Area first-graders made a splash last week as they learned to swim at the Martinsville YMCA.
“They love it. They are having so much fun,” Carver Elementary first-grade teacher Kitty Watkins said as she watched her students receive swimming and water safety instruction Wednesday.
“It’s making them more comfortable being in the water. It’s giving them an experience some of them haven’t had,” Watkins said of a pilot program called “Learn to Swim” at the YMCA in Martinsville with funding from the Martinsville Area Community Foundation (MACF).
The program is designed to help first-graders learn the basics of swimming and water safety as well as aquatic recreation opportunities, said April Haynes, MACF director. First-graders from Carver and Rich Acres elementary schools and Carlisle School’s Martinsville campus are participating, she said.
The program aligns with Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) courses of study for health and physical education goals for first-grade students, Haynes said. She added that research shows that children who learn water safety skills also reap benefits in overall cognitive, physical and emotional development.
Students receive about 45 minutes of pool time each day for a week, she said. Lessons were given for four weeks in February and March.
“Some of them were timid at first,” Watkins said of her students. “You can definitely see they are getting more comfortable as the week goes on.”
She mentioned one child — the most timid in her class — who was reluctant to get in the water at first, but now gets in, holds on closely to a swim instructor and moves his arms and kicks his legs.
Swim instructors are doing a good job of “differentiating instruction,” or helping students progress from their starting skill levels, rather than teaching all students the same, Watkins said.
Her students “are really proud of themselves. They can tell they have improved their skill levels,” she said.
In all, four first-grade classes of Carver students received instruction last week.
Greyson Coleman, Ann Claire Burrell and Zakkary Semones, who are in Watkins’ class, and Elijah Witcher, Ella Cooke and Connor Smith, who are in Michael Gregory’s class, all said they were having fun and learning to swim. Several of them said jumping into the water was the most fun part.
Ann Claire said putting her face in the water was hard for her at first, but “I’m getting used to it.”
Asked what he had learned, Connor moved his arms as if doing the Australian crawl.
A few of the children admitted they were a bit scared at times earlier in the week, but not Zakkary.
“I was very brave,” he said.
Brad Kinkema, CEO/executive director of the Martinsville-Henry County Family YMCA, said before taking part in this program, many of the students probably would have drowned if they had fallen into water unattended. But by the end of the week, he hopes they will be able to remain calm in the water and swim to the side of the pool. He hopes the program encourages them to take additional swimming lessons.
First grade is a good time for children to learn to swim, Kinkema said. Kindergartners generally are a little too young, and older children generally are more fearful, he added. However, first-graders tend to be naive about the dangers of the water, so that’s why water safety instruction is included in “Learn to Swim” as well as basic swimming instruction, he said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, from 2005-09, an average of 3,533 people died from unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States, or about 10 deaths per day. In addition, about 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.
“Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates,” according to the CDC. “... Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children 1-4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies (birth defects). Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.”
The aquatic skills training in “Learn to Swim” will not only help save lives, but will provide life skills including exercise options, confidence, sports and knowledge on aquatic recreation, Haynes said.
Kinkema added swimming is a good calorie-burning exercise, which is important because of concerns about obesity.
MACF provided grant funding for the pilot program through its Martinsville Area Unrestricted Fund, Haynes said. “Our goal is to expand this program to include all first-grade students in Martinsville and Henry County. ... That will take at least $10,000 per year, so we will be working on acquiring additional funds to bring this to fruition.”
“Being in water as an adult and never learning to swim is a life-threatening issue, and that’s why teaching every first-grader in the county water safety and swimming is vitally important,” Kinkema said.
He expressed thanks to the schools for providing bus transportation and school staff to accompany students.