Summer camps with swimming activities will certainly have safety practices in place, but parents should take steps ahead of time to help their children be safer in and around pools and lakes. According to Tracy Stratman, recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, water safety begins before anyone enters the water.
“You don’t even have to be by a body of water; you learn about the dangers and how to be responsible in and around water,” she says. “Water safety should be taught as the child grows like any other safety discussion we have with our children.”
Stratman recommends that families review pool regulations and swimming rules, including such particulars as depth boundaries, the distance between the child and an adult, and which fixtures (i.e., diving boards, slides, fountains) are permitted, along with the appropriate activities for each.
Formal water safety instruction offered by the city and other sources emphasizes rules. Jenny Holweger, YMCA of Greater Omaha’s vice president of program development, says that YMCA water safety and swim lessons have recently been modified, including stronger emphasis on out-of-pool guidelines that also promote safety.
“We’ve decided we should be intentional about teaching things like asking permission from an adult to get into the water and other fundamentals,” she says. “We have been teaching kids to swim for 175 years; it evolves over time. We always concentrated on personal safety and rescue skills, but the water safety skills we have honed in on for participants now are very practical. And they’re things all kids, all adults—everyone—should know.”
Another important concept for parents to practice, and teach, is respect for others in any public swimming facility or beach. That can mean taking turns on slides and diving boards; not shoving, splashing, or dunking other children; and even curbing exuberant shrieking and yelling.
“It’s just being cognizant of those who are around you,” Holweger says. “Just being aware of your surroundings and who else is in that space, and being polite and courteous.”
“Kids are all out for fun,” Stratman says. “But I do think most people use common sense and etiquette, and respect shared facilities and use them properly—just realize there are other people using them as well. You don’t want to impede on anyone’s enjoyment, and you don’t want them impeding on yours. It’s everybody’s space.”
Basic instruction should start when children are introduced to water, Holweger says. The YMCA even offers parent-and-child classes for families with children as young as six months old. These classes emphasize fun and safety. The City of Omaha provides similar classes along with Josh the Otter Water Safety & Awareness program and Float 4 Life training.
Traditional swim lessons are suitable for children over age 3 and focus on more advanced activities like strokes, breathing techniques, and rescue skills.
Even older inexperienced or marginal swimmers can learn survival techniques like “swim-float-swim” or “jump-push-turn-grab,” Holweger says. And non-swimmers can benefit from basic safety instruction, too.“ You do not have to be a water enthusiast.”
Many of the same rules and principles that make public pools more enjoyable also apply to spraygrounds, Stratman says. Adults should insist on respectful behavior like taking turns and forbid roughhousing. And safety is still an issue. “Even though there’s no standing water, there’s still risk.” Running can lead to falls, for instance. On hot summer days, the pavement of parking lots or walking paths leading to spraygrounds can burn bare feet.
Adults can also help protect children in and around water by being safe themselves, Stratman says.
“Adults need to be responsible around the water and be a good role model when it comes to water safety,” she says. “Saying ‘I know how to swim so I don’t need to wear a life jacket when I’m on a boat’ would be like saying, ‘I’m a good driver so I don’t need to wear a seat belt.’ Accidents happen.”
Teaching good safety practices and respect for others “makes being around water fun and enjoyable,” Holweger says. The learning experience can be fun, too, Stratman adds.
“We really encourage parents to be active swimmers with their children,” she says. “A pool or a sprayground is a perfect opportunity for a parent to engage with their child and play with them.”
Out of all the precautions adults—even young adults like camp counselors—can take to keep children safer in and around water, one rises above the rest.
“Adults should know that supervision is the No. 1 thing they can do to protect their kids around the water,” Holweger says.
“You cannot substitute adult supervision,” Stratman says. “[Adults] need to supervise children and watch and be vigilant.”
This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.