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Time to teach the kids to swim

As summer approaches and Americans head out to community pools, water parks, lakes and beaches, the majority will come home safely, thanks to swim lessons, lifeguards and a focus on water safety. But in other parts of the world, that’s just not happening.

Worldwide, millions of people live, work and commute near a variety of water sources, but unlike here in our country, people in many developing countries rarely have the opportunity to use water for recreation.

If you take Asia, an area with very high rates of drowning as an example, you’ll find that it is crisscrossed by rivers, lakes, canals, irrigation ditches, rice paddy fields and ponds. People are busy surviving, and large families and poverty can be an issue. There is currently little room for what we know as water safety skills and education. Unfortunately, this means that many children are drowning and usually only meters from the home.

In Asia, as many as 350,000 children drown every year, 1,000 every day, according to research conducted by The Alliance for Safe Children and UNICEF. Drowning is now known to be the leading cause of death for children between 1 and 4 years of age in many Asian countries.

In Vietnam, for example, 11,000 children will drown every year — about 32 every day, according to a report to UNICEF by Hanoi School of Public Health. UNICEF reports that Bangladesh will lose more than 16,000 children annually; close to 50 infants, kids and teenagers every single day.

Until recently, those drowning numbers have been little more than guesswork. Health statistics have traditionally come from hospitals and health centers. These institutions normally only document the cause of death for their own patients. The thousands of children who drown in a village pond or a nearby rice paddy field rarely see a hospital. This means that for a very long time, child drowning statistics have been grossly under counted and the enormous scale of this issue has gone by largely unnoticed.

As a child growing up in rural Malaysia, I was told repeatedly to stay away from the rivers running through my village. The local lore is that spirits inhabit those rivers and are hungry for more souls. This and personal loss in my own extended family of two young cousins who drowned in the river made me wary of water. It wasn’t until I was 26 years old that I learned to swim — the same time my own little son was being taught.

In the United States, drowning is the second-leading cause of death among children aged 1 to 14. Approximately 3,000 youngsters die from drowning in this nation every year. We all agree those deaths are a tragedy.

Sure, the USA has work to do to reduce drowning deaths, but it pales compared with what’s needed in many developing countries. The World conference on Drowning Prevention takes place this month in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Of course, as with any movement aimed at righting wrongs, change begins at home, so while you may not be able to go to Vietnam to help children learn how to swim, you can make sure that your own children acquire this vital skill.

Swim lessons at Pagosa Lakes Recreation Center will begin May 31 and will run through the end of June. Lessons are 30 minutes long and are offered in one-week sessions from Monday through Thursday between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m.

Water-based programming during the summer has always been popular — small wonder with warm weather approaching, parents are thinking of enjoyable activities for their young ones while also opening up the opportunity to acquire new skills. Don’t bet your brat’s summer holiday is still a long way off. If you are a young parent, and haven’t figured it out yet, your family vacations and other personal planning will likely need to revolve around your child’s schedule for the next decade or more.

Classes offered this summer at the recreation center will be for all ability levels and ages three and older. Over the years, there have been media announcements from “experts” recommending that children wait until age four before they start swim lessons. I believe children can and should begin younger to develop — under close supervision — a comfort and liking for water.

Parents of toddlers can begin right away by taking their tots to play in the recreation center’s kiddie pool. The goal is to allow babies to explore the water environment much like the exploration they are doing on land. Water balance should be learned along with land balance, so that when a child is around three or so, learning to swim is relatively easy.

Heather Hemphill, the swim instructor for the summer swim lessons, also believes it is good to allow toddlers to become comfortable around water. All levels of swim instruction will be covered — from complete beginners to the advanced level where swimmers will learn diving, as well as the advanced strokes of breast stroke and butterfly. Please come by the recreation center to pick up a summer swim lesson schedule and registration form.

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