Staying afloat with water safety education

Issue: Volume 101, Number 2

Posted: 23 February 2022
Reference #: 1HASus

Water Safety New Zealand discusses the importance of water safety education for ākonga in Aotearoa, and how they want to support teachers and kaiako in the delivery of this important mahi.

WSNZ is piloting Water Skills for Life Beach in several locations. The Gazette's photographer went to check out the action in a programme run by Whenua Iti at Kaiteriteri Beach in Nelson earlier in the month.

WSNZ is piloting Water Skills for Life Beach in several locations. The Gazette's photographer went to check out the action in a programme run by Whenua Iti at Kaiteriteri Beach in Nelson earlier in the month.

Schools are doing a good job of teaching water safety, but they need more support, says Daniel Gerrard, chief executive of Water Safety New Zealand.

Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) focuses on leadership, advocacy and policy, and invests in the delivery of water safety education through an annual $2.5 million fund from the NZ Lottery Grants Board.

“We believe that a mixed model of bringing in some expertise and professional deliverance of aquatic skills, alongside supporting and working with teachers who want to be involved, is the best option,” says Daniel.

“There are models out there of how we can do this. For over a decade now, there’s been a programme running in lower decile schools in Auckland generating funds to support Year 3–6 ākonga getting 10 water safety lessons a year,” he says.

With 74 people drowning in 2021 and 20 people in January 2022 alone, Daniel says it’s time to take stock. But school-age students only make up three to four percent of the total drowning statistics. He says that indicates that repeated reinforcement of messaging, combined with being exposed to the ‘learn to swim’ environment and given experiential opportunities at the pool, beach or the river, makes a difference. 

“The water safety sector knows that the messages that we’re providing do get home to Mum and Dad as well – I really do think that there’s that flow-on effect,” he says.

Skills for life

Along with partners including Swimming New Zealand and Drowning Prevention Auckland, Daniel says that WSNZ wants to make water safety education as easy as possible for teachers.

“We’re here to help support and we partner with Swimming New Zealand to get out there as the experts and work with as many teachers as possible – it’s all free of charge.”

A former competitive swimmer, Esther Hone-Moore has taught water safety for more than 25 years.

A former competitive swimmer, Esther Hone-Moore has taught water safety for more than 25 years.

Esther Hone-Moore has a lifetime of experience in water safety education. A former competitive swimmer, she has taught water safety to teachers and students in Aotearoa and internationally for more than 25 years. 

“As a sector, we know first we must learn how to float, and then work towards swimming distance. Water safety is more than just swimming strokes, it’s about learning how to recognise the dangers and gaining the skills to survive,” she says. 

Esther has been delivering WSNZ’s Water Skills for Life, helping to develop resources for teachers, and is currently piloting Water Skills for Life Beach in Northland, Auckland, Tauranga and Nelson.

“Water Skills for Life has been going since 2016. There are seven competencies which are based on 27 skills which provide broad fundamental competencies for life-long water safety,” she says.

Multi-faceted opportunities

Both Daniel and Esther favour a multi-faceted approach to teaching water safety, and say this is even more important in the current pandemic situation, when face-to-face teaching may be disrupted.

“For teachers, one of the main things is having that layered voice approach with key messaging – the more that the students hear it, the more they retain the information. So not just having practical sessions, but also having classroom learning, covering in-depth water safety topics. Emphasis should be placed on really learning the water safety code about being prepared, watching out for yourself and others, being aware of the dangers and knowing your limits,” says Esther.

“When we developed the Water Skills for Life Beach, we focused on a layered approach. So, there’s an in-classroom session, a pool session so they can teach practical activities such as what it feels like to be in a rip (in a controlled environment) and then there are some unit plans, which are mapped to the curriculum. 

“The third layer is going to be able to put into practice what they have learned in a controlled environment now into the authentic open water environment,” she explains.

Cross-curricular opportunities

Sai and Te Maaha, both aged 10, practised swimming wearing clothes with Kathryn from Whenua Iti.

Sai and Te Maaha, both aged 10 from Parklands School in Motueka practised swimming wearing clothes with Kathryn from Whenua Iti.

Daniel believes there are many cross-curricular opportunities that could incorporate water safety.

“I think there is a lot you can talk about in a classroom. You can talk about rivers, for example: the ecology of a river, impacts on the environment and climate changes. There’s so much you can add in.

“In a marine environment, you might head out for a beach day. We might look at the sand dunes and erosion, and then the lifeguards are going to give you the opportunity to get into the surf, or more ‘rippy’ environment.”

Esther adds that educating children about water safety can provide valuable learning for their whānau.

