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'Vaccinating' against water based tragedies

In a previous edition of H2Open magazine I wrote of my concern that the UK faced an inter-generational swimming crisis due to the lack of facilities and teaching (‘No Country For Young Swimmers’ June/July edition), and the very real threat of increased drowning incidents as a result.


Whilst I’ve been delighted at the response, the numbers sharing my concern confirms that a crisis is indeed on the cards. Despite this, I’ve been somewhat comforted by the efforts of several readers with existing effective initiatives to combat this serious issue.

One example is ‘Flip and Float’, an approach pioneered in the UK by swimming teacher Sue Brown, which has been taught to 400 children in the last three years. It mirrors the US-based Infant Swimming Resource’s ‘Self Rescue’ method, created by paediatric drowning prevention specialist Dr Harvey Barnett.

The technique teaches young children who find themselves struggling in the water to turn onto their back, using their body’s natural buoyancy whilst they breathe, regain calm and cry for help. Stunning online videos show infants as young as six months mastering this life-saving concept. Older children also learn how to alternate between floating on their back and paddling towards safety on their front.

“The priority is to find the air but in order to do this children also need to be at ease with being in the water” Brown says “these two skills are lifesaving and the child can subsequently remove themselves from danger or alert someone who can”.

The method is targeted primarily at 4-7 year olds and is taught with the aid of otter and turtle toy-mascots, animals known for their own use of similar concepts in their natural aquatic environments.

Given our often blame-based culture it’s surprising to hear Dr Barnett understand (but not excuse) parental lapses of supervision, arguing that the motivation of a baby who has been shown how to breathe and survive exceeds that of a parent remembering to close a gate. Incredibly, 88% of drownings are ‘supervised’ and every incident-free day can reinforce a parents’ sometimes blasé luck-based strategy. Hence, building such survival skills into the cognitive structures at an early age enables children revisiting the situation to instinctively know what to do. In this way he refers to the skill as a ‘vaccination’ like any other, where the body learns how to automatically combat a potential life-threat.

This is not to disregard responsibility and other preventative methods, but recognising that accidents do occur, we should equip children with the necessary tools should they find themselves in difficulty.

Reminding children (and adults) of the inherent danger of water and the respect it should command is equally important. Drowning causes nearly as many accidental deaths as transport accidents, yet the funding given to prevention initiatives is miniscule in comparison. At school I was shown numerous ‘don’t play near train tracks’ videos but can’t recall any water-based equivalents, despite growing up in a seaside town. With schools lacking actual pool-time, classroom-based learning is vital. Basic concepts like those mentioned and essential principles like kicking off your shoes when in difficulty can still be taught with minimal resources.

Where these are taught, teachers report higher levels of subsequent participation in swimming, such as children going on to join local clubs and compete. It’s worth remembering that a parents’ ability to swim is a key determinant of child’s proficiency, making these skills self-perpetuating.

Swimming is a sport that many of us enjoy recreationally and competitively, but is the only one that doubles as a lifesaving skill. The more that initiatives such as ‘flip and float’ can be supported and encouraged, the more we can minimise tragedy whilst maximising the number of future swimmers who can share the enjoyment of the pools and open water that we so often take for granted.

(This article is featured in H2Open Magazine, December 2014/January 2015 edition)

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