Kids and watersports: Expert tips on staying safe and having fun

June 27, 2017 Providence Health Team

Summer is here, and you're planning your vacations. Does your vacation destination include water activities for your kids? As with any activity for kids, parents need to be aware of safety guidelines to enjoy being in or out on the water, minimizing the potential for accidents.

As we prepare for the July Fourth celebrations, we wanted to provide some guidance for parents looking to add water activities to the mix. We sat down with two experts to talk about what you need to know about summer water activities. First, we sat down with professional scuba diver and PADI instructor Gramps Herndon of Black Crab Diving. Herndon teaches kids around the world to surf, snorkel, waterski and dive.

Here’s what Gramps Herndon had to say about staying safe and having fun.

What are some great water activities for kids?

Kids love games, so any water sport that incorporates gaming is good for keeping them entertained. Paddleboarding is great for developing balance and motor skills. I also recommend competitive swimming if you're looking for a way to get kids some exercise or are trying to build a health conscious young person. The fun thing about a lot of water sports is that it can be an individual activity – so each kid can do whatever their skill set allows. Some kids don't like the stress of "playing" on a team, so with a lot of water sports the individual child is in charge of their performance. And of course, I always suggest scuba.

Why do you feel Scuba is such a great option for kids?

Scuba is a great way for them to build confidence. They also learn about leveling–where your skills get better over time. Because they are in control, it also provides them with a sense of ownership. At the same time though, it's a great family activity and gives parents and kids a chance to do something together. I always tell parents that scuba is a lifelong passion once they get started and it's a great way to get kids interested in the environment and become compassionate about marine life. Additionally, it's a fun activity that gets kids thinking academically–learning about the geography below first hand brings the value of studying from a book to life.

What is an appropriate age for kids to learn scuba or surfing?

When it comes to surfing, I think it comes down to the comfort level the kid has with the water. If they're scared of being in the water on their own, it's best to wait until their ready. Similarly, with diving, I think it's by the age of nine or ten that kids have developed the motor skills they need and have usually participated in enough activities and sports that they have a basic understanding of what is expected.

What is the best way to get kids comfortable with water?

The most important thing is making it fun and comfortable—removing the scary factor. It's ideal to start in a confined and controlled water space, such as a pool, a tide pool area, etc. You need to be able to control some of the possible dangers like water level and strength of the tide. It's good to do it in short intervals so they stay excited and don't get tired. It's important not to "task overload" kids. Make what they are doing relevant to what they are learning more broadly. Also, kids need to know the value–they are always going to ask "why?" Always be able to answer the "why" and relate it to the activity they will be doing.

Why is getting kids involved in water sports at an early age so important?

It’s good to start young for a variety of reasons. One is that kids are less fearful to try new things, so starting them when they are younger means they will be able to learn with no inhibitions. They also have a natural curiosity–they love to try new things and learn about new things. Being well trained in water sports also helps them develop confidence.

What should parents know about more advanced water sports before they get their kids involved?

It's important to be aware of age restrictions of any water sport, and map those restrictions to what any specific kid can handle. In water sports, it's all about the environment and recognizing the situation as well as being able to think your way out of it. A lot of kids panic when they get out of their depth or they forget what the next move is. Knowing that your kid can handle the situation is one of the most important things to consider.

What should parents look for when finding a guide/instructor/teacher for water sports?

I think it's a combination of skill and personality. It's vital to know what the person's safety record is and if they are trained in the right areas–like pediatric CPR. On the flip side, you also want someone who has the personality and desire to get to know kids and understand their boundaries. All kids learn in different ways, so instructor fit is super important. I also recommend looking for a low student to teacher ratio to make sure your kids are getting the attention they need. You want your kids to learn and have fun, and that outcome is often dictated by the instructor you choose. Choose wisely.

Are there things they should be cautious of when working with resorts/vacation spots?

