In 2001, the year I founded kidSwim, there were, tragically and coincidentally, two high profile drownings that summer. As I have always maintained that drowning is 100% preventable, I decided to include, as a community service component of kidSwim, free water safety education talks to parents, teachers, caregivers and children about what water safety really means and how to achieve it. Additionally, it was important to include how to be vigilant and prepared when your children are around water even if they can swim and you think they are safe. While our program is developmental in its process, our underlying focus is always on achieving safety – by degrees – from infancy through elementary school years. This page, which we’ve added to address water safety specifically and directly, explains what a water safe child REALLY means and the steps involved in how to get there. (Spoiler alert – it is NOT a quick fix situation.) We’ve added links to resources, pool gate and cover companies, donations towards drowning prevention agencies and past articles I’ve written on the subject.
What a Water Safe Child Is NOT…
1) 100% water safe. First and foremost, no person is truly 100% water safe which is why it is best to never swim completely alone – this includes adults as well.
2) A child with limited swim experience. A water safe child can, in the most basic terms, act as his or her own lifeguard, with the ability to deal with a variety of situations and surprises adeptly. This can only be achieved with three things: a) emotional maturity b) physical maturity c) years of swim experience.
3) Under the age of 8. A 3 or 4-year-old child – NO MATTER HOW WELL THEY SWIM – is not in any way water safe simply because they are not emotionally seasoned enough to handle an unknown variable calmly and rationally. Anything that surprises a young child, that is out of the norm and can throw them off, can lead to panic and a potential drowning situation.
4) A child who holds their breath while they swim. A child who holds their breath while they swim is not a safe swimmer. They are constantly in near-panic mode because they are anxious about getting to the side so they can breathe. A really confident, safe swimmer breathes while they swim which allows them to relax and enjoy swimming, so they can make better judgment calls and decisions about their own safety.
5) A child wearing a floatation device. Children who swim with floaties are the least safe children in pools simply because there is a false sense of security when wearing one. The child thinks they can swim and doesn’t understand it’s because of a device and the parent often thinks that when the child is wearing a device, he’s fully protected.
What a Water Safe Child IS…
1) Experienced!! A child’s swim education begins in infancy and continues on through their early elementary years; particularly in Southern California where swimming is incorporated into so many summer activities. Swim instruction should ideally be a full summer experience, even better if it begins in spring and carries on through early fall. Swimming is a complicated and nuanced sport and set of skills and children need extensive practice over and over to fully learn and remember the skills they’ve been introduced to. It’s also normal for children under the age of 5 to forget from year to year what they learned previously so it’s so important to refresh skills and keep lessons going until age 8.
2) Relaxed! It’s a paradox I know, but the children who are the safest are the most relaxed and casual about being in the water, particularly deep water. As children get older they can absolutely take ownership of their own safety and should know skills and practice drills to remain safe but the focus for younger children (under the age of 5) should really be on proper skill execution, breathing, floating and most importantly FUN! Do not discount the component of fun for children since that is the element that keeps them invested in the process. Additionally, lessons should mimic what a child will be doing when they are not in lessons and when children are swimming recreationally, they are not swimming laps, they are playing. Children need to learn how to play safely in the water as much as they need to learn proper freestyle technique.
3) Always being watched by an adult! Is it anxiety producing for a parent? Absolutely. Is it exhausting? Totally. Is it fun? Not in the slightest. Is it still the single greatest water safety protection our children have against drowning? No question. Watching your child means a whole series of ‘no’s’ – no talking on the phone, no talking to other adults if you’re looking away, no reading, no drinking alcohol, no more than a two-second distance from your child should they need you. Eventually, this phase passes and you can resume those lovely, enjoyable activities that go hand in hand with pool time but during the earlier years of your child’s swim life, please stay alert and watchful. Better yet – just bite the bullet and get in with them. Play, engage, have fun and be hands-on. This is really the best assurance you have.
4) Adaptable! A water safe child can swim in any pool, no matter the size, shape, temperature and even color (pool bottoms that are dark can scare young children in the deep end). If your child is still only comfortable in their own pool, that’s normal and fine and don’t try to push them beyond their comfort zone if they’re really not ready. That’s their own way of protecting themselves and eventually, this phase passes too.
5) Aware Of Their Limits! Okay, not 100% of the time but generally older children do know what they can and can’t do in terms of skills and are more able to say ‘I can’t do that yet’ while a younger child may not have that awareness and will try things that look fun, cool, exciting.
The Tried and True Tips for
Optimum Learning and Safety Skill Development:
1) Begin in infancy! Parent/child classes are ideal. They are fun, encourage bonding and skill development with parent interaction and are economical as well. This class continued from 6 months until age 2 can absolutely result in your child swimming independently by the time they are 2 years old!
2) Resist the urge to take the ‘fast track’ for learning to swim with intensive programs for children under the age of 4 or 5. These programs do not teach long-term safety or proper skill development and they can in fact, have very adverse effects on a child’s relationship with the water.
3) Do incorporate recreational swim time as often as possible with family and friends. The more children play in water, especially with parents, the more they want to participate and are incentivized to do more. **If you are in the water with your child, please do not use a floatation device. Let them swim with you in the natural state of body awareness so they get comfortable with that feeling. Using floaties slows down the process of learning to swim.
4) When you swim with your child for fun, try not to give them instructions, let them lead. If they want to ‘play swim class’ that’s fine but if they just want to hang around with you on a floating raft or toss a ball in the pool, that’s fine too.
5) Think of this process the way you approach learning to read with your children. It takes years to learn the many levels of reading that result in true comprehension. Swimming is very, very similar. Starting in infancy with the basics and familiarity of it all and then incrementally adding more and more layers and complex skills until finally, around age 5, you have a very competent, water skilled child. Then by age 8, you have a strong, able-bodied swimmer with excellent skills and strong water confidence.
The Ten Commandments of Water Safety Rules to Commit to Memory:
1) At any social gathering where children will be around a pool, even if there is technically no swimming, it is best to hire a lifeguard.
2) If you are considering having a pool party for your child, I strongly recommend not having one for children under the age of 6.
3) If you do have a pool party for a much younger child, it should be mandatory that at least one parent of each child accompany them into the water AND you should still hire a lifeguard.
4) If you are planning a trip or visit to relatives or friends who have a pool that is NOT gated or covered, I strongly, strongly advise either not bringing the children to that location or you must expect to not take your eyes off your child for even one second while they are there.
5) Do not talk on the phone while your child is in the pool.
6) Do not allow large floating rafts in the pool during parties where very young children are in attendance.
7) At hotels or public pools, if your child is active and enjoys being in the pool but is not a safe swimmer, that would be the time to use a floatation device such as a puddle jumper. I STRONGLY advise against arm floaties.
8) One parent watching more than one child is not advised if the children are young and beginners or non-swimmers. Either have both parents or a caregiver, friend or relative assist.
9) Do not allow older siblings to carry or swim with younger ones.
10) Teach older children what to do in case their younger siblings are in trouble. They should not jump in themselves (unless of course, they are much bigger and stronger, but if the age/weight range is too close it’s not safe for either child). They should scream and call for help or use the phone to call 9-1-1. They can also use a noodle or safety device to try and reach out for the child to grasp but only from a lying down position on the deck and no further out than chest level.
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