School is out, it finally feels like summer, and the swimming pools are jam-packed with kids.
Nothing beats playing in the water to cool off on a summer afternoon.
But before your kids head to the pool, or the lake or the beach, you — and they — need to know how they can stay safe.
“One of the things we think is really important in terms of water safety is early exposure, not just to water,” said Megan Kuhlenschmidt, aquatics, tennis and fitness manager for the Champaign Park District. “The most important thing kids can learn is what their boundaries are in the water.”
When a child must be pulled out of the water by a lifeguard, Kuhlenschmidt said, it is often a child how knows how to swim but has become tired. Learning boundaries means knowing not just the depth of water children can handle, but also how long they can swim until they get too tired to make good decisions. Even parents “don’t always have a good sense of that,” she said.
Both the Champaign and Urbana park districts start parent-tot lessons for children at 6 months of age. They are aimed at getting kids comfortable in the water and teaching parents how to hold their children in the water.
At age 3, children can begin independent lessons. Kuhlenschmidt said one of the first skills young children learn is how to get into and out of the pool safely. Then, if a child falls into a pool near the wall, he or she can know how to climb back out. They also learn to simply stand up if they get in trouble, she said.
Blowing bubbles in the water helps children become comfortable putting their faces in the water, but it also teaches that they should be blowing air out rather than breathing in when their faces are in the water, so they keep water out of their airways, Kuhlenschmidt said.
Young children start learning supported front and back floats, and as they grow older, they learn to float independently, tread water, and fundamental stroke development.
The backfloat is a crucial skill to learn, said Leslie Radice, the aquatic supervisor at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center.
"If they fall in the pool, they can backfloat so they can float and breathe,” Radice said. “I’m not saying that always happens at (a beginning) level, but those are the skills we try to strive towards.”
Radice said keeping kids practicing in the water and letting them explore helps improve their skills and their comfort level in the water. Parents need to be attentive, “but not overbearing, where the kid is scared to death because you’re scared to death.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages four and older learn to swim. The organization used to advise against swim lessons for children younger than age 4, but it has revised that stance and now recommends parents make a decision whether to enroll younger children in swim lessons based on their emotional and physical development, among other factors.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health reported in 2009 that a study showed children ages 1 to 4 who had received swim lessons were less likely to drown than those who had not received swim lessons.
Laura and Paul Poulosky’s four children all began swimming lessons between ages 3 and 5.
“When my oldest was 4, he started doing them and he really liked them,” said Laura Poulosky of Urbana. “We did them partly because he enjoyed it, but also I did want them to have some knowledge in the water and be safe.”
When the older children go swimming with friends, their ability in the water “gives them confidence,” Poulosky said. “They won’t be scared and hanging on the edge.
“When they visit their grandparents, they can go to the lake.”
She still keeps an eye on them, but she knows their swimming skills are solid and their endurance has improved.
“They have a big sense of accomplishment from having done it too,” she said.
Kuhlenschmidt said a common mistake parents can make is assuming their children have the same swimming skills at the start of a summer that they had at the end of the previous summer. Also, children will be older and they may be taller and more confident in the water. But they won’t necessarily swim better, or even as well as the previous year, if they haven’t practiced all winter.
“The really great thing about swimming is it’s something they can do their whole lives,” Kuhlenschmidt said. “We really want to foster that love of swimming and make it fun ... so kids want to explore and learn the next skill.”
Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Toddlers and teenaged boys are at greatest risk.
Here are some water safety tips to help keep children safe around water:
---- Never leave a child unattended in a pool, and watch your child closely when he or she is in or near water.
---- Teach children basic water safety tips.
---- Keep children away from pool drains, pipes or other openings to avoid entrapment.
---- If a child is missing, look for him in the water first.
---- Have a phone and rescue equipment near the pool in case of emergency.
---- Learn how to swim and teach your child how to swim.
---- Never swim alone.
---- Learn how to perform CPR on children and adults.
---- Install a four-foot fence around a home pool that has vertical slats and no footholds or handholds that could make it easy to climb.
---- Use self-latching gates, and install pool and gate alarms.
---- Ensure your pool has compliant drain covers.
---- For above-ground pools, lock or remove steps or ladders when not in use.
---- Keep toys away from the pool when it is not in use.
---- Empty blow-up pools after each use.
---- Keep tricycles or riding toys away from the pool.
---- No electrical appliances near the pool.
---- Check how deep the water is before diving. Enter the water feet first when going in for the first time.
---- Never dive into above-ground pools or the shallow end of a pool. Don’t dive through inner tubes or other pool toys.
---- Get out of the pool if there are storm clouds or you hear thunder.
Sources: Consumer Products Safety Commission, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Safety Council and Home Safety Council.
Photos: Top: Daniel Uhlig helps his son Henry, 2 1/2, during a swim lesson at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center. Middle: Elizabeth Needham, 7, in a swim class at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center. Bottom: Sarah Needham, 5, listens to instructor Mara Dolan during a swim lesson at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center. Photos by Vanda Bidwell.