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One of the most important things you could ever do for a child in terms of their safety is to teach them how to swim. The second most important thing you could do is learn how to swim yourself, if you don’t have this skill already. We can’t stress enough just how important swimming ability is. Of all the issues in child safety, no other issue is so easily controllable by parents and produces such a large benefit of protection in return; perhaps with the exception of wearing seatbelts or checking smoke alarms. If either you or your child is unable to swim, or hasn’t taken lessons, it’s time to learn.

Just how important is this skill? Let’s take a quick look:

Swimming Ability: A Matter of Life or Death

In Phoenix, Arizona, three young children (ages 2, 3 and 4) who couldn’t swim got away from their caretaker and jumped into the deep end of the pool. Thankfully, they were being watched by an adult who could swim. They were rescued and taken to the hospital, and were expected to be OK. (NBC News Phoenix, 6-9-08) A very different ending occurred in another similar case when a caretaker couldn’t swim. In Pine Hills, Florida, a father, his daughter, and her friend all drowned in a community swimming pool. Authorities say Philippe Casseus was reading by the porch of his home as he kept an eye on his daughter Ruth, 14-years-old, and her friend Verline Jules, 12, as they played in the pool. When he saw the girls struggling in the water, he ran to save them, and drowned in the process. None of the three knew how to swim. (USA Today, 10-19-09, p. 8A) From three lives saved to three lives lost; that is the importance of swimming ability.

Yet perhaps the most tragically profound lesson of all on the importance of swim lessons came in the summer of 2010, when six teenagers drown in a single incident on the Red river. The adolescents from two families were enjoying a get-together on the shore. The kids were swimming in the river, when a 15-year-old boy stepped into a sudden drop in the underwater terrain, slipped under the surface, and just like that found himself in trouble. One by one, others attempted to rescue him, and one by one, they found themselves in the same predicament. Six teenagers ranging in age from thirteen to eighteen were killed, practically wiping out the offspring of two entire families. Nobody in the party, not even the adults, knew how to swim. (ABC World News, 8-3-10) Ironically, the 15-year-old who triggered the mass drowning was able to somehow make it to safety, and was the only one who survived.

Water is all around us, and to a child who can’t swim, it might as well be hot lava. The scenario becomes doubly as dangerous if the adults around a child can’t swim either. A child who stumbles off a dock, falls from a boat, leans over too far while looking at fish, gets too close near the edge of a river, falls near the deep end of a pool, jumps into an area that is over his head, is pushed into the water by another child; each of these potential slip-ups and more can turn deadly if a child is unable to swim.

Imagine how often children might trip or stumble, and now think about how one such trip or stumble can become deadly if it happens to happen near a source of deep water. If you or your child can’t swim, it’s like playing Russian roulette with their lives.

Swim Lessons Save Lives

Researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development conducted a study where they interviewed 88 families of children who drowned between 2003 and 2005, alongside 213 living children of the same age group. They found that the drowning victims had substantially lower levels of swimming ability. Among those who drowned, only 3% of children ages one to four had taken formal swimming lessons. Among the group of living children, 26% had taken swim lessons. Only 5% of those who perished could float on their backs for 10 seconds, compared with 18% of the living children. (March 2009 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine)

Swim lessons can even help children save the lives of others. In Arizona, a state that sees more than its fair share of pool deaths (since almost everyone in the state has a pool), also was witness to an act of heroism. Swimming ability in collaboration with a safety program from the Glendale Fire Department paid off enormously for a pair of first-graders. They alertly noticed a 3-year-old who had fallen into the pool and was drowning. The 7-year-old girl swam to her rescue and was able to save her. (ABC 15 News Phoenix, 5-28-08)

More on swim lessons:

To enroll your child in swim lessons, contact your local community center, YMCA, or Red Cross.

Water Safety printable book
A Fun and entertaining children’s book that teaches kids some basic principles on water safety. Recommended for kids ages 4-10.

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