At the start of summer, many families look forward to enjoying the pool or beach. Tragically, water proves deadly for more than 925 children in the United States each year (CDC WISQARS) and Black (non-Latinx) youth experience drowning at rates five times higher than White (non-Latinx) youth. In addition, with the COVID-19 pandemic, drownings in the Great Lakes have spiked compared with prior years.
Water safety is particularly important for Chicagoans given the 125-year history of public pools and free public beaches along 26 miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline. The history of Chicago’s pools and beaches has been marred by gender, economic, racial and ethnic barriers to learning to swim. In this month’s Voices of Child Health in Chicago Report, we look at swimming experiences and water competency among Chicago parents and their children. We asked 1,505 Chicago parents from all 77 community areas in the city about learning to swim and their comfort with different skills as well as other family demographic and health questions.
We asked Chicago parents if their children had ever had swimming lessons in the past. Fifty-four percent of parents said their children had swim lessons in the past, 46% said their children had not. The most common reasons children had not had swim lessons were cost (35%), not enough time (22%), nowhere to go for swim lessons (21%), children too young (19%) and children didn’t want to (17%). Other parents indicated that they had taught their children to swim on their own or did not do swim lessons because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In terms of Chicago children’s swimming abilities, 52% of the children in surveyed households can float on their backs for 30 seconds without help, 42% can swim the length of a pool without a flotation device and 44% use a life jacket when swimming. For 59% of the children in our sample, parents felt safe with their child around water.
In general, children’s swimming ability increased with child age. For instance, only 10% of children 1–4 years old could swim the length of a swimming pool without a flotation device, whereas 42% of 5- to 11-year-old children and 65% of children 12 years old or older could do this. The use of life jackets fluctuated with child age as well: 13% of infants under 12 months old used a life jacket (23% did not and 65% were not applicable), 58% of 1- to 4-year-old children used a life jacket (22% did not, 20% were not applicable), 51% of 5-to 11-year-old children used a life jacket (38% did not, 11% were not applicable) and 31% of children 12 years or older used a life jacket (59% did not, 10% were not applicable).
Parents who lived in a community area that was on the lakefront were more likely to report their children had swim lessons in the past (65%) compared with parents who lived in community areas that were further from the lakefront (49–50%).
We also asked parents about their own swimming skills. White (non-Latinx) parents were more likely to know how to swim themselves (96%), followed by Asian/other (non-Latinx) parents (83%), Black (non-Latinx) parents (73%) and Latinx parents (68%). A similar pattern emerged for whether parents’ children had taken swimming lessons: 70% of White (non-Latinx) parents said their child/children had taken swimming lessons, followed by Asian/other (non-Latinx) parents (63%), Black (non-Latinx) parents (45%) and Latinx parents (45%).
Additionally, a greater proportion of White (non-Latinx) children were able to swim the length of a pool without a flotation device (55%), followed by other/multiracial (non-Latinx) children (46%), Latinx children (42%), Asian (non-Latinx) children (40%) and Black (non-Latinx) children (32%) (Figure 2).
Children’s swimming ability was also associated with their family’s household income. Among children whose household income was below the federal poverty level (FPL) only 38% were able to float on their back for 30 seconds without help, compared with 51% of children with middle household income (100–399% FPL) and 64% of children with high household income (400% FPL or above). This aligns with the finding above that cost was the leading reason that children had not had swimming lessons.
Overall, 79% of parents had learned how to swim and 21% had not. Among parents who had learned how to swim, 38% of parents learned to swim on their own, 27% learned from a family member, 30% in swim lessons and 11% at camp.
The majority of Chicago parents reported feeling comfortable with their own swimming skills. For instance, 77% of parents felt very or somewhat comfortable floating on their back; 74% felt very or somewhat comfortable swimming with their face down in the water. Parents felt least comfortable swimming where they could not touch the bottom — 65% felt very or somewhat comfortable and 35% did not feel comfortable.
Parent swimming history also varied by city region. For instance, 50% of parents in the North region learned to swim through formal methods such as swim classes or camp, compared with 22% of parents in the Southwest region (Figure 3).
Parents who had learned how to swim themselves were almost twice as likely to have a child who had taken swimming lessons than parents who had never learned to swim themselves (60% vs 33%). Furthermore, among parents who knew how to swim, those who learned how to swim in swimming lessons or at camp were more likely to have a child who had taken swimming lessons than parents who learned to swim from a family member or by teaching themselves (72% vs. 50%).
There are many steps that parents can take to promote water safety for their families. Below is a list of steps parents can take wherever families swim, at beaches and at home to keep their families safe.