Teaching children a respect for the water is a very important part in water safety education. Children start to learn a respect for the water as they progress through the learn to swim process and begin to understand their capabilities and limitations in the pool. Children need lots of exploratory play under strict supervision from the parent, as well as formal learning which instils water safety values. This concept of “respect for the water” can even be observed in little babies. For example babies can demonstrate their understanding of deep and shallow water, as they crawl along a shallow ledge, stop and sit up at the end and not venture off into the deep water until being invited to do so by their parent. This simple move can actually be overlooked as an important part of the water safety learning process. What’s more, it is very easy to actually reinforce undesired behaviours, if we don’t follow the right steps. For example the baby/child who repeatedly launches themselves into deep water without the ability to independently recover and the well meaning parent or teacher who picks the child up and smiles. So what steps should parents follow?
Instil cues for going underwater
During the initial learning stages we want baby’s first underwater experience to be safe and free from fuss or trauma. Therefore we use our trigger words ‘ready go’, followed by the smooth pouring of water over the baby’s face, to teach them breath control on command. Once baby grows with age this trigger ‘ready go’ actually becomes an invitation for baby to independently swim to the parent or teacher. It’s very important that children learn to swim when Mum or Dad says it’s safe to do so.
Setting up a routine for going in the water is also a good idea. For example getting dressed into your swimsuit, collecting favourite toys, putting on a cap and goggles. This routine may actually alert you to your child wanting to go for a swim especially important if you have a home pool. You want to make sure that your child know that they must always swim with mum and dad.
Teach babies and children to grip
Gripping is very important because this skill could save your child’s life. Gripping starts simply on the parents T-shirt. Here the baby learns to support their own body weight and pull themselves out of the water independently. The parent is encourage to stay down low in the water and make a ledge on their chest for baby to hold on to and keep their mouth out of the water. The grasp reflex allows your baby to do this skill very early on in swimming lesson. As the baby grows with age we advance the skill to gripping onto deck level, holding a pool bar or holding themselves on a high wall. The skill then advances to them learning to monkey along the pools edge and climb out of the water to safety.
You can see that we follow a building block approach to learn to swim. This very first step of gripping the t-shirt leads into children being able to climb out of the pool to safety. Furthermore if we teach children to grip onto the T-shirt from an early age then we actually never have to pick them up from underwater activities. In fact as the baby swims to the parent they actually pull themselves up and recover independently. Of course we would build this skill as well, with the parents gently assisting during initial float and pull up attempts, but it’s about progressions designed to help baby understand their own capabilities.
Teach independence under strict supervision
Laurie has been a long time advocate of building independence in the baby swimming lesson. In 1995 he presented at the International Infant Aquatic Education Conference in Melbourne and pressed the concept of “Independence being the key to learning a respect for the water”. Building independence is about the baby/child learning to do things for themselves. The idea is that they learn their capabilities and limitations in the water, under the careful guidance and encouragement from Mum and Dad. Gripping and pulling up on the T-shirt is a great activity to build independence. So too is shallow water exploration where they crawl, float, pull up and play. Activities like turning underwater become essential to build independence and teach water safety as the baby/child learns to return to the safety of the parent, pool ledge or side of the pool.
Of course all these independent activities are done under the strict supervision of the adult caregiver. Remember skill building is the key if you want build independence. It’s not about throwing them in and making them to it by themselves, then swooping in when you realize they can’t. It’s about slowing breaking skills down and gradually giving less and less assistance and support. We never want to frighten the child in the learn to swim lesson. It’s very important that you read the baby/child’s body language. If they are reluctant to swim to you then take a step closer and don’t move backwards after they push off. The goal is that they feel confident and that you reward even the smallest success. After 3 goes of little swims with success they will be happy to go further. But if they have 3 goes where they struggle then I guarantee they won’t be willing participants during the next swimming lesson.
Give lots of water play
Play outside of the formal learn to swim lesson is ideal to help build confidence and teach children a respect for the water. Children need to explore a variety of environments like the beach, creek, and public pool with different water temperatures. All these environments have different dangers and things to consider. The more exposure children have to these environments the better understanding they will develop. You may also find that children will be very confident swimming in the familiar environment where they have their swimming lessons but are less confident and even fearful in unfamiliar surrounds. This is very normal and displays your child gaining an appreciation of water danger. With exposure their confidence will grow. Remember children learn through exploration and play outside of the lesson will also help them in the formal swimming lesson.
Follow water safety rules
Children need to learn to follow water safety rules. This means teaching them to read the pool signs or signs which are displayed around other environments. There is the common rule like swimming between the flags when you’re at the beach, but there are many other signs that will be on display to ensure community safety. If you take your child surfing for instance you will not be able to swim between the flags and therefore they need to learn to read the other signs on display. Pools will have many rules to follow like no running, no bombing and no pushing. You should also consider things like teaching children to never swim alone and to wade into creeks or rivers, never dive because the depth of the water is unknown and there is very often debris in the water which can be very dangerous. Parents should model water safety behaviour to their children. Supervision within arms reach is mandatory for children under the age of 5. But remember children still need active adult supervision well after this age.