Child Supervision Best Practices

As Aquatic Professionals, managing pools is primarily about safety, and risk management. Swimming pools can be a dangerous place if they are not properly supervised, or if they do not have policies in place to aid Lifeguards in maintaining a safe pool environment.

While they are not our only clientele as pool professionals, children certainly make up the majority of our riskiest patrons. Particularly those who are very young, or inexperienced swimmers.

It is for these high-risk users that many organizations choose to implement policies aimed at protecting those particular groups, through use limitations, through improved visibility, and to extra supervision.

Child Supervision Policies and Your Pool

Regardless of who your primary group of users are, and their ages or skills, chances are good you will have youth patrons utilizing your facility at one time or another. With how many modern pools are being designed, they may even be the main users of your facility.

The particular group of swimmers that are at the highest risk are those at or under the age of 5 years old, and those who are non-swimmers.

Depending on your facility certain measures must be enforced to ensure the safety for high-risk swimmers. Obviously, those measures will differ depending on what type of pool you operate. If you operate an olympic size competition pool obviously your policies on child supervision will be very different from someone that operates an activity pool. Both would be important though. Creating the right policy for your pool type and organization is a key factor in implementing an effective policy.

The Importance of Child Supervision Policies at Your Pool

In my 10+ years as an aquatic professional, from being a lifeguard up through being part of a team that manages multiple heavy use facilities, I can tell you the majority of rescues involve a particular age group. In my experience around 9/10 rescues are of children the age of 5 or younger.

That may seem like an arbitrary age, but all of the years of reports and professional experience at our organization has supported that cutoff. Obviously not all 5 and under children are non-swimmers, they may even be very good swimmers for their age. Just because you have a 5 year old who is a skilled enough swimmer to swim 25 yards doesn’t mean that you should let them swim around freely in a short-course competition pool without additional supervision. There are many more factors to consider than swimming skill alone, and age plays a factor in most if not all of them.

Does a 5 year old have the ability to gauge how tired he will be when he reaches a certain point in a pool? Do 5 year olds even think about when they get too exhausted to swim? I would wager they don’t. And what if they get scared once they realize they can’t touch somewhere? I’ve seen kids who could swim 25 yards easily in water they can stand in, but once the safety of standing up is removed, they revert to being non-swimmers. It’s that fear and other unpredictable factors that make those 5 and under the most likely to need assistance when in a pool.

If you’re developing your child supervision pool policies you may be thinking that 9/10 may seem very high, and it is. But I believe most, if not all, experienced professionals would say the same thing. And most already have some sort of policy in place. Although 90% is an alarming, even frightening number, armed with that information you can keep your facilities safe, and kid friendly.

The best way to prevent incidents involving 5 and under children is to improve the amount and quality of supervision they receive.

Common Policies

There are many different approaches on how to improve the safety of young children at the pool, and not all involve supervision, but in my experience most do, and all should. Even in addition to other rules or stipulations.

Some approaches seek to make 5 and under children, and non-swimmers, easily identifiable to lifeguards. Others focus on making them more independent. The first rule is the most important one to include in your organization in one form or another. Patrons often believe that they can come to a pool and treat it like a daycare. Patron attentiveness will always need to be a factor in the safety of young children. With many armchair parents surfing the web while their children swim, it’s important to remind them to watch their children. Here is one way to do that. But the most effective way is to get them in the water with their kids. Here are some policies that you could implement alone or in conjunction with each other, and some of the pros and cons that go with them:

  • 5 and under children must be within arms reach of an adult at all times. Pros: Highly effective, ensures maximum supervision. Cons: Requires attentiveness from patrons. Note: Regardless of what other policies you implement it is my firm belief that every pool should have this policy or some permutation of it in effect. I always tell parents, “No one can watch your kid 100% of the time except you.”

