At What Age Are They “Old Enough” to Swim Unsupervised?

When should you allow your child to go to a pool or beach without adult supervision? How old is ‘old enough’?

Stefanie (from alerted me to an interesting article last week that prompted the question – a 14-year old girl saved her 10-year old brother from drowning while the two played at a hotel pool, unsupervised. No charges were filed against the parent because 10 was deemed ‘old enough’ by the local police to be in the pool without adult supervision.

But there was no mention of either child’s swimming abilities. Could the 10-year old swim? Could he truly swim or just paddle a bit? How responsible was the younger brother? Was he a dare-devil or a cautious kid? How deep was the water? Was he tired or jet-lagged? Did he have any physical, emotional or mental issues that would have impaired his abilities or judgment? There are plenty of guidelines that tell us what age and weight our child has to be to change car seats. Laws dictate when our child can drive, drink and vote. But water safety is the great unknown – so many variables that are hard to measure.

So how do parents determine if a child is ‘old enough’ to be unsupervised at a pool or beach? Broward County in Florida is on the cutting edge of water safety and they recommend a minimum age of 12, though some experts believe it should be even higher.

Until national standards are developed, as a parent I’d set 12 as the minimum age (though I’m feeling better with 15), but I’d also look closely at all the other variables. Is your child a truly competent swimmer? (ask their swim teacher, don’t rely on your judgement or your child’s) Who else will be in the pool? Are they competent swimmers or could your child get in trouble with a panic-stricken friend who could pull someone under? How many children? More children = more adrenalin = more potential trouble. Is it a pool or open water? If it’s open water does your child have experience in that particular kind of open water? A river is different from a lake which is different from an ocean.

As parents, if we do our job right our child grow up to self-regulate their behavior and make responsible decisions, but it’s also our job to keep them safe until those skills are in place. Besides, volunteering for pool patrol is a pretty nice way to spend the summer!

I’d love to know your thoughts!

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team


25 Responses to “At What Age Are They “Old Enough” to Swim Unsupervised?”

  1. Kenny Montgomery says:

    It really depends on the individual child and when they seem ready to swim alone. For example, if you have a 13 year old but they are a weak swimming then supervision is still needed.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Our YMCA has a test that kids must pass to be able to swim in the deep pool and go down the slide. It requires swimming the length of the pool in more than just a dog paddle and treading water for 30 seconds. They will not hesitate to fail a kid if they don’t think they are handling even if they are doing it.

    But I agree, it depends on the kid and each child is different.

  3. Kudos to the Y for developing that test and sticking with it! I’ve seen too many kids fished out of 3 feet of water at the end of the slide because they didn’t really know how to swim – what would have happened without those attentive lifeguards?

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head…it should be based on the child’s ability and a minimum age of 12. Children can tire quickly and may not realize it until they are in trouble.

  5. I’m not sure if I’ll ever let my kids swim alone, my best friend drowned and now I’m paranoid but I myself was swimming alone at a very young age and found it very therapeutic.

    • Julie, I have to agree, working in childhood drowning prevention for almost 4 years has made me hyper-aware of the dangers, but as you say, water is very therapeutic and we have to let our children go sometime. All the better if we’ve made sure they are water-safe first though!

  6. Jeanie Neal says:

    Use the S.W.I.M. Model to evaluate swimming ability: S – Stabilize (ability to control body parts) W – Wend (ability to move through the water with purpose) I – Idle (ability to float motionless, relaxed and disengaged from the “load”) M – Measure (ability to calulate, judge, and make decisions.) However, It’s about so more than just swimming ability… a swimming pool is a public place. If you would not drop your child off at the mall alone, do not drop them off at the pool regardess of swimming ability.

    • Agreed Jeanie – and it’s interesting but I’m guessing few parents would feel comfortable dropping their child at a completely deserted public pool – the safety in numbers idea – yet an overcrowded pool can be equally dangerous with being jumped on, dunked, and just too many kids for even the best lifeguard to supervise. Besides, lifeguards are NOT babysitters!

  7. anthea kerkoff says:

    I am always amazed at parents who do not supervise their children around water. I just returned from a playdate with my 3 yr old. The mum wanted me to just drop her off, but I chose to stay because I am not comfortable leaving my daughter with someone I have only just met at 3 y.o. I am so glad I stayed, as the two older brothers climbed up furniture and opened the pool gate allowing direct pool access. My daughter cannot swim.
    We are in Australia and the policy here is to keep a child at arms length around water until they are 5. I thinkg this is a good policy but I have noticed even at my childs swimming lessons the teacher often turns her back on some of the kids and walks to the other end of the pool (about 5 metres) leaving them unsupervised. This made me so nervous that I withdrew my daughter from the lessons and am now trying to teach her myself until I can find a better swim school.

    • Anthea, You are in one of my favorite parts of the world for water-safety! Good job on seeing that even a teacher needs to be more attentive and being proactive with your daughter’s safety on play dates and in lessons. Check out the uSwim app if you have an iPhone – it’s out of Australia and might provide you with some great tips until you find the right school. Good luck and so glad you are so involved!

