Playtime at the pool may boost youngsters’ bodies and brains

woman and baby in the pool

Taking swim lessons early in life may boost kids’ learning in language and math.

MariaBobrova/iStockphoto

This guest post is by SN’s web producer Ashley Yeager, who can’t remember ever not knowing how to swim. 


Sometimes my brother-in-law will scoop up my 2-year-old niece and fly her around like Superwoman. She’ll start kicking her legs and swinging her arms like she’s swimming — especially when we say, “paddle, paddle, paddle.”

My niece, Baby D, loves the water. She often looks like one of the kids captured in famed photographer Seth Casteel’s new book, Underwater Babies. But she probably won’t remember her first trips to the pool — she was only a few months old when her mom first took her swimming. Part of my sister’s reasoning for such an early start was standard water safety. Every day in the United States, accidental drowning claims the lives of two children under the age of 14 years. Our family spends a lot of time at the pool and the beach, so making sure Baby D is protected is a priority.

But there’s another reason my sister was keen to get Baby D to the pool. Loosely based on something our mother told us, it’s that learning to swim early in life may give kids a head start in developing balance, body awareness and maybe even language and math skills.

Mom may have been right. A multi-year study released in 2012 suggests that kids who take swim lessons early in life appear to hit certain developmental milestones well before their nonswimming peers. In the study, Australian researchers surveyed about 7,000 parents about their children’s development and gave 177 kids aged 3 to 5 years standard motor, language, memory and attention tests. Compared with kids who didn’t spend much time in the water, kids who had taken swim lessons seemed to be more advanced at tasks like running and climbing stairs and standing on their tiptoes or on one leg, along with drawing, handling scissors and building towers out of blocks.

Hitting milestones related to motor skills isn’t so surprising, the authors note, since swimming is a very physical activity. A bit more unexpected, they say, are the swimming kids’ advanced skills in language and math — tasks like counting, naming objects and recognizing words and letters. Kids who swam also seemed to be better at following directions. And, in some areas, kids had proportionally better scores on the development tests relative to how long they had been taking lessons.

The authors admit that they can’t conclusively claim that swimming alone is responsible for the developmental advances because the analysis was based on survey data and limited testing with young children. “Simply, we can say that children who participate in swimming achieve a wide range of milestones … and skill, knowledge and dispositions … earlier than the normal population,” the researchers write.

In a 2013 study, a separate set of scientists made an attempt to be a bit more rigorous in their experimental methods. The team looked for differences in motor development between six 7- to 9-month-olds who took swim lessons and six who did not. The study was too small and too short — only four months — to truly be able to identify any differences, the authors say. They argue, however, that the experimental design could set the framework for much more definitive results in the future.

In the meantime, my sister and I are collecting our own data. It’s anecdotal, of course, and possibly a bit biased, but even so, we’ll all just keep swimming.

photo of Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine

From the Nature Index

Paid Content