  • Lifejackets for 5 and under or non-swimmers. Pros: Provides an added level of safety for children. Cons: Gives false confidence to children and parent alike. Costs money to carry lifejackets, and if you charge for them, parents may forgo them.

  • Wristbands identifying 5 and under children/non-swimmers. Pros: Can help your lifeguard staff identify who may potentially need assistance. Cons: Not only 5 and under children need help, and it can be too much for staff to focus on wristbands when performing surveillance.

  • Swim tests. Pros: Can limit the areas that have high-risk users, and can keep them in safer areas. Cons: Limiting patron usage of parts of your facility can cause backlash.

  • Kid-Safe/Only Zones. Pros: Provide freedom and independence to kids; safe areas means less risk. Cons: Forcing use of only certain areas can be difficult; less risk does not mean no risk. False sense of security for parents.

Again, these are just some of the policies and procedures that you could implement at your facility to improve the safety of small children.

I feel it important to reiterate that the first policy listed above is, I believe, the most important and effective. And that the other rules are only enhanced further by the addition of adults closely watching the children they are responsible for.

Determining the Best Policy/Policies for You

I can’t say it enough, make sure your policy(policies) include(s) some version of the “5 and under children must be within arms reach of an adult at all times” rule. It is the most effective way to engage parents, and provide a safe environment in the pool.

It is important to also consider the type of pool you are operating when determining the policies of child supervision you should use. In the examples given above, that of a competition pool and an activity pool, the arms reach rule is effective. However, the lifejacket rule may only be effective in the competition pool depending on the depth of the activity pool. Many are only a foot deep. (Though most slope off into deeper areas.) So the lifejacket rule becomes less effective the less deep water the children have access to.

Some of the important factors to think about when designing your policies are:
- Pool Depth - Pool Features - Usage - Aim of Pool - Cost/Money Available - Safety (MOST IMPORTANT)

Obviously what is going to be the safest practice for your facility is of the utmost importance, but the other factors are important to consider as well.

Enforcing the Policy

So you’ve picked and designed your policies. Now you have the difficult task of enforcing these policies that, in some cases, can be an inconvenience to your patrons. Looking at the most important policy, here are some of the difficulties you may encounter with enforcing it, and how to handle them or any other difficulties:

  • Unprepared: Some parents may say they weren’t aware of the policy and don’t have their swimsuit or are otherwise not prepared to swim with their little one. Offer them a refund or raincheck so they can get a swimsuit or make whatever preparations they need and return.
  • Reminders:Make sure your entire staff, from lifeguards operations down to front desk operators know the policy and are reminding patrons of them especially before getting in the pool. Patrons are far more upset when they’re told they need to follow the rule if they or their little ones are already in the pool. Particularly if they have to leave to get a swimsuit.
  • Inform: Patrons can be upset or even irate when your organization enforces or implements these rules. If they weren’t planning on swimming with their child it can be particularly bad. Make sure you are reminding them that this is for the safety of their child, and that even with lifeguards on duty “No one can watch your child 100% of the time but you.” Or for patrons who don’t think it is important to watch their kids at a pool, you can use the analogy that you wouldn’t let your 5 year old run around a parking lot freely, and a pool is not inherently safer.
  • Consistency: Many times parents will say they’ve never had to get in with their 4 year old before. So make sure your entire staff know and enforce the rule. Create job responsibilities for staff when not on active pool surveillance, are ensuring your policies are being followed.

Other Age Group Policies

Not all age policies regard children 5 and under, or non-swimmers only. But they tend to be of the highest importance. Other policies that you implement should coincide with your policies regarding that 5 and under age group. Which could look like the following:

  • 5 years old and under = Within arms reach of an adult at all times.
  • 6-11 years old = Adult in pool area with them at all times.
  • 12+ years old = Can be in pool/facility alone.

Whatever policies you choose to implement it is important to take extra steps to ensure the safety of your most at risk patrons.

Have similar policies you use at your organization? Have you encountered any other issues not mentioned above? Let us know!

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