  8. jackie young says:

    We observe the Safer 3 … lock the gate fence the pool learn to swim that’s the rule always walk and never run always take turns never dive or swim alone and swim away to the safety zone.
    Sammy Starfish teaches that we need safe water ( known and safe places ) Timmy Tadpole teaches that we need to know CPR and First Aid and Gilbert Guppie teaches us to be safer swimmers. Age is immaterial. I own a swimming school and can open it any time I want to swim alone but……I never swim alone. what If I trip and hit my head? or numerous other possible accidents……so although I am 72 …..I still do not swim alone.
    I am assuming that children are swimming alone in a guarded safe place? not in a river or pond all by themselves or even in the backyard pool? Liability issues aside having someone nearby to help if you need it is very important.

  9. Safer 3 is an excellent program – thanks for making more people aware of it Jackie! And I agree, never swim alone – not at 1 and not at 100. Unfortunately we haven’t taught our children that basic fact and they do swim alone, anywhere where there is water, or they aren’t swimming, they fall in, or are just fooling around – number one rule for young kids – always have a grownup with you when you go near the water!

  10. Mel Munro says:

    I have 2 kids aged 11 and 12. Both have been in swimming lessons and have been around water all their lives but recently I learnt that when down at their fathers he let them and their 2 step brothers (11 and 13 yrs) go swimming in the river alone. I am not happy about this as a pool is completely different to a river. I still feel that it is too young to be left unsupervised.

  11. Mel, Excellent point, a river is not pool, just as the ocean is not a river. Unless a child has in-depth familiarity with a body of water, they should never be unsupervised. For adults AND children, ‘never go near water alone’ is also important. Tough when your children are with your ex-, but you might want to talk to your boys about water safety, what to do if one is in trouble, where to go for help, and what dangers to be careful of in a river, teach them to be responsible for themselves. Fortunately 11 and 12 are old enough to learn and act appropriately, usually, though the approaching testosterone-driven teen years and peer pressure are probably already kicking in with the inherent risk-taking. Parenting well is challenging enough, add in the ex factor and it gets more complicated, as I know!

  12. emmanuel says:

    Please what legal action can i take against a school that took my son just 8 yrs Unsupervised and the child was almost drowning by a fellow mate the teachers weren’t there.

  13. Brenda Dupont says:

    Grew up in Southern California, and swimming lessons from kindergarten to 5th grade for the first 6 weeks of every summer. A friend down the street had a house with a pool. He was older than I was, and his mother worked during the day. He wasn’t allowed to swim alone or have any friends over to swim while she was at work. He was then 12 or 13. One summer while our mothers were talking his mother agreed that if my mom came and stayed while we swam, along with my siblings, he could have company at the pool. It was a good idea then and now.

  14. Jon Aksamit says:

    When I was in the Boy Scouts we were always taught two things: 1. Always swim with a buddy and, 2. Never go swimming alone. I am 43 now and to this day I wouldn’t swim in a river or a lake all by myself. I would never recommend swimming in a pool without a lifeguard or competent adult supervision. There is too much that can go wrong. I also encourage swimming lessons. My dad taught me to swim around the same time I learned to walk. He firmly believed that knowing how to swim was a survival skill and not just a recreational activity. I also took swimming lessons. This not only teaches youngsters how to swim, but also allows them to meet other children their own age and gets them out of the house and away from the video games and television. I hope this has been helpful.

  15. Sarah says:

    Truthfully, no one should ever swim alone, adults or children. Accidents happen. I was on my boat and went in the water. Whack! I clocked myself. Could have been knocked out and sank to the bottom of the lake and drowned. Swimming should never be a solo activity.

  16. MotherOf4Girls says:

    Im glad Im not the only one concerned with water safety and teens! Shoreline swimming (lake, river, ocean) or very very different from pool swimming and even keeping an eye on kids in these situations is hard.

    Another concerned not mentioned, is the peer relationship aspect in the teen years. My daughter will go to great lengths to get attention for antics, and I’m always keenly aware that teens will get out of control in a group atmosphere. Pulling dumb stunts, and risky moves are very common attention seeking behaviours.

    Case in point, our youth group took the teens to the lake, but no one was a lifeguard, and there was no lifeguard on duty. 30 teens, (3) 18yr old leaders, and 1 adult does not make it a safe venture especially when the adult is leading games and not everyone was participating. One teen was pulled into the water (for fun) off the swimming dock and really hurt her knee she couldn’t swim when she fell in because her leg hurt so much. Thankfully my daughter heard her cries for help and gave her a flotation device (and didn’t try and jump in to help her). I had already sternly told my girls “no pushing” on the dock as its slippery and dangerous, but I guess the leaders didn’t think other kids pushing/pulling off the dock is a hazard.

    I will not be making this mistake again, and will be attending group beach days even if a youth group leader is present.


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