How to make sure your children are safe swimmers in the UAE

We look at the importance of water safety education, particularly in the UAE. Why is it important to teach your kids to swim?

As temperatures start to rise, there's nothing as tempting as the thought of a dip in the sea or the pool. Yet as a number of recent drownings have demonstrated, water can be dangerous, and parents need to be aware of the risks to their children.

There are particular water safety issues for children inherent in UAE life, according to Lesley Murray, the founder and owner of Speedo Swim Squads, a swimming teaching and training company in Dubai.

"In the UAE, compound and villa pools abound and it is so important that children can swim and also respect the water," she says. "As a coastal city, we need to be aware that the sea tides are dangerous near the shore and children and adults need to respect this and participate within their capabilities."

Kirk Marks, the founder of the AISS (Australian International Swim Schools) in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, agrees.

"I think the issue in the UAE is you've got a country with several hundred kilometres of beachline. It's very attractive and it looks lovely, but people don't realise its dangers.

"Here, because they were changing the beachline for construction and everything else that's going on, there's a lot of what in Australia we call lips, which are undertows and currents, and they're quite dangerous. People unfortunately make the mistake of looking at the beach and there's an onshore breeze so there are a few waves. They look at it and say, we won't go here; we'll go over there where there are no waves. And where there are no waves, that's where the lips are, so there are currents tearing people out into the water."

Marks identifies two situations where children can particularly be put at risk. One is when they go paddling with no intention of going swimming.

"Most people do not drown when they're planning to go swimming. They go in the water because it's shallow and they think, oh, this is nice, and they go up to their knees and all of a sudden they're in up to their waist and then they can't stand and then they drown. In most instances, they don't even have swimming costumes on."

He also warns of the dangers at parties or gatherings around a pool, where everyone assumes that someone else is watching the children.

"There are often drownings at parties where children are left to play by themselves," he says. "Some young children go underwater, no one even notices until 20, 30, 40 minutes later, when there's a dead child."

According to Murray, allowing children to be supervised by adults who cannot swim can also be a problem.

"Particular to Dubai is the mix of cultures and the amount of non-swimming parents we have who take their children to the pool or leave the maids to take them. It's difficult to address sensitively but we keep stressing that children swim with an adult, swim where there are lifeguards and offer adult beginner sessions."

The most important thing of all is to ensure that your children have proper classes in both swimming and water safety.

The Australian expatriate Kim van der Straaten, 41, insists that her children attend swimming lessons.

"They have been told that these lessons are an extension to school classes and to treat them as important as any subject they take at school," she says. "Parents should at least give their children basic water safety training."

Van der Straaten has encouraged her children to persevere even when they felt reluctant.

"I incentivise my eight-year-old for every milestone she reaches, be it monetary or a treat. When she was five years old, she was terrified to immerse her face into the water. Luckily she had a great coach here in Abu Dhabi and with perseverance she overcame that fear. She is a great little swimmer now."

Many schools in the UAE teach swimming as part of the curriculum, but many parents choose to start lessons before school age. According to Murray, children can start learning "as soon as the first injections are given".

Classes for babies and toddlers are, of course, held with a parent in the pool with them, but children as young as two or three may, in some swimming schools, have lessons on their own.

A mother of four, Rachael Hughes, 37, a parent and baby swim coordinator at the Arabian Swim Academy in Abu Dhabi, believes that it is never too young to introduce your children to having fun in the water.

"All four love the water; my youngest, who is only three months old, is of course not in any formal lessons but I get in the bath with her at least twice a week and do little 'mini' lessons."

She warns, however, that they should have a gentle introduction at such an early age.

"A baby or child should never be submerged under water until they are ready. I have spoken to parents whose child is absolutely petrified of the water because they have had bad experiences with the child being forcefully submerged before being ready."

According to Hughes, there are certain things that parents should look out for when choosing a swimming instructor for their children.

"Ensure that the instructor has a valid swim licence and up-to-date CPR, and don't be afraid to ask to see a copy. Is the instructor in the water with the child? It is beneficial and safer to have the instructor in the water with the child at learn-to-swim levels. What is the maximum number of children allowed in the class? This should never exceed four children in learn-to-swim levels. Parent and baby classes ratio should be one instructor to a maximum of eight parents and baby. Don't be afraid to ask if you can watch a lesson or two before enrolling your child."

Above all, she says: "Be aware that lessons are about teaching a child to be safe around water but lessons will never make a child drown-proof."

Occasionally, a parent is reluctant to enrol a child in swimming lessons because they are nervous of the water themselves.

Marks, whose school also teaches water safety and swimming to many adults, including maids, says: "I always say to the parents that just because you didn't have the opportunity, you can certainly provide that opportunity for your child now. There may be a situation where your child will actually save your life."


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