Since May is drowning prevention month, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss the concepts of drowning prevention vs water safety. I know they seem like the same thing, but in fact, drowning prevention focuses more on isolated incidents while water safety is more of a big picture concept.
Probably the most consistent question I get over time is, ‘how soon will my child be water safe?’ This is not a simple answer as you may well imagine. The first thing that any responsible water safety advocate will say is that no person is ever 100% water safe which is why swimming alone is not advised, even for adults. That said, understanding what a parent means by water safe, I typically answer, ‘starting around age 8 provided that the child in question has had at least 5 years of consistent swim lessons and a variety of opportunities for recreational swim.’
I usually compare learning to swim with learning to read. In truth, the learning stages are very similar. With reading, children learn by degrees, first to identify letters visually, then the sounds, then matched with pictures (ie ‘A is for …), then short words, short sentences, simple concepts, etc., until they reach a stage of being able to read a paragraph with multiple sentences and concepts and understand all of it. That is the ultimate goal.
So with swimming and safety, children learn the stages of comprehension much the same way. First, with isolated skills, then layering of skills together, then simple commands, then multiple skills and safety commands and when practiced over and over (as we know repetition over long periods of time is the key to real learning), they begin to make connections and understand what they’re doing. Then we can begin to challenge them to problem solve and ‘think it through’, meaning what situation requires what form of action for safety purposes.
Drowning prevention is a single sentence in the overall concept of water safety. If water safety is the entire paragraph, ‘drowning prevention is a single concept’.
For example, the classic drowning prevention skill is to teach a child how to roll over and float if they fall into a pool. This is an excellent and valuable skill towards creating a water safe child. We want to add skills to that, which would be for the child to roll from back to front and swim to the side of the pool then climb out. That completes the sentence.
What’s also true, however, is that there are so many scenarios that do not include a child falling in without a parent present that can create a potential drowning situation. A child who is a competent swimmer in their own pool may be totally thrown off by a new pool they’ve never seen before. A child who always swims in a warm pool may have difficulty adjusting to a much colder pool. Younger children, who are good swimmers,
will often overestimate their own strength and skill levels by trying to carry other children around in water.
Even something as simple as a child getting a bit tired during their swim and picking their head up to take a breath, but instead getting a mouthful of water, can throw them into a panic.
So this is why I always tell parents not to be in a rush to give your child too much responsibility towards their own safety at too young an age. If being water safe means acting as your own lifeguard, knowing how to be safe in a variety of situations, this is a huge responsibility that often children under the age of 8 are not ready for.
Remember that just because your child appears to be a competent swimmer by age 4, they are still only 4 and they have a 4 year old mentality for dealing with surprises or challenges.
Teaching children to swim is a process that really does span the formative years between 0-8. Between the ages of 0-6 lessons should be consistent and take place during the course of the entire summer. After age 6, lessons can be used more intermittently, brushing up on strokes, preparing for camp swim tests, once a week so skills remain fresh.
There are no shortcuts to water safety, just as there are no shortcuts to reading and comprehension. Children need consistent practice and time to figure out what it all means.