Children under five who have swimming lessons develop better language, literacy and numeracy skills and are likely to be more prepared for school, according to a Griffith University study.
The four-year study surveyed almost 7000 parents of children from Australia, New Zealand and the United States and independently assessed 177 children aged three, four and five.
Unsurprisingly, it found children who had early swimming lessons performed better in tests of some physical skills, although not ball-handling.
However, the lead author, Professor Robyn Jorgensen, said what was surprising and of interest to parents, educators and policy makers, was that these children also scored significantly better in literacy, numeracy, mathematical reasoning, visual motor skills (cutting paper, drawing lines, colouring in) and oral expression.
''It does appear that children who participate in swimming are achieving a range of milestones earlier than normal populations,'' Professor Jorgensen said in the interim report of Early-years swimming: Adding capital to young Australians.
''This has been supported strongly from the parent survey, but also (to a lesser degree) in the child testing … For example, the survey showed young swimmers are reported by their parents to be counting to 10 much earlier than is expected on developmental milestones.''
The interim report said the children also scored better on measures of understanding and complying with directions.
Professor Jorgensen said it could be argued that only wealthier families could afford swimming lessons and therefore the findings reflected social strata.
However she said data from the assessments showed there was significant differences between swimmers and the normal population, regardless of socio-economic background.
''Quality swimming lessons are rich in opportunities for learning beyond swimming skills … which may help in the transition to school,'' Professor Jorgensen said.
Paul Sadler, of Paul Sadler Swimland, which provided financial support to the study, said swimming lessons might involve games with counting or children chanting Humpty Dumpty before falling into the water.
''I'm not surprised about literacy and numeracy coming up because there is all the language around, 'Ready set go', 'Your turn' and stuff with numbers.''
Megan Harris, whose children Lillie and Baxter had swimming lessons from the age of 12 months, said the biggest benefit for her was the confidence her children gained in and out of the water. ''Definitely, I think that helps with the transition to school.''
She said water safety was stressed. Children learnt to wait their turn in a queue and to count to three before entering the water.
The interim report recommends that children who traditionally do not do well at school, particularly in the early years, participate in swimming lessons. ''Subsidising may be a way forward for disadvantaged families to enable better access to school.''
However, it warns the industry is unregulated, with considerable variation among swim schools. ''If the child is to gain in other areas of child development, the swim environment and swim teachers/lessons need to be of consistently high quality,'' it says.
Although the swimming industry provided financial support, the study represents the views of the research team only.