Offer Swim Lessons

By Leslie Donavan

“We don’t offer swim lessons because…

  • We don’t have any experience running a lesson program.”

  • We don’t have any instructors.”

  • We have a river (substitute lake or ocean) and no pool at our camp.”

  • Everyone who comes to camp knows how to swim.”

  • Our focus is on (fill in the blank) and not on swimming.”

  • It’s too expensive.”


These are often the reasons camp directors give for not offering swim lessons. But camps that do offer lessons find that each of these reasons can be overcome and a swim lesson program may be what sets them apart from other camps and provides a competitive advantage.

The Benefits

  • Teaching swim lessons saves lives. Many—if not most—camps include water activities. And a large number are located on or near bodies of water—pools, ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans. With drowning being one of the leading causes of death in children, there are many things camps can do to minimize the risk of a camper drowning, and teaching everyone to swim is at the top of the list. Swimmers can be taught to swim in virtually any body of water provided proper safety precautions are in place. Wholly apart from the devastating effect on the family of a drowning victim, staff members, and campers, consider what one drowning incident can do to a camp’s reputation.

  • Learning to swim prepares campers for other water activities. These include free swim, kayaking, snorkeling, canoeing, sailing, water skiing, and rafting. Additionally, fishing and other activities near water become less intimidating and safer if everyone knows how to swim.

  • Swimming is a lifelong skill and promotes fitness. Highlighting the “fun” and “fitness” aspects of water programming can be a big selling point with campers and their families, who know that swimming can be a wonderful, lifelong activity. Even if the focus of a camp is not on swimming, campers typically enjoy activities in water, which provides a wonderful diversion from less-physical activities.

  • Offering swim lessons may provide a competitive edge to attract new campers. When parents choose camps, they are looking for many things. Lessons for non-swimmers or weak swimmers may be what separate your program from others. In many cases, economically disadvantaged campers may not have the opportunity to learn to swim due to lack of access to programs in their communities. And stroke development may also be considered a plus for children with schedules too demanding to allow time for swim lessons when campers are at home.

Tips For A Successful Program
Swim lessons can easily be incorporated into most camp programs. Follow these tips to get started:

  • Use a nationally recognized and research-based curriculum. This will ensure that skills are learned properly and serve as a foundation for a lifetime of swimming, whether for recreation or competition. It also ensures that children can continue lessons at home or advance when they return to camp the following year. These programs also provide training and support for those implementing swim lessons for the first time, and they may be able to assist in locating a waterfront or aquatic director if there is a position to fill.

  • Find a learner-based program rather than a teacher-oriented curriculum. Train instructors so campers advance quickly and effectively as skills are learned. Different children learn in different ways, and instructors should be able to adapt to meet the individual learning needs.

  • Use a swim lesson program to recruit instructors. Instructors who are certified in a reputable program generally have many employment opportunities when they return home from camp. Online training of instructors may be available in advance of your first camp session, giving counselors the opportunity to arrive at camp with the skills to be good instructors, and they will leave camp with valuable experience.

  • Incorporate basic water-safety messages into lessons if they are not already an integral part of the curriculum. Campers can be taught to recognize water hazards and learn safety while on the water. Host a “Water Safety Day” as part of the program and incorporate games, skills, and fun into spreading the word about being safe on or near the water. For example, include relay races that involve putting life jackets on properly.

  • Provide resources for instructors working with special-needs campers. When campers with special needs learn to swim, camps provide them with a new skill that they can take home. Team sports can be intimidating for children with special needs, and as swimming is an individual sport, campers can learn to swim in adaptive ways to meet individual requirements. Learning to swim can meet their sensory needs as well as give them a substantial boost in self-confidence.

  • Provide campers and instructors with equipment to improve teaching skills as well as to provide a safer program. For example, if campers are young or access to shallow water is limited, consider installing a removable “tot dock” to maximize teaching space. There are also personal flotation devices designed for proper swimming movement if campers will be in deeper water. And there are tools that instructors can use to work with several students at one time, increasing the time each camper learns and practices new skills.

  • Keep water clean and safe. Water quality is an important feature of any camp program, whether or not you are offering swim lessons. Avoiding recreational water illnesses and providing the clearest water possible should be the goal.

  • Consider offering programs to train “junior” lifeguards or swim-lesson instructors. These programs can prepare campers to be staff members in the future and also promote responsibility and self-confidence.

  • Provide lifeguards or, at a minimum, designated “water watchers,” during lessons.

  • Consider creating a “mascot” for the program. You can provide or sell merchandise that promotes the camp and the program for campers to take home.

  • Track the progress of campers. This allows instructors to fill in for each other as needed, and campers will go home with a report of what they have learned. Tracking is one of the best parts of a successful program because it shows instructors exactly where each camper is in skill development and provides a communication tool with parents. And happy campers = happy parents!

Leslie Donavan is the President/CEO of Starfish Aquatics Institute in Lincolnshire, Ill. Reach her at