Jaclyn Braithwaite

Constitution Park Pool swim instructor Jaclyn Braithwaite helps Elizabeth Wilson, 6, on her swimming technique at the city pool Wedneday morning. Instructors there and at the YMCA recommend exposing children to swimming at an earlier age, saying it decreases fear of water and increases the chance of survival in accidental submersion.

CUMBERLAND — Tentatively, Cooper Silber, 4, stood at the edge of the pool at Constitution Park. He had conquered the basics in the first half hour of his swim lesson. The doggie paddle was a breeze. The Styrofoam noodle? No problem. But this diving thing would be a different story.

“You want to wait and try again?” Cumberland Parks and Recreation swim instructor and lifeguard Bjorn Tvera asked him.

Silber shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said politely.

Still, his onlooking mother, Kari, was proud. She and her husband, Brett, were at the pool with their younger daughter to lend moral support to Cooper as he took that giant leap into the blue waters.

“The sooner the better,” Kari said, watching her son’s head bob up and down in the pool. “This is his first summer of lessons and he has been a little timid, but it’s important to get him used to the water this young.”

While Cooper may be a beginner, Adam Ruppenkamp at age 12 is a veteran. According to his mother, Bonnie, Adam learned to swim before he could walk. He was 6 months old when he first entered the pool.

“I wanted him used to the water,” Bonnie said. “I like to swim, and I wanted him to be able to swim. I think it’s an important skill to know, mainly so kids won’t be afraid of the water.”

All three of Cheryl Kisner’s children — ages 4 to 10 — are enrolled in swimming lessons.

“I didn’t know how to swim until I was 18. My parents were petrified of water, and we weren’t even allowed to fill the bathtub too full,” Kisner said. “So I wanted to change that for my kids.”

Nationally, according to a study for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of Atlanta, 10 people die from drowning every day in the United States. And more than one in five fatal drowning victims are children 14 and younger, the CDC study indicates.

In the CDC report, of all children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, almost 30 percent died from drowning. Although drowning rates have slowly declined, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years.

For every child who died from drowning, another four received emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries.

Even a nonfatal water accident can cause permanent side effects such as brain damage, paralysis, learning disabilities and memory problems.

The USA Swimming Foundation commissioned a survey that concluded in part that “children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be at-risk of drowning,” and that “two key barriers preventing children from learning to swim are fear of injury or drowning and lack of parental encouragement.”

Learning to swim while very young could be the key to success. Children tend to be fearless when introduced to water while at an early age, said Amy Nazelrod, pool manager at Constitution Park, where swim lessons for children under 14 cost $1 a day.

“And when you get over that fear you can progress faster, so the earlier you learn to swim, the better you will be able to advance,” said Nazelrod. “If you enter the water and panic you’re not going to remember to float.”

Learning to swim, like any developmental skill, is best learned as young as possible. Both Constitution Park and the Riverside YMCA have swim classes for children as young as 6 months. The YMCA offers a one-day class in which parents enter the water with their infants and then are able to take those lessons home and continue practicing technique.

“It’s a life skill that is very important at a young age,” said Jamie Wright, aquatics director and head swim coach at the YMCA, “because there is no fear of the water at that age and you know you’re safe. Most parents enroll their kids because they have a place at the lake or a pool so if something horrible does happen, the child can at least paddle his way to safety. You hate to think about anything like that ever happening.”

“Overall, every child should learn how to swim; from a safety standpoint, it’s very important,” said Shelly Minnick, member coordinator at the YMCA.

“It’s easier for kids because of their development,” said Constitution pool assistant manager Ross Kiddy, who has been “a decent swimmer” since age 4. “As adults, we think we know everything. As early as you can get a kid in the water and get them comfortable, the better.”

“Get kids in the water when you can,” said Nazelrod. “It’s possible to learn to swim in a couple of days but most kids are good swimmers after a couple of weeks.”

Tvera points to a recent example in the news for his motivation for teaching children to swim.

“A week ago there was a news report about the kids who went too far out and seven kids drowned,” he said. “Swim lessons could have saved those lives. Just learning not to panic and to start doggie paddling would have done it.”

“It’s surprising when you hear statistics about drowning,” said Wright. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had any serious water accidents in our area in the last few years. But it doesn’t mean an accident can’t happen.”

Shane Riggs can be reached at sriggs@times-news.com.

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