Can children under four be taught to swim, or is it a dangerous misconception? KATHERINE HOBY meets a man who is certain they can. Others disagree. The kids, meanwhile, are having a ball.

Four-year-old Conrad Edwards can swim two lengths of a 25m pool, twice as far as his mother can manage.

The young swimmer, who had his first lesson when he was 18 months old, is one of a growing number of young New Zealand children learning to swim from an early age.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics says children under four cannot be taught to swim, and classes should not claim to make them safer in or near water.


It says that fostering an early love of water could even be dangerous because "children may unwittingly be encouraged to enter the water without supervision".

The academy warns in a policy paper: "Programmes that claim to make children safe in water or safe from drowning are misrepresenting what is possible and are giving parents a false sense of security about their child's safety in the water."

Emile Palmer, the Auckland swimming teacher who has been teaching kids of all ages to swim for 23 years, disagrees.

"I do know, factually, that we can teach young children to swim - period."

He said many thousands of children had been through Emile Palmer's School of Swimming in the past 10 years.

"I have seen enough to say that 30 per cent of pre-schoolers coming through have learned to to swim and breathe at a safe level. All the others leave here with more water confidence than they came with, at the very least," he said.

He says children as young as three or four can learn to propel themselves through water to save themselves. "I've seen it. I'm not a paediatrician, but I know children and I know water and I know what I see."

Mr Palmer says education and practical experience in water can deter children from getting into danger, and help them get out of it if they do find themselves in trouble.

Children learn from day one how to respect water and to know their limits, he says.

Mr Palmer says the school has survived and succeeded only because "we have produced the results we have".

"Parents in need come to us and say later that it is fantastic to know their kid is safe around water."

Helen Edwards is now taking swimming lessons herself, but son Conrad already outstrips her in the swimming stakes, something she is more than happy about.

"It definitely helps to start early. And it has been fantastic to see his progress," Helen Edwards said.

She and her husband were "astonished" about the claims that young children could not be taught to swim.

And while she spoke, Conrad stroked across the pool, working on his freestyle and breathing technique, at which he is now competent - before he even starts school.

Marcia Brereton has been bringing 2-year-old Ruby for lessons for almost a year.

"I want to know she can find her way to the side if she got out of her depth," she says.

Mrs Brereton, who is from Australia, says it is vital for New Zealand and Australian children to learn basic water skills.

"She is happy, she is safe and I feel much better with her at the beach. That is the result."

Water Safety Auckland executive officer Sandy Harrop disagrees with swimming lessons for under-fours.

"Children can gain from water familiarisation sessions in the bath or in a warm pool of water on the beach with their parents as much as they can from lessons at that age," she said.

"A parent could do it very well themselves - there's really no need for formal lessons."

Parents make good teachers at an early age, she says, but, more than that, young children have not learned the social skills necessary to cope with group lessons at a pool.

"The health disadvantages of the bugs kids might get in those pools outweigh any advantages they get. "Very young children don't know not to drink the water, or not to pee in the water, or not to drink the water that has been peed in," she says.

Ms Harrop says young families often feel a great deal of social pressure to enrol their very young children in swimming lessons.

"Some parents are under huge pressure to get their kids to swim class.

"It's just not right, when water familiarisation can start in the bath or paddling pool."