There are some important things to consider. Make sure the resorts have forms and liability waivers. Ensure they are certified to teach kids and know pediatric CPR. I always encourage parents to ask to see the safety devices on the premises and on the boat to make sure they are up-to-date and in good working order. I recommend you select a place that is insured as well and a place that wants some level of parental participation. It's always worrisome if they want you to just drop the kids off without knowing anything about the kid or their current skill level.

What would you tell parents to encourage them to get their kids active in water sports?

When parents ask me about getting their kids involved, I always tell them to remember that kids get excited to try new things. They see it on TV or in a movie and they want to do it. Encouraging them to try things like scuba and surfing is something they can tangibly do. It gives them a chance to expand their skills and strength. They just need to understand their child and how that kid wants to be involved. Whatever you do, make it fun, don't make it complicated.

In your experience, what excites kids most when you’re teaching them to surf and scuba?

Kids love the water, they love the unknown. They also love any chance where they have the opportunity to be a superhero, and the ocean seems to be the perfect place. I think it’s also that they get to see nature in real life. Swimming near turtles or seeing dolphins when you’ve only ever seen them in a book or on TV is really cool.

Next, we sat down with a pediatrics specialist. Dr. Danelle Fisher chairs the Providence Saint John's Health Center Department of Pediatrics and is Co-Medical Director of the Cleft Palate program. Dr. Fisher will also be joining the new Playa Vista medical office this summer. Below, she offers her perspective on how to keep kids safe in the water. 

Water sports are a fun way to spend the summer and vacations. They provide excellent exercise and inspire confidence in children who participate. Here are some tips to having a safe summer while having a great time with your kids:

  • Children need to be proficient and confident swimmers to participate in water sports. They should practice ocean swimming before trying sports like surfing or scuba and be aware of their limits. Before engaging in any water sport, it is important that kids receive swim lessons by a trained instructor. Starting lessons when they are young is the best path to help your kids thrive in the water.
  • Life jackets are a must when children are in a boat, and I'd recommend them for adults as well.
  • Children should never be swimming without adult supervision, which includes the pool, lake, river or beach. Adults who are supervising swimming children should refrain from drug or alcohol consumption.
  • Sunscreen needs to be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure and should be reapplied every two hours while in the sun. Sunscreen should be used by children and adults of all skin colors and tones. Sunscreen should have an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 30 or higher.
  • Weather forecast and water condition are two important pieces of information to know before any water outing occurs. Read posted signs before entering a body of water.
  • Some children have special needs and require more surveillance or assistance than others. Some may have medical devices which should not get wet. Consult your pediatrician if your child has special needs before taking them into the water.
  • Swimming is a good option for children with most medical conditions. Specifically, swimming can be a good sport for a child with asthma.
  • Proper age for swimming: children can start going in a pool around four months of age and can use sunscreen then as well, provided they do not have a skin reaction to the sunscreen like a rash. Children can begin swim lessons in infancy but they should always have formal lessons after four years of age, at which time they retain skills needed for swimming.
  • Proper age for surfing or waterskiing: children should be proficient swimmers, wear sunscreen and any protective gear, and have a trained instructor who is comfortable working with children. A good age to start depends on the child and will be dictated by the level of comfort swimming and being in the water.
  • Proper age for scuba: children should be proficient swimmers and also good readers and be able to comprehend the training for scuba, typically around age nine to ten years.

 If you have additional questions about water sports safety, you can find a pediatrician in our provider directory.

To learn more about summer fun and safety, try these articles:

7 Ways to Avoid the ER This Summer »
5 Tips for Staying Safe While Soaking in the Summer Sun & Fun »
Listen Up: Make a Splash This Summer Without Ear Pain »
Be vigilant about water safety »

Providence St. Joseph would like to thank Gramps Herndon for being a paid partner with us on this important topic.

Providence is pleased to share the stories of great people who have overcome health conditions. As part of our population health program, we want to share insights and stories that help bring awareness to common health conditions. Not all the people featured in our stories are Providence patients.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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