Swim schools taking creative approaches to reduce drownings among babies, toddlers

Before a child can learn to swim, they have to learn to float, says Joshua Smalls.

As the swim director for the British Swim School in Silver Spring, he takes a creative approach to his lessons.

Rule one: float. Rule two: learn the strokes.

Starting as young as 3 months old, Smalls and his teachers take babies and teach them a technique known as  the rollover method.

At the end of the class, the child is able to fall into the water, float on their back and start crying for help.

They are fully clothed.

Like Smalls, different swim schools take unique approaches to preventing drownings from happening.

As one of the leading causes of death for children, more than a third of Maryland swim schools are embracing the rollover technique, despite some reservations from parents, according to the USA Swimming Foundation.  

“You won’t find many people in this state doing what we do,” Smalls said. “At first parents find it shocking, then they realize the value in it.”

Last year more than 200 children drowned in a swimming pool or spa in the United States, according to the foundation’s statistics.

Of those, 143 of the victims were children younger than age 5.

Tara Girch, owner of the Martar Swim School in Elkridge, said many parents are apprehensive to the approach at first.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “You are submerging your child in water, sometimes unassisted.”

To create a “tension free” learning space,  Girch works with the parents directly and explains everything she’s going to do ahead of time.

“The worst thing you can do is just throw a child in,” she said. “That doesn’t make any progress in learning to swim.”

During her Monday swim class, Girch worked with three parents and their children.

To ease everyone into the water, they sang songs, then practiced turning over.

Richard Smith of Hammonds, said he signed up his daughter Joselyn, 2, for private lessons in case something happened.

“We have a pool,” he said. “She needs to be ready.”

Smith said that while he was cleaning the pool, Joselyn jumped in the water. Before he went to save her, he wanted to see if she had learned some of the techniques she picked up at Martar.

She did.

“Even at 2, she’s figuring out how to move in the water,” Girch said. “The technique works.”

She said she has seen a surge in sign ups for the class since videos of the technique went viral  on social media sites.

At the British Swimming School, Smalls said a child has to be able to get into the water fully clothed and be able to float for at least 20 seconds before advancing to the next swim level.

After the float is perfected, many of Smalls students go onto learn treading, strokes and breathing techniques to make them better prepared for swimming.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the main factors that affect  unintentional drownings are lack of swimming ability, lack of supervision, failure to wear life jackets and alcohol use.

While preventative measures like the swimming with a buddy, avoiding alcohol and knowing the swim surroundings are important, Girch said they aren’t enough.

“You have to realize that water, in any form can kill you,” she said. “Knowing the extra skills will buy you time and save your life.”

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