Feature Article - November 2016
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Begin With the Basics & Build

Aquatic Programming 101

By Dave Ramont


Nichole Steffens, national aquatics product manager for the Red Cross, believes that swimming is a life skill everyone should have. "Learning to swim means much more than learning strokes. It's learning water survival skills, water safety and developing comfort in the water."

She explained how in 2014, the Red Cross launched its Aquatics Centennial Campaign in honor of 100 years of drowning prevention, with the goal of reducing the drowning rate in 50 communities where those rates are high. They're doing so by teaching an additional 50,000 children and adults to swim and learn water safety, serving families who may otherwise not be able to participate by making more lessons and training available at significantly reduced costs. Plus, they're training more swim instructors and lifeguards, as well as teaching parents and caregivers water safety and pediatric CPR.

Steffens said the Red Cross' Learn-to-Swim program has something for everyone, offering parent-and-child aquatics for kids aged 6 months to 3 years, preschool classes for ages 3 to 5, six levels of learn-to-swim classes for youths 6 years and older, and three adult levels for beginners through fitness swimmers. Around 10 percent of the 2.5 million people who enroll in Red Cross Learn-to-Swim programs each year are adults. "We're seeing more parents and caregivers participating in the adult classes each year," Steffens said.

The Red Cross also offers a variety of aquatic training programs. There's a junior lifeguarding program for youths ages 11 to 15, and for those 15 and older there's a lifeguarding program focused on gaining the skills required to become a professional rescuer, which includes learning First Aid and professional-level CPR, and has specialty modules for those wishing to work at waterparks, waterfronts or facilities with aquatic attractions.

Red Cross swim instructor programs include Basic Swim Instructor (BSI) and Water Safety Instructor (WSI), designed for those aged 16 and older who wish to teach swimming and water safety skills. BSIs are certified to teach fundamental aquatic courses and WSIs are certified to teach fundamental and advanced courses, and both are certified to give water safety presentations.

Steffens said that the Learn-to-Swim programs help kids gain the swimming skills that allow them to transition into many other aquatic endeavors. "It's a natural progression for youths who have an interest in competitive swimming." And though there are typically fees for lessons which are set by the providers, many providers do offer scholarships, and families needing assistance should inquire at their local aquatic facility. The programs are delivered through authorized training partners such as parks and recreation departments, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, colleges and universities, and YMCAs.

YMCA Leads the Way

The first YMCA was founded in Boston in 1851 through the efforts of Thomas Sullivan, a retired sea captain. In 1885 the first YMCA swimming pool—called a "swimming bath"—was built in the Brooklyn Center YMCA, measuring 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. By year's end there were 17 Y pools in existence, and 100 by 1900, though the medical profession considered them a health menace as they had no chlorination or filtration. In 1923, the first YMCA National Swimming Championships were held at the Brooklyn Center pool.

Today, YMCAs across the country offer swim lessons for all ages, as well as family swim, competitive swimming and diving teams, and many kinds of adaptive swim programs for those with special needs. More than 1 million kids take swim lessons at the Y each year. YMCA Senior Manager of Aquatics Lindsay Mondick said, "At the YMCA, we consider ourselves America's swim instructor."

In 2016 the Y will award more than 18,000 scholarships for free water safety lessons to kids from underserved communities as part of their Safety Around Water Program, with an emphasis on reaching at-risk African-American and Hispanic/Latino children. Some 70 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic kids can't swim, compared to just 40 percent of Caucasian kids, with African-American kids aged 5 to 14 being three times more likely to drown than their peers. Plus, 88 percent of kids who drown do so under adult supervision, and 60 percent of victims are within 10 feet of safety.

The Safety Around Water Program teaches two key swimming survival skills, including the "Jump, Push, Turn and Grab" technique which teaches kids to calmly orient themselves if they fall into water. The "Swim, Float, Swim" technique instructs them to take breaks when swimming to safety by floating on their back to avoid overexertion. Tia Scaletta, aquatics manager at the Taylor YMCA in Elgin, Ill., said their facility is starting to utilize the Safety Around Water Program, plus they teach the "Jump, Float, and Yell for Help" safety method to aid a child who has fallen in water and cannot swim or touch bottom.

Scaletta said the parent/child class (kids ages 6 months to 3 years) is currently quite popular. "These classes are so much fun—they teach the little ones ways of the water through songs and games. We also have a large turnout for both preschool and youth lessons in the fall, spring and summer." Additionally, they have Red Cross trainers on staff and provide lifeguard training.

Kids can use the skills learned in the pool not just at pool parties, but for swimming in the lake or ocean as well, and once they're older they understand that swimming isn't just fun, it's a great way to stay in shape, according to Scaletta. "After basic lessons they have the opportunity to join a swim team," she added, "which helps them grow as individuals by teaching them structure, teamwork, good sportsmanship and accomplishment, which they may not have the opportunity to learn elsewhere." And while not all YMCAs offer competitive swimming, the Taylor facility does have a competitive team—The Pelicans—split into different skill levels and age groups, who compete against other Y teams and the occasional country club team.

The Taylor Y also offers adult swim lessons, and many of those signing up have a child already in the program. Scaletta said some are just looking to become more comfortable in the water, while others come out of it knowing every competitive stroke, but either way they're setting a great example for their children.