Water Safety Skills are Essential

A person stands with a lifeguard aid next to the ocean
Photo courtesy of Laru Beya Collective

Summer is a great time to enjoy being in and around water for people of all ages. Whether its swimming at the local pool, time at the beach, paddling on a lake, or fishing in a river – water-based recreation helps us beat the summer heat. In addition to the benefits it offers, however, water-based recreation poses risks as well. Drowning is a leading cause of death for children. The statistics for water related injuries and deaths are even higher among children with marginalized identities. This is scary, but fortunately there are steps that adults can take to keep the kids in their care safe around water. For youth programs that include water elements, these steps include implementing barriers to prevent unauthorized water access, adult supervision of youth in and around water, and comprehensive emergency preparation including CPR training for staff.

An adult and child paddle a boat across a lake

Of course, kids will show up to any program with varying levels of swimming abilities and comfort around water. Normalizing or requiring the use of life jackets can help all kids participate in water-based activities safely without having to feel embarrassed about their water competency. It’s important to note that some common flotation aids for young kids like water wings and inner tubes are not the same as life jackets and do not prevent drowning. Additionally, introducing opportunities for youth who aren’t comfortable around water to learn more about swimming and water safety can give them skills that extend beyond their engagement with your program. The Red Cross has great resources and activities for engaging young people on issues of water safety. The National Water Safety Action Plan offers additional resources for community-level changes to enhance water safety.

A child swims underwater while wearing goggles

Any time we talk about youth water safety, it’s important to acknowledge disparities that make this a more pressing issue among marginalized communities. Black and Indigenous children have higher drowning death rates than white children in the U.S. Drowning is more common in rural settings than in urban ones, and children with autism are also more likely to experience drowning incidents than children without autism. These statistics are due to a range of factors including historically segregated pools and swimming areas, lack of investment in swimming education in communities of color, response times of emergency personnel, and limited education around working with neurodivergent youth. Any efforts aimed at increasing water safety must face these inequities head on and work to correct the ongoing discrimination in water competency education.

A child kneels to attach an ankle strap while an instructor assists
Photo courtesy of Laru Beya Collective

Two national organizations that have taken on this important work are Tankproof, which works to provide equitable access to aquatics and food security in the U.S., and the USA Swimming Learn to Swim grants program, which provides support for swim education in underserved communities. NRF grantees are hard at work boosting water competency as well. The Laru Beya Collective is one of these organizations. Laru Beya is committed to empowering kids with marginalized identities through surfing at Rockaway Beach in New York. Surf instructors employ positive youth development and social emotional learning strategies while also teaching young people about how to be safe and have fun in and around water. Laru Beya’s work combines personal growth, learning new recreational skills, and water competency – pretty impressive!

A child looks underwater with a snorkel and mask

In spring 2024, National Water Safety Month celebrated 20 years of shining a light on the need for water awareness. While there have been many advancements in those decades, there have been setbacks as well. The COVID-19 pandemic limited water access for many young people due to shutdowns of schools, community centers, and other public swimming areas. This means that some kids experienced a water safety education gap when they were at home during the pandemic. It’s important for us to close that gap and get back on track so we can make sure all kids get to enjoy water safely.