Every year, about 900 children die from accidental drowning in the United States. This is largely in part due to lack of access to swimming lessons, living far from bodies of water and lack of education on both the parent and child's part.
In Sarasota, it's especially important that children learn how to swim. Swimming is a fun group activity that not only kids moving and having fun during summer, but at a fundamental level, is a life-saving skill.
Ken Diffenderfer, aquatic director at Core SRQ (formerly the Sarasota YMCA), shares reasons lessons are a must.
When should children begin swim lessons?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children start swimming lessons between ages 1 and 4. Diffenderfer says that at this age, children can learn to float on their back, breathe deep and call for help if they need. If kids spend time splashing on the steps or ramp with their parents, they are more likely to develop positive associations with water and become natural swimmers.
By age 1, Diffenderfer says kids can also learn to submerge their head underwater in a controlled manner and safely get in and out of the pool.
How many times per week should children take lessons?
Diffenderfer says the more often, the better. Ideally, children should attend lessons two to three times per week, but it all depends on the parent's availability. He also recommends children take group swimming lessons as opposed to privates, because they learn better with their peers.
"They are not as scared if they see their friends trying the same things," he adds. "We want them to be happy and have fun."
What are the most common reasons children don't learn to swim?
Diffenderfer says a study from metropolitan Chicago in 2019 found that cost, lack of time and inability to find a pool or lessons are the top reasons why children don't learn to swim.
To handle the cost issue in Sarasota, philanthropist Keith Monda has created a program called Safe Water Instruction Matters (SWIM) where local second graders are picked up from school and given a week-long swimming course for free at locations like Core SRQ, Venice YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club.
Diffenderfer says these kinds of programs are important for teaching the life-saving skill of swimming to children who may not otherwise have the opportunity.
If parents own a pool, what are some safety tips to remember this summer?
"Always supervise your children when they are swimming. If you are having a party, have a designated person watch the kids at all times and stay within arm's length of the child," says Diffenderfer.
He says children should never swim alone and never without permission from an adult. He also recommends parents receive CPR training, because less than three percent of the U.S. population knows how to administer CPR. With drowning being the third leading cause of death in children, CPR is important to know.
What are some beginner tricks children can learn in the water to stay safe?
Diffenderfer says never to push your child into the water because it can cause negative or traumatic associations with swimming. Rather, start slow on ramps or steps and teach kids how to use the steps and ladder. Instead of jumping into the pool, have them sit at the edge and place both hands to one side and twist themselves into the water.
Children should also learn to blow bubbles in the water, and get comfortable submerging their head lower and lower. He also says teaching them to exhale through their nose while underwater is helpful. Teach them in shallow enough water where they can stand if they need.
What are the health benefits of swimming?
Beside being a life-saving skill, swimming offers plenty of physical and mental benefits for your child. They will build lung capacity and strengthen their cardiovascular systems, build muscle, gain flexibility and have better digestion. Swimming is also a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that the repetitive movement of swimming strokes produces a calming effect.
Gross and fine motor skills can also be learned and improved in children under the age of 5. This can be especially useful for children who face physical impairments and need to improve dexterity.
Should children use floating devices? What about nose and ear plugs or goggles?
Diffenderfer says floating devices should not be used unless they are U.S. Coast Guard=certified. They should also not be a crutch—i.e., a replacement for learning to swim or proper supervision—although they can be incorporated during play time.
As far as ear and nose plugs and goggles, Diffenderfer prefers not to teach children with these tools. He says they need to learn to swim in all scenarios, especially if they accidentally fall into the pool. That said, if your child has health issues that would benefit from their use, you should absolutely use them.
What are some other health tips to keep in mind?
"Keep children hydrated," Diffenderfer says. Even thought kids are in water, they're still sweating and can easily become dehydrated. Have them take breaks to drink water and rest.
Children should also use sunscreen that is water-resistant to protect against UV rays if Diffenderfer also recommends washing children's ears out with vinegar and alcohol after they get out of the pool or ocean if they're prone to ear infections.
Why is Drowning Awareness Month so important?
"Drowning is a public health crisis; that's the way I see it," says Diffenderfer. "But drowning in children is avoidable."
In 2019 there were 65 fatal drownings in the state of Florida, and close to 100 in 2020. Beyond that, there were about 500 non-fatal drownings, which Diffenderfer says can still leave children with cognitive impairment and other severe health complications.
If you would like to learn more about water safety as an adult, visit the Red Cross' Ambassador for Water Safety Course online, or train to become a swim instructor. Share what you've learned on social media to spread awareness.
"It starts with the adults," says Diffenderfer. "If neither parent swims, there's a 90 percent chance children won't, either. We need the entire family to become literate in water safety and swimming basics."
Where can children take lessons?
Core SRQ will be hosting swimming camps throughout the entire summer. For more information, click here. There are also local YMCA and Boys & Girls Club locations offering swimming camps, as well as private instructors.
Core SRQ is located at 1075 S. Euclid Ave., Sarasota. The Palmer Ranch location is at 8301 Potter Park Drive, Sarasota. For location information, click here.