Feature Article - July 2011
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Making Waves

New Strides in Aquatic Safety

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Bob Hubbard, owner of the Hubbard Family Swim School in Phoenix and a past president of the U.S. Swim School Association, agrees that educating parents is a key component of early swim lessons. "We've learned to take a more proactive role in educating parents," he said. "We have a safety week three times a year where we go over information with kids and parents. If you start early enough, the parent gets in the water and understands the child's capability. They see how quickly things can go wrong." This, he explained, makes them more vigilant about water safety.

Time spent in the water also makes kids safer around a pool, Hubbard said. "If a kid hasn't been exposed to water, if he doesn't understand or know the consequences…when he finally gets near it, he's attracted to it, so teaching appropriate behavior is good." But Hubbard is quick to add—just like the AAP—that no one can be taught to swim so well that they don't need supervision. The University of Arizona has one of the top 10 competitive swim teams in the country, yet two of Hubbard's staff members put themselves through college working as lifeguards for the team's practices. "If they have lifeguard on deck, you can never assume a child or adolescent is safe," he said.

To encourage early adoption of safe behaviors and familiarity with the water, Hubbard's swim school offers a free program for parents and babies called Baby Splash. The instruction is geared toward parents, who get into the water with their babies, and is designed to help them get comfortable with what's appropriate to do with their baby in the water, both in the pool and at home. "We believe in the safety component, but there's also a developmental component in play and stimulation that's huge," Hubbard said. He noted growing scientific evidence that shows water play to be beneficial to physical and neurological development in babies.

The AAP does not recommend formal instruction of any kind for babies less than 1 year old, but their new openness to lessons for children ages 1 to 4 is "a big step forward," said the NSPF's Lachocki. He pointed out that most drownings are in children between ages 1 to 4, so teaching kids to swim at age 5 may be too late.

"Anytime you can get a child even just acclimated to the water at a young age, the more confident and comfortable they'll be, so teaching them is easier," said the Colorado Springs Swim School's Dessart. "If a child is 4 or 5 and has no familiarity with the water, it can be a difficult transition for them."

Dessart noted that her school's early childhood lessons include parents in the water with their children from1 to 3 years of age, and much of the focus is actually on educating parents and showing them how to interact with their children in the water. It's not until age 3 that students work with a teacher in small groups.

Lachocki also pointed out that there are big-picture benefits to society—which is aging and increasingly overweight—when we find ways to engage children in physical exercise. "Having children learn to swim early or learn water safety and awareness opens the door to having more people engaged in a healthy activity they can do all their years," he said. And by offering this sort of education for parents and children, you're creating users who'll know how to enjoy the water safely at your facility for years to come.