

Almost everyone in business nowadays has some social media footprint and there are some keyboard fanatics out there that cannot wait to express their opinion long and loud. If the swim school you are considering boasts a long list of negative reviews on Facebook, Google and other sites, there’s obviously something not right. On the other hand, if the reviews are mostly good with just the odd grumble, then they’re probably worth a shot.

Heated and/or indoor swimming pools

Keeping a constant water temperature around 30 degrees will mean that instruction can continue even on gloomy winter days. Swimming lessons at an indoor facility will also ensure training throughout rainy seasons.

Atmosphere and setting

It’s important to find a centre where the whole family feels comfortable, especially if you’ll be taking other siblings along with you. Find out about the policy regarding family members attending during swimming lessons, as some swim schools might prefer parents not sitting in during lessons, for example, or might allow parents, but would prefer not having other children sitting around the swimming pool during lessons.

The reasons may vary from distracting the little novice swimmers to the possibility of increasing a child’s nervousness about having an audience, to making it more difficult to get a child’s co-operation when their parents are present.

Approaches where no parent or caregiver is allowed during lessons might be very traumatic for newcomers with a sensitive temperament. Although older children or more experienced little swimmers might be more than comfortable to only be dropped off and picked up, young toddlers and those attending lessons for the first time might benefit from having the reassurance of a loved one being present.

Family-friendly change rooms are another important consideration. Some even offer hot showers and hair dryers after lessons. A changing room that will make it possible for daddy to assist his daughter to change into her swimming costume, or a parent to change a tired baby’s wet or pooey nappy on a changing table instead of next to the swimming pool is ideal.

Although this might not be the most important consideration when it comes to choosing the appropriate school, child and baby friendly changing rooms will make swimming lessons a lot less stressful for the parent and a lot more enjoyable for those attending the lessons and those joining for the day.

Also, enquire about the possibility of lockers to safeguard your valuables during the lessons. Sometimes children need to rush directly from school to their swimming practice and it is an added bonus if they can lock up their school suitcase and other belongings, especially when there is no one with them to look after it during the lesson.

Aim to visit the swim school during a lesson and get a feel for the atmosphere in the swimming pool. Do the children appear happy and does the session seem to be enjoyable, or do the children appear stressed, anxious or pressured to perform?

Qualifications and attitude of staff

You want a swimming teacher who loves what they do and makes learning fun. Before enrolling your child, ask to meet him or her, as it is important that both you and your child can relate to and trust the instructor.

Make sure to ask for their qualifications and learn about their experience in teaching. In South Africa, all swimming instructors should have completed their training at Swimming South Africa (SSA). Swimming South Africa is the governing body of aquatics in South Africa. A registration status will not only tell you if their training is up to date, but also if their instructor qualification is relevant and accredited for your child’s specific needs.

Swim programmes differ for teaching a six-month-old basic water safety to a graduate swimmer reaching competency in all four strokes. An established swimming programme with a set curriculum is the best place for a child to learn to swim. Swimming instructors should also hold a relevant first aid qualification and these should be updated every two years or so to remain valid.

Regular feedback, continued assessments and progress reports or certificates will allow parents to always be in touch with their child’s swimming progress.

It is usually the little things that make learning to swim an enjoyable experience for parents and their children. This includes plenty of encouragement, a huge amount of patience, picking up on when a child needs a little extra attention, helping mom or dad to feel at ease, and assessing and progressing children as they are ready, not just when the season ends or based on age.

Helpful and passionate supporting staff at the centre will also make every aspect of coming to swimming easy. It is futile getting a heart-warming welcome from your instructor in the swimming pool, while not experiencing the same kindness from the assistant dealing with the centre’s admin or receiving a frown from the cleaning lady in the changing room.

Teacher-to-child ratio

Look for a school that offers class sizes of no more than between four and six children per session. This is a good size that allows for social interaction without being too big and impersonal. Small class sizes ensure your child gets quality one-on-one time with the teacher and issues around breath control or fear of water can be effectively addressed. Some swim schools offer private lessons and if your child will benefit more from individual one-to-one sessions you should ask about them.


A good swim school should not only teach children the strokes and ability to swim, but also educate them on water safety, including what to do in an emergency. Some swim schools include a water safety lesson per season to ensure children a basic foundation of water safety, an ability to stay calm during a crisis, how to help themselves during a difficult situation, as well as techniques to ensure the safety of others in and around the water.

Your child’s safety is paramount. Swimming teachers are responsible for actively supervising all participants throughout the lesson, establishing safety rules and obtaining medical information before your child’s first lesson. Taking your child for a swimming lesson should be a safe, enjoyable and worthwhile experience. Do your homework well.