Should Flotation Devices or Life Jackets Be Used in Swim Lessons?

Flotation Devices and Learn to Swim Classes

Swimmer in Flotation Device
When properly used, a progressive flotation device will make a huge difference, from developing confidence, to learning skills more efficiently, to increasing safety. Jim Reiser, M.S.
I received an angry phone call from a parent (the parent was not at the swimming lesson): "My son is on a swim team and doesn't need a life jacket. Why does he have to wear a life jacket during swimming lessons?" I responded, "He doesn't have to, but my number one responsibility is to make sure that your child is safe when in our care. When we administered the skills test and evaluated his current swimming abilities, the result was that he would be safer with the flotation vest on, at least until he got used to swimming again.
Make no mistake, our goal is for your son to be able to swim without the life jacket, but we will never compromise your child's safety in and around the water." To me, there was one of two reasons for this phone call.
  1. The parent was embarrassed that her child needed a vest.
  2. The parent was naive to her child's actual swimming abilities.
While I hope it was the latter, both of these scenarios are serious problems, and precisely the reason why drowning is second only to automobile accidents as the leading cause of accidental death among children ages 6 to 14. It's amazing to me that a parent can be so "proud" to the point that they will risk their child's safety, and that grown adults can be so nonchalant when it comes to water safety, swimming, and their children.

In the above situation, we are teaching 32 second graders with an 8:1 student: teacher ratio, and we have a deck supervisor and two lifeguards.

Most children can stand in a partitioned off areas we are using during lessons, but there is a deep water section in the pool, too. I like flotation devices for two reasons in this situation:

  1. Increases the safety of the children.
  2. Increases practice time because the children don't need the individual support of the instructors, allowing for mass participation and repetition; repetition is the "mother of skill acquisition."

    The Debate Among Instructors

    The use of flotation devices will be forever debated among swimming instructors. The two most common arguments from instructors who oppose flotation devices:
    • The child will develop a false sense of security.
    • The child will become dependent on the device.

    Will a Child Develop a False Sense of Security?

    Would you allow a child to play near a busy street? Would you allow a child to ride in a car without being in a car seat and buckled up? I should hope not, and for the similar reasons--no child should ever be in or around the water without constant adult supervision. The water is equally as dangerous, if not more dangerous.

    As parents, caregivers, and water safety instructors, what we should be doing is teaching children as young as two years of age that they should never go in or near the water without mommy, daddy, or a grown-up. More importantly, mommy and daddy should never allow their child to be in such a dangerous situation. Parents, caregivers, and water safety instructors should also be teaching young children to wear a life jacket any time they're on a boat, or even when just playing near any body of water, i.e., lake, ocean, river, or and even small ponds.

    Unlike the story above, where the parent actually discouraged it!

    So will a child develop a false sense of security? Not if we teach them otherwise. The more concerning question to me is, Do parents have a false sense of security? Constant adult supervision should be provided at all times, whether or not their child can swim, whether or not a child is wearing a buoyancy device. In addition, every parent should learn and follow the Safer 3--which teaches drowning is preventable when a layered approach is employed.

    Will a Child Become Dependent on the Flotation Device?

    After personally teaching thousands of children to swim over the past 27 years--I have never witnessed a child become dependent on the "progressive flotation device" used in our swim classes. One reason children don't become Dependant on the flotation device that we use is because the device is designed for progression. Because it has nine removable buoyancy pads, instructors can gradually eliminate flotation as the student becomes more competent in the water.

    In fact, since the student is being complemented and praised when they get a buoyancy pad removed from their vest--most children become internally driven to work harder. The children get excited about the progress they are making, and they understand that when buoyancy pads are removed, they are actually being rewarded for their improvement. This aspect of the progression, coupled with the fact that they are gradually using less flotation (it's not all being taken away at once), really eliminates the dependency issue.

    The Irony and the Advantages

    Parents don't think twice about putting training wheels on a bicycle, lowing a basketball hoop, or giving a child an age-appropriate size ball or bat. Yet parents and teachers debate whether or not using a flotation device is the right thing to do when it comes to learn-to-swim.

    Learning to swim is no different from learning any other sport's skill. Improvement requires practice. If you can't practice, you can't learn. The extent of the improvement is limited to the mechanics being used to perform the skill. When learning to swim without a flotation device, technique problems can arise because the swimmer is survival swimming instead of concentrating on doing the skill properly.

    A good comparison is asking a child to swing a major league size baseball bat. The child would be so busy just trying to lift the bat he couldn't begin to swing it properly.

    This is precisely what occurs in the swimming pool. The child's so busy trying "not to drown," he has no chance of doing the skill correctly.

    The Bottom Line

    When properly used, a progressive flotation device will make a huge difference, from developing confidence, to learning skills more efficiently, to increasing safety. A progressive flotation device is one of the best inventions the learn-to-swim industry will ever see.