Start when he is 13 months old:

(sorry for the low quality.  two years ago = ancient technology.)  Yes at that age a child can be taught to float.  In fact almost no teaching is required.  You place the child on his back, he floats.  He cries too, it turns out.  A lot.  That’s why its not me there teaching him to float.  Instead it is a highly trained swimming teacher and one of the most inspirational people I have ever known.  That year was our kids’ first year of swimming lessons with him and we have been spending the summer in La Jolla, CA every year since primarily because of him and these swimming lessons.  10 minute lessons, daily for four weeks.

Here is what he learned last year when he was 2. (rss readers probably need to click through to the blog to see the video.)

A 2 year, 2month old child can learn to kick with his face in the water, roll over onto his back when he needs to breathe, and then continue on.  And at this early age he learns something which is subtle but which is central to swimming at every level:  looking at the floor to point the top of your head in the direction you are swimming and getting a breath by rotating on that axis.  The hardest thing to teach the child is not to look where he is going.  Looking where you are going means tilting your head up and that pushes your body down and makes you sink. For a two-year-old that is a deal-breaker, but even among adults head orientation is what distinguishes good swimmers from the best swimmers.

Here is how you teach a two-year-old to look at the floor.

Many repetitions of placing the child in the water, putting your hand deep under water and tell him to swim and grab the hand.  He has to look down to find your hand.  The typical swimming teacher hold out his hands near the surface of the water which instead trains the child to look up, a disaster.  This tiny difference has an enourmous impact on how smoothly the child can learn to swim.

It also teaches the child to go slow.  Another subtlety with swimming is that moving your arms and legs faster usually makes you go slower.  Slowing down all of the movements teaches him how to move more efficiently through the water.

This summer, at age 3 years 2 months he reached the stage where he could swim by himself without an adult in the pool with him, keeping himself going with the swim-float-swim sequence.  Then he began to learn to swim with his arms.

Next summer:  how to tech a four-year-old to snorkel.