“For example, if they’re doing in-situ simulation of an open water environment, say they’re creating rips and the children are learning to feel what it’s like to be in a rip, you’re actually becoming that voice for the generation that missed out. 

“They might go home and say, ‘today I learnt what I need to do in a rip, the 3Rs: relax, raise my hand and ride the rip’. They’re passing that knowledge on to adults who may not know that,” she says.

Challenges and new approaches

Teaching water safety to a class of 30 can be daunting, with a continuum of skills from some children who are getting private lessons to others who are scared of going in the water, says Daniel.

Esther argues that a language change needs to happen, as teachers feel pressure to teach children to swim, when what is required is for children to have the skills to keep themselves safer in a range of aquatic environments.

“I think a language change needs to happen in schools because teachers feel pressured that they have to take swimming lessons, because parents think that’s what they should be focusing on.  

“When you actually talk to parents, what they want is actually not swimming lessons. For example, they would say
‘I want you to teach my child to swim so that I know when they go to the river/beach, they’re going to be safer’. 

“We know that to be able to teach the common strokes is hard. It’s actually water safety lessons, but we’re not using the language correctly, so I think that needs to change as a whole industry – it’s not swimming lessons, it’s water safety for survival,” she explains.

Daniel adds that nowadays, children aren’t being provided with opportunities to test themselves, so when they do start to test themselves in some dangerous situations, the risks are a lot more impactful.

“There are definitely challenges, but give children the opportunities to test themselves in a safe way. But that does mean we’ve got to put them on a bus and take them somewhere and we have to have enough parental support to make sure that ratios are right, so it becomes a really big task. If we have groups of professional providers that can come in and do that with the school, that is going to be the way forward,” he says.

Smarter thinking

Daniel notes that there’s been a significant culture change in the past decade, with many of the country’s school pools being built post-World War 2. While some schools and communities have invested in maintaining their pools, others haven’t. 

Students built a raft and paddled out to rescue a kayak 'in distress'.

Students built a raft and paddled out to rescue a kayak 'in distress'.

While ready access to a school pool is helpful, Daniel believes that the days of every school having its own pool have gone.

“I think the approach of centres of excellence, where schools are starting to work together – a community of learning type approach where there’s one pool in an area that everybody can use – is good. I think the days of every school having a school pool have moved on.
I think we’re just being smarter around how to do this better for everybody.”

Efficient model

Daniel says that providing a range of experiences in different aquatic environments is key to success.

“We need to have the basic aquatic skills to be able to stay afloat and tread water and be comfortable in that environment and then test yourself, in a controlled way, in those open water environments and I think that’s where we need to spend some time. Because you can be really comfortable in nice warm water in an indoor pool, but as soon as you get out in a river, or a lake or a beach, it’s completely different,” he says.

“Having a really strong curriculum backing is, I think, paramount to it and then finding the right people to support it. Because right now, it’s $25 a private ‘learn to swim’ session – that’s a limiting factor straight away. So, we need to work with these commercial providers and get some good rates for whole schools,” he concludes.

“Delivering Water Skills for Life is not a one-size-fits-all,” adds Esther. “Some schools may not have a pool, or access to one – they might just have a little estuary, or a small river. So, it’s being able to adapt information so they can feel confident in their own community.” 

Tamariki learned survival skills, which included floating and rafting together to conserve body temperature.

Tamariki learned survival skills, which included floating and rafting together to conserve body temperature.

Water safety in the curriculum 

Learning to swim is part of  The New Zealand Curriculum, which states that ‘all students will have had opportunities to learn basic aquatic skills by the end of Year 6’ and that students will have access to learning about water safety and developing aquatic skills.

NZC notes that parents, families and whānau also play an important role in keeping children and young people safe beyond school.

Kura kaupapa Māori, with their whānau and community, make decisions about their marau ā-kura and their approach to learning programmes through
Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, the curriculum framework for Māori medium learning. Through the Wairoa strand of the Hauora learning area, ākonga have opportunities to explore and learn about, describe, consider and analyse aspects of safety and safe practices.

All schools and kura receive Ministry of Education funding to run their school and kura and deliver the curriculum. This can be used to manage a school or kura swimming pool or to support ākonga with access to lessons at a nearby facility or to make whatever other arrangements the school or kura decides is best for their ākonga. This could include using third-party providers and community facilities.  

The Ministry of Education will be investigating what additional support it can offer the education sector to address the high drowning rate that we have seen this summer.  


Learning kayak skills at beautiful Kaiteriteri Beach in Nelson.

Learning kayak skills at beautiful Kaiteriteri Beach in Nelson.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:05 pm, 23 February 2022

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