Parents who want to give their children the best start possible will be fascinated by the news coming out of a study of children who learn to swim at an early age. Preliminary findings from the study of 7000 children under five from Australia, New Zealand and the US suggest that early swimmers are gaining a range of developmental skills earlier than other children. The impact may extend into all areas of a child’s development, including their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development

The research is being coordinated by Griffith University’s Institute for Educational. According to leader of the research Professor Robyn Jorgensen, many of the skills are those that help young children into the transition into formal learning contexts such as pre-school or school:

The research also found significant differences between the swimming cohort and non-swimmers regardless of socio-economic background. While the two higher socio-economic groups performed better than the lower two in testing, the four SES groups all performed better than the normal population.

Professor Jorgensen says that in addition to achieving physical milestones faster, children also did better in visual-motor skills such as cutting paper, drawing lines and shapes, in colouring in and in many mathematically-related tasks. Their oral expression was also more advanced, along with higher performance in the general areas of literacy and numeracy. “Many of these skills are highly valuable in other learning environments and will be of considerable benefit for young children as they transition into pre-schools and school,” Professor Jorgensen said.

One of the main movers behind the research study, swimming coach Lawrie Lawrence, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The World Today radio program that he approached Griffith University because he was convinced from his experience over 35 years teaching kids to swim that the benefits extended well beyond swimming. He explained:

Babies come into this world with billions of neurons and they need stimulation because that’s how they learn. They learn by sight, sound, taste, touch, smell,” he said. “Now water is the perfect medium to stimulate the senses because as you immerse a baby in the water it covers their whole body and as you move the children through the water they experience different sensations. Plus the parents are there to communicate and talk so it’s the perfect medium.

Professor Jorgensen added that swimming had real advantages over other types of activities that young children can get involved in:

The thing that’s already striking us is that with swimming it’s the first time they’re faced with formal instructions. So they’re already being exposed to the kind of things that we do in school where we ask the child to sit down, look at me, listen to my instructions, do what I’ve told them to do. So it’s happening much earlier than say if the kids go to gymnastics they already have to be able to walk and tumble and things like that, whereas in swimming it’s tailored for their physical development.

All of the results from the study are not yet in. The research team intends to study 10,000 children across Australia, New Zealand and the United States for the next four years, interviewing parents and observing children in the classroom. From his own experience, Lawrie Lawrence is convinced that the study will prove that swimming lessons can help a child grow on all levels. He sums up: “They’re starting to recognise colours, numbers, they’re starting to experience social interaction with other kids. As they achieve skills they get a great feeling of self esteem so they become more confident.”


William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.