With summer approaching, many of us dream of spending long, lazy, sun-drenched days at our community or backyard pools.
But daydreams can quickly turn into nightmares when we fail to take water safety precautions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of death among children 1 to 4 years of age, with the exception of birth defects. Drowning also is the second-leading cause of deaths for children between 1 and 14.
Fortunately, most pool site tragedies are preventable. “Parents of young kids must maintain supervision,” says Bill Kirkner, senior director of aquatics facilities and programs at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.
When pool-related injuries or drownings occur, says Kirkner, “It’s typically not that the parent isn’t providing [any] supervision, it’s about lapses in supervision. It’s ‘I just turned my head for a second’ or ‘I just answered a phone call.’ If you have to do something, the kid needs to come out of the water or another parent has to watch.”
Kirkner discourages parents from relying on lifeguards to constantly monitor their children. “Lifeguards aren’t babysitters,” he says. “They’re there to respond to situations when they happen and to teach patrons about safety. They’re responsible for dozens of people, and multiple emergencies can happen at one time.”
Beware of sudden changes in water depth, says Kirkner. “The most dangerous part of the JCC’s family pool is the transition between 3 and 4 feet,” he says. “The child is hopping up and down, and suddenly they’re in water above their head.”
Swimming with a “buddy who’s within arm’s distance” can help young swimmers stay safe, says Kirkner. Nevertheless, he notes, “There’s no substitute for parents being in the water with their children.”
Swim lessons are a critical component of keeping children safe in the water, says Zachary Healy, general manager of Goldfish Swim School, a franchise in Owings Mills. Goldfish offers lessons for children from 3 months to 12 years old.
“Our goal is to teach water safety, teach kids to build up confidence and teach them that swimming isn’t only something to do in the summer but also a sport,” Healy says.
One way in which Goldfish instructors teach water safety is through ‘social stories’ in which children are presented with a scenario and asked how to solve it. For example, says Sean Flanigan, vice president of operations and parent of two Goldfish swim students, “The instructor might say, ‘What if you fell in the pool? What would you do?’”
While Goldfish takes safety seriously, the swim school is also designed to be a “fun destination,” says Flanigan. “A lot of kids quit swimming because the water is too cold, so we keep the [salt water] pool 90 degrees. We pay special attention to the lighting. It’s designed to be a bright, welcoming, tropical [environment].”
Goldfish also has a swim team, offers open swims for the broader community and hosts birthday parties.
At LifeBridge Health & Fitness, the children’s swim program begins with “Mommy and Me” aquatics classes for children from 6 months to 3 years old that are held in a pool heated from 92 to 94 degrees.
“For this age group, we have parents and children in the pool together,” says Helen Whelan, program director at LifeBridge. “It’s a great way to get any child acclimated to the water.”
By ages 3 and 4, children are usually in the pool without their parents. “This age is the prime age to get children to learn to swim,” says Whelan. “They’re at the point where they understand their bodies and they can take direction and follow the instructor’s lead. But the most key point — they’re still fearless!”
Whelan says children in the 3- to 4-year-old level learn to put their faces in the water, blow bubbles, float on their backs, jump in and get themselves to the safety of the side of the pool. In addition to six-week group lessons, LifeBridge offers private swim lessons for reluctant swimmers and those with special needs who aren’t comfortable taking group lessons.
The JCC and Goldfish also offer swim programming for children with special needs.
“It’s recently come to light that [children with autism] are at higher risk of drowning than other kids,” says Kirkner. To accommodate those students, Kirkner says the JCC is piloting a program of swim lessons geared to children on the autism spectrum.
At Goldfish, instructors have worked with autistic children as well as those with other special needs. “We have a program called ‘Golden Learners’ for children who need special accommodations,” says Healy.
Regardless of swimmers’ abilities, instructors agree that it’s best to keep children in the water all year-round.
“If a child has done really well in the summer, don’t stop,” says Whelan. “Give them lessons in the fall, so they can build on what they learned.”
For swimming safety tips, visit redcross.org/take-a-class/swimming.