By Jim McCloskey
Every year at about this time, I survey my backyard and make certain everything is ready for summer – patio furniture, grill, deck, shade sails, misting system and, probably most important given our usual summer lifestyle, the pool and spa.
This year, however, my examination of the watershapes in particular has been a bit more critical than it’s been for a long time, because our home is now frequently visited by our one-year-old granddaughter. My own youngest child is now nearly 23 years old, so it’s been a while since I had to worry about having toddlers and non-swimmers around the place.
And in fact, it’s something of a brave, new backyard for us: When our three kids were small, the pool was surrounded by a five-foot-tall gated fence that kept them away from the water unless we specifically gave them access, never without supervision. About a dozen years ago, with everyone a good or even accomplished swimmer, we pulled down the fence to open up the yard and soften what we’d always seen as its somewhat institutional (read: prison-like) look.
I have no regrets about the change, but it’s made me more conscious than ever about the importance of teaching kids to swim and be comfortable and safe around water at the earliest possible point in their young lives.
Once our granddaughter started to walk, my daughter Simone began asking about the pool and how we intended to isolate it from the rest of the yard when the baby was around. My suggestion that adult supervision would be sufficient met with a well-chilled response, as did my paternal admonition that getting her into a swimming class wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Simone was way ahead of me. All of her research indicated that, despite anecdotal information and even some solid studies to the contrary, kids aren’t very reliable around water until they’re about four years old. Basically, it was a polite ultimatum: Either the pool was to get a barrier or our granddaughter’s warm-weather visits would be strictly indoor affairs.
Figuring out the solution was easy. I’ve worked up a system of lightweight, interlocked trellises that block access to the water’s edge – a bit unsightly but stable and clearly effective – and I can install them in rapid order when the need arises and stow them out of sight just as easily. Resourcefulness, it seems, is part of what being a grandpa is all about.
It was in this context that I recently came across an encouraging story about an initiative in Scotland called the “Every Child Can Swim.” There’s wide support for the concept, given research suggesting that between 30 and 40 percent of Scottish children graduate from primary school unable to swim despite near-universal recognition that having this ability sets a foundation for a lifetime of safe, healthful participation in a range of aquatic sports and activities.
Too often the swimming- and pool-related stories I see cut the other way, with community-pool closings making all-too-frequent headlines, often followed up by stories about the lifting of swim-education requirements from curriculums because schools and communities can’t handle the costs of keeping their aging pools in service.
Speaking as a parent and grandparent and, yes, as one who had to take swimming lessons before I was allowed anywhere near the beach or a pool when I was a young whippersnapper, I am a universalist when it comes to swimming and see it as one of a handful of essential life skills along with tying shoes and whipping up a good batch of margaritas.
This may be a case where government – local, state or federal – should step in with a swim-education mandate and reliable funding for the construction and maintenance of the infrastructure required to make it happen. Absent that, I will do all I can myself to help my own granddaughter feel safe and secure in and around water so I can stash my barrier panels for good and enjoy the wide-open backyard I prepare for use each May.
I remember the profound sense of satisfaction that came with seeing each of my three daughters manage to paddle their ways all around our pool and can’t wait to feel it again – sometime soon, I hope.