Keeping kids safe in the water: a summer priority

Written by Dennis Bova. Posted in Taking Care of Your Life

There are some fun ways to escape the July heat, like eating ice cream, going to an air-conditioned theater, and taking a dip in cool water, from a beach to a backyard pool. While swimming is refreshing and fun, it can be deadly, especially for youths.

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children, says the American Red Cross. The American Academy of Family Physicians says drowning is the most common injury-related cause of death among children aged one to four years.

But the Red Cross says on its website that by adopting a few simple practices, the danger of drowning can be lessened:

  • Ensure every member of your family learns to swim so they can enter the water, get a breath, stay afloat, change position, swim a distance, then get out of the water safely.
  • Use barriers to prevent easy access to water and life jackets, and closely supervise children.
  • Know what to do in a water emergency, including how to help someone in distress, call for emergency help, and do CPR.

“A child or weak swimmer can drown in the time it takes to reply to a text, check a fishing line, or apply sunscreen,” the Red Cross says. “Death and injury from drownings happen every day in home pools and hot tubs, at the beach, or in oceans, lakes, rivers and streams, bathtubs, and even buckets.”

Kym Cragel is aware of these measures. As a certified Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) instructor since 2017, she teaches their use and adds some of her own practices as promoted by ISR. She says her lessons are focused on children ages six months to six years and emphasize self-rescue. “If they find themselves alone in the water and need help,” Cragel says, “they can survive.”

They do so because her training has them be aware of rolling over on their backs to take a breath and float, and call out until help arrives. For older children, she teaches them to roll on their back, float, breathe, flip over, swim, and roll on their back again.

Cragel, with a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in sports psychology, says, “I tailor the lessons to each child. Sometimes I teach 40 children a day. Each one is at a different level. My kids after six weeks can save their lives.” She adds that she recently received a text from a mother whose two-year-old son, who had completed Cragel’s course, found himself in trouble in a pool. “He flipped over on his back and started yelling” until his mother arrived, Cragel says.

Cragel uses her background in physical fitness to judge each individual swimming student’s body type for a clue on how to teach the best way for that child to float. And each child has a different personality, she says. “That’s where my sports psychology comes in,” she says. She instills a positive attitude in each student through “self talk.” She has them say “I’m a good swimmer, I love to float.”

“We never use any negative terms,” Cragel says. “They don’t say they can’t, but instead, ‘I will try.’”

She focuses on establishing breath control through 10-minute lessons to build muscle memory, and reinforcing the roll-on-your-back technique to be second-nature.

Cragel discourages the use of some swimming aids such as puddle jumpers, a flotation device that is worn around a child’s chest and over the arms, and promotes the wrong kind of muscle memory. Those devices are meant for wearing on a boat and keeping the wearer afloat if in the water. But for simply playing in a pool, it’s unwise, and she urges they not be used.

She said a child wearing such a device is upright—the drowning position, she says. Children kick their legs in a bicycle motion to stay afloat with the device, but if they don’t have the device, their muscle memory will take over and the child will be upright and prone to tiring, sinking, and drowning—instead of automatically turning over to float on their back.

Unlike other summers, many public pools are closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. That has led to an increase in homeowners buying backyard pools. Accompanying these pools should be several layers of protection, including safety fencing with locks, self-rescue lessons, knowing CPR, and being aware of—and eliminating—unsafe flotation devices, she says.

Swimming lessons generally weren’t offered at private pools for health reasons, but Cragel said a recent change in state law now allows such instructions. Cragel said there are safety protocols that the parents are to follow, including taking the temperature of the child before the lesson and monitoring the child’s sleep and activity levels.

“I have waterproof masks that I wear, and I keep sanitizer by the pool,” she adds.

Cragel is quick to dispel the notion that a child’s drowning is the result of bad parenting. “Drowning happens to the best of parents,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or what your socio-economic background is. It can happen to anyone. A child can take one big gulp of water, go below the surface, and not come up.”

She cautions parents: “With children in the water, you cannot have a phone in your hands or be reading a book. You have to have constant eyes on your child. It takes only one or two seconds to slip below the water.”

Cragel has a pool in her Maumee backyard where she gives lessons, and has a network of host pools where she can teach. She is available to teach throughout Northwest Ohio. “I go to where I’m needed,” she says.

“There are about 25 of us [ISR-certified instructors] in the whole state,” she says. “My goal is to build a team in Northwest Ohio.”

Her main goal, though, is to keep children safe around the water. In agreement is the Red Cross, which says that by “working together to improve water competency—which includes swimming skills, water smarts, and helping others—water activities can be safer and just as much fun.”

Dennis Bova is a retired newspaper reporter, columnist, and copy editor.