Why black children should learn how to swim

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Need to understand the importance of teaching our children how to swim? Read the words of these anguished grandparents. “Matthew was roaming around an area unfamiliar to him. He wandered into deep water. He went down. We never heard a sound. He never came back up. Matthew was eight. He did not know how to swim. His death was unnecessary. We think of him every day. He was our only grandchild.”

Reading, writing and arithmetic are essential to a good education. But, learning how to swim gives kids an equally important skill, an ability that may one day save their life. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 70 percent of black children and 60 percent of Latino children don’t know how to swim. This puts minority children at a significantly increased risk of drowning; black children drown nearly three times as often as white kids.

With the summer coming soon, Education Matters shifts its focus to outside the classroom learning. I hope this week’s column helps students return to school in the fall, safe and sound.

Children with limited or no exposure to swimming pools, beaches, rivers, and lakes, are unaware that shallow waters can quickly, without warning become deep enough to be fatal to non-swimmers. This is tragic, most drowning deaths are preventable.

Though seldom spoken of, the mechanics of drowning are ghastly. “The Journal of U. S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue” describes death by drowning as “quick and silent, although it may be preceded by distress, which is more visible. A person drowning is

unable to shout or call for help, or seek attention, as they cannot obtain enough air. The instinctive drowning response is the final set of autonomic reactions in the 20 – 60 seconds before sinking underwater and to the untrained eye can look similar to calm safe behavior.”

While personal safety is the most obvious reason kids should be taught how to swim, there are several other benefits to swimming. Not only can children who know how to swim better able to save themselves, their knowledge of basic water safety could help them know when another child is in distress. The CDC reports, drowning as the second biggest cause of death for children under the age of 14.

Swimming is considered a great way for children with disabilities and special needs to learn a survival skill while combining fun with therapy. According to the Kellogg Foundation swimming is the “favorite sport of many disabled children because in the water they can be equal.”

The online journal “Living Strong,” says, “Swimming is an excellent cardiovascular workout that promotes heart and lung health, improves strength and flexibility, increases stamina and even improves balance and posture. In addition, swimming is a way to prevent childhood obesity, which has been linked to juvenile diabetes,” as noted by the CDC.

Encouraging a child to swim can improve his mental and emotional health. The natural buoyancy of the water is more relaxing than other types of exercise. In addition, the CDC found that people tend to exercise for longer periods of time while swimming. Swimming can also improve overall mood, and help combat depression.

Each spring after I write about the importance of learning how to swim, readers will ask at what age lessons should begin. The medical reporter for the cable news network CNN posed that question to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In new guidelines on drowning prevention and water safety their doctors said “Parents should consider swimming lessons for most children between ages one and four.”

This guidance— ended a change from previous recommendations— is given “in light of new research that has revealed that swim instruction for children ages one to four may decrease drowning, it is reasonable for the AAP to relax its policy regarding the age at which children should start learning water-survival skills.

The new guidelines, however, do not extend to all children under four. The AAP still does not recommend swimming lessons before age one, and says children with motor or cognitive disabilities may not be ready for swimming lessons until a later age.”

“Children need to learn to swim,” say the authors of the Pediatrics report. “But also warn parents not to equate swimming lessons with ‘drown proofing.’ They recommend a multilayered safety approach because, as they note, even children with advanced swimming skills can still drown.”

I strongly encourage all parents to enroll their children in formal swimming lesson. It is a small price to pay for the peace of mind it gives. Knowing how to swim may one day save your child’s life.

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes about education matters because “only the educated are free.”