image of the end of a diving board extending over pool water

Engaging Kids in Water Safety

What should parents know about water safety? Tragically, drowning is far too common among young children. We must remember that it is also preventable! There are a few proven ways to help time around water be safer. 

Although water safety is ultimately an adult responsibility, today I want to focus on a couple of things to help children feel empowered and safer around water. 

Today’s post reviews an excellent opportunity for children to gain some water safety knowledge (without being too scary), a review of basic water safety reminders for both kids and adults, and some information on finding similar resources in your community. 

Fire Pal Water Safety Presentation: Our Experience

I recently attended a presentation by the Goodyear Fire Department as part of their Fire Pal program. This particular presentation was geared towards young elementary school-aged kids. It focused on a few key issues for all children to remember and take home with them. Maureen Carney of the Goodyear Fire Department, also known as “Fire Pal Mo,” enthusiastically and compassionately delivered the message. 

They key points that she wove into many parts of the water safety presentation were:

  • Never swim alone. Kids should always swim with an adult. 
  • Choose life jackets and flotation devices carefully. They should be approved by the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

How did she present this to young kids?

Fire Pal Mo started with a story! This is the perfect way to introduce many topics to kids. She read a picture book about a family of otters and emphasized the message of not swimming alone. (Did you know even baby otters need a grown-up otter to help them learn to swim?)

Then, she led a discussion with the kids, asking them about different bodies of water. Rivers! Pools! Lakes! Beaches and oceans! They all count as bodies of water. And, if a child goes near any body of water, they need a grown-up with them. By this point, the message was delivered in a few different ways and the children seemed to understand its importance. 

Flotation Devices and Kids

The next part of the presentation included a discussion of water toys and flotation devices. Children got to try on different life jackets and we all learned what makes a life jacket fit well. There are size specifications. We also learned the importance of life jackets being approved by the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

If they are USCG approved, the jackets have some type of foam to help them float, instead of being inflatable. Importantly, this means inflatable arm floaties are “toys,” not flotation devices.  By the end, the children understood that arm floaties (also called water wings) do not keep kids safe in the water. 

Tips for Parents

Finally, Fire Pal Mo had some tips for the parents. She introduced the idea of a “water watcher” for whenever people gather around a body of water, like a pool party. The idea is simple yet crucial. At any given time, a specific adult is responsible for watching the pool, making sure everyone is safe. They can have a lanyard or a tag as a visual reminder. The tag is also something to pass off to the next water watcher. The water watcher does nothing but watch people around water. And, the role should change frequently to prevent any fatigue. 

An Effective and Efficient Presentation

In about 30 minutes the kids had tools to be safer outside. They learned to never go near water without an adult and to get an adult right away if they ever see someone struggling in water. 

My Thoughts on the Fire Pal Water Safety Program

As someone who has witnessed the aftermath of far too many water-related tragedies, I wasn’t sure how the topic would be covered without frightening the little ones. Fire Pal Mo knew her audience. I don’t think she frightened anyone, but rather gave information to help kids feel like they had some control over feeling safer. She was kind, energetic, and communicated clearly to her target audience. 

She also had activity books for each child, so safety messages were repeated again at home as kids colored, completed a “search and find,” traced a maze, etc.

I encourage families to reach out to their local fire departments for similar safety presentations. They are often done in cooperation with schools, so parents can start by asking if it’s something their child’s school takes advantage of. In our city, they also offer presentations on fire safety and transportation safety. 

For more general information for children, has many activities for kids and safety. It’s a great way to engage children and help them be part of prevention. (And thanks to Fire Pal Mo for sharing the website).

Other Ways Children Can Be Responsible Around Water

Water safety doesn’t stop at supervision. There’s more we can do to prevent water accidents.

In addition to following the first “rule,” of always swimming with an adult, there’s another key thing kids can do: take swimming lessons. By around age 4, many children are ready to take lessons and learn more about water safety. Some children may be ready even younger, depending on the child and instructor.

We still need to emphasize that even skilled swimmers (including adults) still need a grown-up around.

Adults Are Essential to Keeping Kids Safe

Children can learn to swim. They can try to never be alone around a body of water. However, they’re still kids. They’re still impulsive and inconsistent. So, it’s always an adult’s responsibility to take extra precautions. A few additional measures:

  • Maintain supervision. Make sure an adult is constantly responsible for watching people around a pool. Rotate this role frequently to prevent any fatigue. Using “water watcher” tags make this person easy to identify.
  • For young children and weaker swimmers, an adult should be in the water with the child, never more than an arm’s length away.
  • Use a fence or other barrier around a pool. Lock windows and doors that can access the outdoors. Don’t forget about pet doors. Most toddler pool accidents happen when the child is not expected to be in the pool. They just wander there. Some families consider alarms; these may provide a false sense of security.
  • If a child is missing or slips away, however briefly, check bodies of water first. This includes pools and bathtubs. (The second place to check? Cars. Hot cars can be dangerous as well).
  • Encourage swim lessons and remind children to respect water.
  • When using life jackets or flotation devices, make sure they are U.S. Coast Guard approved.

Summary: Safety & prevention start early.

Water safety matters to everyone. One important and fun way to involve kids is to reach out to your community educators. The fire department was a perfect resource for us, and I encourage others to learn more about what their fire department can offer.

If nothing else, parents can begin teaching their children at a very young age: Never swim alone.

(If safety is on your mind, here are my posts on kitchen safety (preventing scalding burns) and sun safety).

Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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