It could be better to teach children water safety skills in natural environments, like rivers, rather than just in a pool, new research suggests.

The University of Otago study involved 120 children, who took part in a practical water safety programme in ocean, harbour and river waters around Dunedin.

The children learnt to evaluate risks in the different environments, alongside key skills like floating, getting in and out of the water safely, and how to fit a lifejacket properly.

The research, led by Professor Chris Button, found that retention of water safety skills was improved after teaching by experts in those different open water environments.

“Learning water safety skills seems very much attached to the context in which they are taught, and that’s why we think learning only in the pool is problematic as most drownings around the world tend to occur in open water,” he said.

“The essence of our water safety research is that learning new skills in different environments allows the development of transferable skills that can be applied to different contexts more readily.”

Professor Button said one of the arguments against the closure of school pools – where most water safety learning occurred – had been the potential negative impact on water safety.

But he said it was fortunate there was such easy access to alternative learning places like rivers, lakes and oceans.

“These types of environments are already used by other countries that don’t have easy access to swimming pools, and our study highlights the value of them as places of learning.”

There were 78 drowning fatalities last year according to Water Safety New Zealand statistics, compared to 2018 when 66 people lost their lives.

In 2019, there were 26 drownings at beaches, 19 were in rivers and 12 were in tidal waters. Only four of the 78 drownings were in either public or home swimming pools.

New Zealand’s five year average annual drowning rate (2013-2017) is 82. That rate per 100,000 is twice that of Australia and four times that of the UK, Water Safety NZ’s website states.

New Zealand’s coastline is the 10th longest in the world according to Water Safety NZ, measuring about 14,000km. This country’s rivers are predominantly unpatrolled, cold, deep and fast-flowing, it said.



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