The summer months are a time for kids to get together with their pals and practice those universal childhood skills that are fun — and more. These activities can encourage striving for success, meeting challenges, supporting others as one struggles oneself to acquire a new ability.
Those of us who are getting on a bit still remember these occasions. I remember summers spent in lakes and swimming pools, as my friends and I gently competed with each other to see who could do different water activities and how well we could do them.
Take deep water swimming for example. In order to be permitted into the deeper part of the lake or pool, first of course we had to learn to swim. Then, we had to take a test — to swim the length of the pool, or a certain number of laps in the lake. At camp we had to swim sixteen 25-yard laps. I wasn't sure I could, but all the other kids were standing around waiting and so I gave it a whirl — and succeeded. So it was deep water for all of us. I remember that little achievement so well that when I went to a camp reunion in 2000, I asked to swim my 16 laps again. A counselor came down to the dock just like then, and I did my swim. At this camp, once you had done your 16 laps then you could practice to swim across the lake. Two counselors would accompany you in a rowboat and everyone cheered on your return. Then there was the ultimate challenge — to swim across the lake and back. Those kids who did this — and I, happily, was one — got our names announced at dinner. I remember both enjoying the affirmation and encouraging others — "Hey, you can do it!" — and cheering as they returned with the proud smiles of having met a challenge on their faces.
In my day too we spent hours on diving boards, watching each other dive, critiquing the dives — "Keep your feet together!" — and refining our own specialties. Mine was the jackknife. I worked long and hard to hurdle off the springboard, do the "jack", and enter the water straight as a knife. Others did swan-dives, flips, back-dives. We'd admire, coach, and try to imitate. As with life, sometimes we'd succeed, other times we wouldn't. The lessons learned were invaluable and never to be forgotten.
Each day I swim at my favorite city pool. You can still see the rusty indentations where the diving boards once were screwed onto the pool deck. I watch the lanky, muscular youths in the deep end using the edge of the pool as a so-called dive platform. That they are diving and jumping in a way far beneath their potential saddens me. A well-built youth doing a cannonball because there is no board on which he can practice real dives ? These kids run across the deck and leap into the air in their attempts to dive. They get incredible spring — but enter gawkily with legs bent and flailing. I imagine what they could do on a real diving board with some instruction both from both swimming teachers and from their friends. I dream of the grace, form and agility they could show under different circumstances.
You can't always keep kids looking for a challenge down, however. The other day the youths were trying to inject some variety into the deck entry point. They were playing leapfrog into the water. One would crouch at the edge and the others would run, leap over him, and end up in the pool. Another time they were trying back dives off the pool edge. Not bad, but I'm not sure a back dive wouldn't be safer and in better form off a board where there is more room for the landing. Just yesterday a few were trying front flips and if lucky were landing on their backs. As I watched, I muttered to myself " Go into your tuck sooner! Curl up tightly! Keep your head down", as if he were going off one of the ubiquitous diving boards of the fifties. Soon they gave up. There just isn't the scope for doing full flips off a pool edge.
So what's the point of all this then? It's more than a trip down a watery Memory Lane.
It seems to me thus that we are legislating away the opportunity for kids to meet challenges by eliminating activities that have any risk whatsoever involved.
As we "dumb down" these activities, we are ensuring also that they will not have an opportunity to respect the potential dangers and learn how to behave safely and with skill and self-discipline. When diving you learned how to watch for others, how to stay out of others’ way, and how to gauge your own movements so as to enter smoothly. If kids never learn how to swim in and understand deep water (and they can't do so without deep water to practice in) then how will they ever be able to be involved in more advanced water activities such as scuba diving and sailing? And what will they do if they ever land in deep water unexpectedly?
Today’s over-protectiveness paradoxically may lead to tomorrow’s tragedies.
Certainly as a former Water Safety Instructor I am profoundly concerned with children's safety . Indeed, in and around water it should always be "safety first." But how about using serious and rigorous instruction, systematic skill testing and careful supervision rather than just eliminating anything that could pose the slightest risk. As for those who think diving boards and deep ends should be eliminated — I think they're all wet.
From the Soapbox,