Safety takes precedence in new suburban swimming lessons
Learning to swim the butterfly is great -- for anyone hoping to be like Michael Phelps.
But it won't prevent a child from drowning. And drowning kills roughly 3,500 people a year, including two children younger than 14 each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drowning is also the second-leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4, according to the Injury Facts 2016 report by the National Safety Council, causing 30 percent of all preventable deaths in that age group.
Because drowning death statistics don't seem to be improving, the YMCA of Metro Chicago made a change to the focus of its swimming lessons. Instead of working mostly on skills of competitive strokes -- like the butterfly, breaststroke, freestyle and backstroke -- the lessons focus first on building water familiarity and survival skills, said Kyle Kamman, senior director of aquatics.
"Before we move on to teaching swim strokes, we're focusing on swim safety," Kamman said.
The new YMCA lessons join other efforts to improve youth water safety, including a program of the USA Swimming Foundation called Make a Splash, which gives grants to swim lesson providers who offer free or reduced-price instruction to low-income children.
The Make a Splash initiative, which partners with 11 recreation operators in the Chicago area, has given swim lessons to roughly 4 million children nationwide since 2007, including 900,000 last year.
Safety experts applaud the focus on drowning prevention.
"Just because your child has had swimming lessons doesn't mean they're drown-proof," said Amy Artuso, a program manager at the Itasca-based National Safety Council with a background in children's safety. "They still need supervision."
The YMCA lessons -- available at all 34 Metro Chicago centers -- encourage adult supervision by teaching kids to ask permission every time they get in the water.
Instructors in each of six stages of lessons also teach kids as young as 3 what to do if they fall into water and how to save energy when swimming to safety. Once swimmers progress through the safety lessons and become comfortable getting their faces wet, they learn the strokes as usual, Kamman said.
The revamped lessons, which began Jan. 9 and run in 8-week or semesterlong sessions, teach kids to alternate between swimming freestyle and floating on their backs to conserve energy when heading for safety and to push off the bottom, find their bearings and grab for safety if they accidentally fall in.
"My husband and me can't swim really, so for us, it's more of a life lesson," said Sharon Gaurishankar of Naperville, whose 7-year-old daughter Aadya is in her fourth year taking swim lessons at the Fry Family YMCA. "Should she fall into water, she should know how to swim."
Aside from enrolling children in swimming lessons, which can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children 1 to 4 years old, according to a Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine study cited by the USA Swimming Foundation, Artuso with the safety council said parents can take several other steps to protect their kids near water.
Parents should stay within an arm's length of their children while swimming together; learn CPR and first aid; install fences at least 5 feet tall around all sides of a pool; teach kids not to horse around near water; encourage kids not to eat, drink or chew gum while in water; and make sure proper drain covers are installed, she said.
Parents of YMCA swimmers say they're glad safety is an increasing element of the classes their kids take for fun and exercise.
"She loves her teacher and is flourishing with the new program," Catherine Bruining of Naperville said about her 7-year-old daughter, Anna. "Any increase in water safety awareness -- you can't put a price on that."