Learn to Swim program teaches water safety, free lessons for kids

The Learn to Swim program offers free swimming lessons for young New Yorkers between ages 1 and 17 at pools around the city.
The Learn to Swim program offers free swimming lessons for young New Yorkers between ages 1 and 17 at pools around the city. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Want to cool off on a hot summer day? You have a lot of options.

The city boasts 14 miles of public beaches, ranging from the placid waters of Orchard Beach to the roaring waves of the Rockaways.

Swimmers also have their choice of 65 public pools, including Astoria’s mammoth 54,450-square-foot pool with incredible views of the East River.

Despite being surrounded by 520 miles of water, experts say many New Yorkers don’t know how to swim.

It’s a process that should start as early as possible, said John Hutchins, director of aquatics for the city Parks Department.

“The most important thing a parent can do is sign kids up for swimming lessons,” he said. “It’s a safety skill and it opens up the entire world of aquatics for them.”

The city offers free swimming lessons for children between ages 1 and 17. Experts say it’s vital to teach even the youngest tots the basics of water safety.

“Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States for kids between 1 and 14,” he said. “That is the exact population we are targeting.”

Shawn Slevin of the Swim Strong Foundation believes water safety should be part of every child’s education.

“About 95 percent of fatal drownings and life-changing accidents are preventable,” she said. “It’s education and use of common sense and good judgment that keeps people from getting into dangerous situations.”

Slevin, whose group focuses on swim instruction and water safety, said it’s more important than ever, now that large swaths of formerly industrial waterfronts are being converted for public use.

“Our waterfronts are being developed in a way much greater in our lifetime, giving people more access to water,” she said. “I’m frankly afraid our drowning rates will spike because of that.”

Tyesha Briggs brought her 3-year-old son, Tyeshawn Strother-Briggs, to the city’s Learn to Swim program at the Mapes Pool in the Bronx last week for lessons.

“It’s good for him,” said Briggs, 31, who does not know how to swim herself. “That’s something I feel he should learn how to do. I just have a fear of him drowning, so he should learn how to swim.”

Hutchins said before they can learn how to swim, kids must be comfortable in the water.

“This year I can’t get him out of the water,” Briggs said. “I think swimming for babies is good; you don’t want them to be scared.”

Sabrina Skelton said she enjoys being in the water with her daughters, 3-year-old Ostyn Hayes and 4-year-old Morgan Hayes, as they learn the basics of swimming.

“They love it, it’s refreshing. They blow bubbles in the water to help them with the breathing mechanisms,” said Skelton, 31, of Castle Hill. “The pool can be intimidating to kids.”

The two-and-a-half-week sessions are designed to introduce children to the water with floating, gliding and kicking skills in hopes they will continue and maybe even join one of the department’s swim teams.

“It’s lifetime learning,” said Hutchins. “We don’t want them to overestimate their ability. The key is to only swim when there is a lifeguard present. And parents need to keep an eye on their kids, wherever they are.”

The Parks Department also offers Learn to Swim programs targeted to adults. Officials say even confident swimmers need to be cautious when venturing into open waters.

“This is really the only ocean-facing beach in New York City,” said Portia Dyrenforth, the department’s administrator for the Rockaways. “We do think that Rockaway is a little more challenging for swimmers, so they need to really be aware.”

Signs posted along the Rockaway Boardwalk outline the dangers of riptides and caution swimmers to stay out of the water unless a lifeguard is present.

Despite these efforts, several tragic drownings in recent years occurred when lifeguards were not on duty.

“People from Rockaway know that the ocean is serious business,” said Dyrenforth. “We just need to keep getting that word out.”

Heidi Thomson, who grew up in Brighton Beach and now lives in Rockaway Island, said she was raised to respect the power of the water.

“We always knew it was rougher current here,” said Thomson, 51, as she played on the sand with her 4-year-old grandson, Zachary.

Shannon Clare kept an eye on her daughter, Isabel, and her friend during a recent trip to the Rockaways on a sunny afternoon. Clare, a swimmer, said she is making sure Isabel also learns those vital skills.

“A little girl got knocked over in the water three or four times today,” said Clare, 45, of Greenpoint. “They just barely caught her before she got sucked out. I watch these two like a hawk.”