How to Teach Kids About Beach Safety

Rearview shot of a little girl and her parents spending time together at the beach

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It's important that parents take precautions and talk to their kids about beach and ocean safety. While a relaxing day at the beach, or a full beach vacation can be welcome respite from hectic lives filled with work demands, sports practices, piano lessons, and other obligations, it can also lull people into a false sense of security.

Unfortunately, there are real dangers at beaches to be aware of and tragedy can strike in a moment's notice if you and your family are not prepared. In fact, the risk of drowning is a leading cause of concern—especially for young children in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there are more than 3,500 unintentional drowning deaths per year and of those, one in five are children under the age of 14. What's more, for every child that dies from drowning, another five are treated in emergency rooms for nonfatal submersion injuries.

While the majority of drownings occur in swimming pools, the risks present at the beach are still significant. Learn more from the following ideas on how you can prepare your family for a day at the beach as well as ideas on how to stay safe once you get there.

Preparing for the Beach

Whether you are planning a day at the beach, going on a family beach vacation, or you live near the ocean, it's a good idea to talk with your kids ahead of time about what it means to be safe at the beach. This way, you are more likely to have their undivided attention.

If you wait until their feet hit the sand to talk about your expectations and rules, you run the risk that you won't have their full attention. Here are some things you should talk about beforehand.

Brush Up on Swimming Skills

Swimming in the ocean is much different than swimming in a pool. In fact, it takes much more skill and physical effort to swim in the ocean than it does in the local community or backyard pool. Plus, the water is dark with living creatures and there are no ladders or concrete sides to grab onto.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for little ones to struggle swimming in the ocean. They also may be intimidated by the fact that the waves push them around and they cannot see the bottom.

If this is your child's first trip to the beach, you will want to prepare them ahead of time for these differences. It also may be useful—especially for young children—to take a few survival swimming lessons beforehand.

For instance, young kids should be instructed to never turn their back on the ocean. They have a better chance of staying upright in strong waves than if they are caught from behind.

Additionally, learning to float on their backs is a great way for kids to rest if they are too far out and cannot get to shore. By floating, they are giving adults time to get to them rather than expending a lot of energy going nowhere.

Even if your child is older, or a "strong swimmer," you should keep a watchful eye on them while they are swimming or splashing around in the ocean. Or better yet, join them if you're able. Ocean safety is all about the buddy system.

Purchase Life Jackets

If you have toddlers or preschool children, you should consider purchasing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Even though you will likely be within arm's reach of your little ones, it's easy to get distracted or for your little one to wander into the water when your back is turned.

Consequently, a life jacket is an extra layer of protection and a great addition to your beach gear. Just be sure to choose one that fits your child and test it out in the pool before heading to the beach, especially if this is the first time your child has worn a life jacket.

Talk About Ocean Currents

There are two types of currents you may experience while at the beach. These include longshore currents and rip currents. The longshore currents, are the currents that cause you to gradually move down the beach with each wave. Kids need to be aware of these currents because they may look up from playing in the ocean and not realize they are 10 feet from where they started.

Meanwhile, rip currents are currents that typically form near piers and other permanent structures as well as in low spots or breaks in sandbars. These currents are very strong and can pull a swimmer under or further into the ocean.

In fact, according to the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), more than 80% of rescues on surf beaches are due to rip currents.

For middle school and teenage swimmers, it's especially important that they understand how to get to safety if caught in a rip current. They should not try to swim straight into the current toward the beach. Instead, they should swim parallel with the beach until they are no longer in the current and then swim toward the beach. Trying to swim through the current toward the beach will tire them out and often is unsuccessful—especially for inexperienced swimmers.

Choose Beaches With Lifeguards

If you are taking your family to the beach, the best way to stay safe is to select beaches with lifeguards. In fact, one study found that the chance of drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times greater than drowning at a beach with lifeguards.

Teach Kids to Ask Permission

Too many times, little kids will wander toward the water when you're distracted. And in the short amount of time it takes to apply sunscreen or answer a text, disaster can strike.

As a result, teach your kids that they cannot go in the water without asking you or your partner first. This rule will help add a layer of protection to your beach safety plan.

Staying Safe at the Beach

Once your family arrives for the sun and sand, the the excitement of the ocean could be distracting. So, if you feel like your kids aren't really listening as you reinforce any expectations or rules, you might need to ask them to repeat back what you said. But, if you have prepared them beforehand, much of what you have to say will just be a repeat of what they already know.

Scope Things Out First

Many kids want to rush right into the water as soon as they get to the beach. But, it is a good idea to scope things out first. Look to see where the lifeguards are stationed and see if there are any water warnings posted. Also, watch the waves.

The ocean can appear deceptively calm even when waves are high. Get an idea of how high and hard the waves are coming in. For younger kids, you can make a game of trying to predict which waves are going to be high.

Remind Kids About Currents

Although you should have already talked to your kids about the ocean's currents, it's a good idea to refresh their memories, especially with regard to rip currents.

According to the USLA, rip currents are strong and fast, often moving at speeds of 1 to 2 feet per second. However, speeds as high as 8 feet per second have been measured. Consequently, even the strongest swimmers can be washed out to sea, if they do not know how to spot rip currents or swim free of them.

Establish Boundaries

Because longshore currents can gradually move kids down the beach, you may want to establish some boundaries for your kids and ask that they stay between two points while playing in the ocean.

For instance, you can pick the lifeguard chair and a tall building in the background. If they try to stay within those two points, they will always know where to find the rest of the family.

This is especially helpful for middle school and teenage swimmers. You also may want to establish how far out your children can go. Base your decision on how well your child can swim as well as how high and strong the waves are.

Use the Buddy System

It's never a good idea to swim alone. For this reason, encourage your kids to swim with a buddy. For little kids, you're obviously the buddy. Take turns with your partner or other adults in your group so that you both get a chance to relax.

For older kids, they should swim with a sibling or a friend. Many times, drownings occur when people are swimming alone. But, when swimming with a buddy, there is another person present to signal for help if needed.

Remember Your Role

While it may be tempting to close your eyes and take a nap, if you have children playing in the ocean, you want to keep an eye on them, even if they are in tweens and teens. And little ones should always be within reach.

Ideally, you will be in the ocean with them while they play in the waves. In some situations, sitting on the edge of the water may be appropriate as long as your child is nearby. If you are at the beach with a spouse or partner, take turns watching the kids. Never rely on lifeguards to watch your kids.

Wear Sunscreen and Drink Water

What can start as a bright, sunny day at the beach can quickly turn disastrous if you don't take steps to protect your kids' bodies as well as your own. To protect your skin and theirs, select a broad-spectrum sunscreen or clothing that covers the skin.

Then, make sure you reapply throughout the day. You also want to be sure you and your kids stay hydrated. Be sure to pack a cooler with water and then drink it throughout the day.

A Word From Verywell

By taking a few precautionary steps ahead of time, you and your family can stay safe at the beach. Just be sure to keep communication open and adjust to the situation as needed. Also, be sure to listen to the lifeguards and obey all signs and postings.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unintentional drowning: get the facts. Updated April 28, 2016.

  2. United States Lifesaving Association. About rip currents.

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