The tropical l’ile de Maurice, situated in the Indian Ocean, is known (from a tourist’s perspective) for its beautiful topography, all inclusive resorts, and its multitude of beautiful white sandy beaches. What is less known, however, is that approximately 70-85% of Mauritians cannot swim. Unfortunately, swimming is not a common extracurricular activity and as such, there are very few qualified instructors and lifeguards on the island. Drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in Mauritius and it ranks amongst the top 25 causes of death in the country. In terms of water safety, children with special needs can be at higher risk to suffering a submersion injury (i.e. a drowning-related injury) than the general population, as a result of factors like fascination with water, reduced mobility or a tendency to wander. It breaks my heart to know that drowning remains one of the leading causes of deaths especially when it is so preventable. There is a need for improved water safety education in Mauritius.
Last weekend, I gave a swim lesson to a group of 20 students from a local school for children with special needs. I hadn’t been in a pool for over a month, so hopping in (despite the water’s temperature) was great! Throughout my undergraduate years, I spent almost every Sunday morning with our team teaching one-on-one swimming lessons to children with special needs. Switching from one-on-one instruction to group instruction was a challenge – every student needed individual attention. Nonetheless, we had a fun lesson and learned some of the key techniques to kicking and attempted some front floats. There was enthusiasm in the pool last weekend and everyone had a great time (no one wanted to get out at the end of class)! I can already see the immense progress that each student would make if they had regular lessons and individual attention.
One of my goals this summer is to help introduce one-on-one swimming and water safety lessons for children with special needs as one of the experiential programs offered at ELI-Africa. Our program will focus on water education through teaching water safety and swimming skills. Lessons will be customized for the student’s emotional and developmental abilities with the end goal of helping the student become physically active, learn the life-saving skill of swimming and have positive outcomes on self confidence and self esteem.
So you may be wondering… why swimming?
The importance of physical fitness in the promotion of health and wellness of children is well established. A growth of data over the years indicates that physical activity, sport and comprehensive school health approaches have an important role in facilitating learning and academic performance. One of the key components of health-related physical fitness is cardiorespiratory endurance. Cardiorespiratory endurance is dependent on the function of respiratory, cardiovascular and skeletal muscle systems. Children with cerebral palsy (CP), Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy and autism spectrum disorders typically have reduced cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle strength, balance, coordination and motor skills. These difficulties limit children with disabilities from participating in community-based sports programs and physical activities. Thus, it is more often than not that children with special needs are not only missing out on receiving health benefits of being physically active but are also excluded from receiving the cognitive benefits.
Swimming has been shown to be therapeutic to children with disabilities including (but not limited to) those with: sensory integration disorders, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsay, impaired motor planning and coordination and Down syndrome.
Swimming is a low impact activity and provides a strong source of aerobic exercise. Some of its health benefits include improvement in strength, endurance, coordination and balance. Being in the water is calming for a child’s sensory systems and notable outcomes include: reduced hyperactivity and decreased sensitivity, self-stimulatory behaviors and repetitive behaviors. For example the deep pressure exerted by the water on the body is present the entire time the child is in the water, providing much needed calming tactile stimulation to a child who is highly sensitive to touch.
I’ve witnessed these positive outcomes as an instructor and swim coach with my local Special Olympics team. I’ll never forget working with my 5 year old student with autism and hyperlexia. She had severe speech delays and struggles with social interactions, in addition to many gross-motor challenges and sensory sensitivities. Touching wet or cold things makes her highly uncomfortable, and at the beginning she was extremely apprehensive about getting her face wet and simply being around the pool was unsettling. By the end of the year, we were blowing bubbles in the water, and she could swim, unassisted, one width of the pool. What I love about swimming, in the words of my good friend Hillary (an ELI-Africa volunteer in 2011), is the space it provides to see ABILITY in children society labels with disability. Water is gentle and calming and more than symbolically, it gives children a chance to renew, refresh and shine!