I recently read this article which a friend shared with me and felt compelled to respond. I understood what the author was trying to say and the message behind much of it was actually correct, however, the controversial tone of it is off-putting which doesn’t allow what’s helpful to be received. So I’d like to submit this reflection piece as a way of clarifying what I believe the author was trying to say.
I have been giving water safety talks to parents for over 15 years. I do it for free as a community service component to my business and because educating parents on water safety and what it really means is in line with my philosophy on teaching swimming and swim education in general.
Over the past decade I have seen an alarming trend taking place in many forms of education, not only swimming – the idea of ‘intensives’ as a way of expediting the learning process. I find it to be so against how children really and truly learn that I’m amazed it has sustained for as long as it has. Additionally, people are using the term ‘water safe’ for children who are much too young to be considered even close to that. One of the downsides to an intensive program is that it tricks parents into thinking their children are safer than they are which causes them to relax more around water based activities and reduces their vigilance which can indeed put children in peril.
Here is what is TRUE about water safety and children – I tell parents do not even think of their children as remotely water safe until they are at least 8 years old.
Why 8, you might ask. This takes into account that a child by that age would most likely have had lessons since age 2 or 3, giving them a good 5 years of swim lesson experience. In addition, these children are simply older, stronger, more emotionally mature and physically more capable.
I tell parents that labeling your child as ‘water safe’ is essentially saying that they can act as their own lifeguard. That your child is capable of handling themselves in a variety of potentially threatening situations without panicking.
I’ve seen children as young as 2 or 3, able to swim freestyle across the length of a pool but I would never characterize them as water safe simply because mentally and emotionally they are not mature enough to handle a variety of situations calmly.
I tell parents to think of the process of their child learning to swim the same way they approach learning to read. We begin reading to our children when they’re babies for several reason; because they enjoy it, it helps brain development and stimulates learning language, they develop positive associations with reading because its comforting, soothing, and helps to create a foundation for learning in positive ways.
Its the exact same with swimming and babies. Babies love the water with mom and dad! It feels good to them, calms them, helps to develop their sensory skills, and is great for bonding. It also strengthens motor skills and even has elements of communication and problem solving as words and phrases are used repeatedly towards building a positive foundation for learning. The goal is NOT to create a ‘water safe baby’ which is IMPOSSIBLE, instead, its to have a loving, pleasant experience introducing a new environment to your child. there is no downside to this at all. It is 100% positive with healthy benefits and I encourage all parents to swim with their children beginning in infancy.
As children get older, the process of learning to swim continues to mirror learning to read. In reading, children begin to recognize letters, then sounds, then words and beyond that, they evolve into reading short sentences, then longer ones, etc.. however the key component to learning to read is comprehension. Children who read without understanding what they’re reading cannot be considered true readers.
It is the same with swimming and safety. Yes, young children can swim at very early ages but their comprehension of safety is very very minimal. At best, they might be able to mimic certain safety skills in very specific situations but they will most likely not fully understand what they’re doing and why. Additionally, you cannot rely on a young child to remain calm in a stressful situation even if they know what they’re doing.
They simply don’t have the problem solving skills to handle a host of new surprises. It is the years and years of repeated lessons, exposure, conversations and engaged play that build an entire repertoire of experiences that help to create a savvy and safe person.
During a child’s swim experience in actual lessons which can in fact begin around age 2.5 or 3 yrs of age, again, the goal is incorporate learning to swim into an ongoing summer activity, with consistent exposure throughout the weeks and months. This allows the child to absorb concepts, skills, language and problem solving in small doses for better retention. Ideally 2-3 x’s a week over the course of 12-16 weeks of summer.
Children will work on skills, strokes, breathing, floating, safety techniques and safety language. It is crucial that we not try to rush children through this very important learning stage because of our anxiety around safety.
This article I think, is trying to convey some of that but the emphasis on not having swim lessons at all at a young age is not the problem. The problem stems from a lack of understanding about what water safety really is and how long it takes to achieve it.
Additionally, and this I believe is the most important component, is simply the fact that as a parent, part of our job is to be the lifeguard for our children until they are able to be their own lifeguard.
I always end my safety talk with this statement ‘the greatest life-saving device your children have is your eyes on them’.
Orginal article can be found at: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_kids/2017/06/swim_lessons_won_t_keep_your_toddler_from_drowning.html