Things Parents and Kids Should Know About Outdoor Water Recreation
Last updated: March 22, 2023, at 4:57 a.m. PT
Originally published: April 29, 2020, at 9:48 a.m. PT
With warm, sunny summer days right around the corner, it’s important to brush up on outdoor water safety best practices. Swimming in an open body of water (like a river, lake, or ocean) is different from swimming in a pool. Even good swimmers need to be careful and aware of the dangers of outside bodies of water.
Regardless of the body of water a kid is swimming in, teach them to never swim alone. Tell them that using the buddy system means there's always someone looking out for them. When people swim together, they can help each other or get help in case of an emergency.
Keep in mind that water safety tips can vary based on the outdoor water environment in question. We’ve provided some water safety tips that are specific to various swimming environments:
Lakes and Ponds
- Don't let kids swim without adult supervision. Lakes or ponds might be shallow near the bank but get deep quickly away from shore.
- Don’t dive into areas where the water depth is unknown. Ponds and lakes may hide jagged rocks, broken glass, trash, and weeds and grass that could entangle a leg or arm, so be extremely careful when diving in lakes and ponds or avoid it altogether.
- Be mindful of potentially dangerous wildlife. Lakes and ponds are home to many creatures, and some of them can be dangerous for swimmers. Be on the lookout for snakes, snapping turtles, and alligators (in southern states).
- Make sure kids wear foot protection. Prevent injury from harmful items or surfaces by making kids wear aqua socks or water shoes while swimming in lakes and ponds.
- Avoid swimming in bad weather. At the first sign of bad weather, swimmers should exit the water and take shelter in a safe place.
- Don't let kids swim without adult supervision. Designate at least one adult to focus on watching children in the water. Wherever possible, take children to swim at beaches where a lifeguard is on duty.
- Do not swim close to piers or pilings. Sudden and unpredictable waves and tides may push swimmers into water structures. Stay clear of them, and only swim in open, safe water.
- Keep your eye out for posted signs about swimming hazards. The beach has unique dangers, like currents and tides. Look for posted signs about rip currents, jellyfish warnings, surfing restrictions, and other hazards. Also, ask the lifeguard about the current water conditions when possible.
- Don't allow kids to swim in large waves or undertows. The ocean is extremely unpredictable. Encourage kids to avoid large waves and never stand with their back to the water because a sudden wave can knock them over.
- Teach kids what to do if they’re caught in a rip current or undertow. Before you let kids swim in an ocean, teach them that if they're caught in a rip current or undertow, they should swim parallel to the shore or tread water and call for a lifeguard's help.
- Warn swimmers about dangerous ocean wildlife. The stings of jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-wars can be painful, so tell kids to watch out for them in the water and to tell an adult right away if they're stung.
- Avoid swimming in bad weather. In bad weather, swimmers should get out of the water right away. If there's lightning, lifeguards will close the beach.
Boating and Jet Skis
- Make sure people handling the boat are sober. When boating, the captain or person handling the boat should be sober, experienced, and competent. One-third of boating deaths are alcohol-related. Because there are no road signs or lane markers on the water and the weather can be unpredictable, it's important to be able to think quickly and react well under pressure. Any boat outing should include a designated driver who won't drink. Be sure teens know about the dangers of alcohol, on and off the water.
- Use proper-fitting, Coast Guard-approved flotation devices (life vests). Check the weight and size recommendations on the label, then have your child try it on to make sure it fits snugly. For kids younger than five years old, choose a vest with a strap between the legs and head support: the collar will keep the child's head up and face out of the water. Inflatable vests and arm devices, such as water wings, are not effective protection against drowning.
- Follow the same boating safety rules when using jet skis or personal watercraft. Accidents can still happen on jet skis or personal watercrafts, so be diligent and obey the same safety rules you’d obey on a boat. Check the laws in your area about the use of personal watercraft. Some states won't allow people under a certain age to operate them, while others require people to take a course or pass a test before they can ride one.
Water Temperature Guidelines for Outdoor Water Recreation
Water temperature is important. Enter the water slowly and make sure it feels comfortable for you and your kids. A temperature below 70°F (20°C) is cold to most swimmers. Recommended water temperatures vary depending on the activity and a swimmer's age. Here are some things to keep in mind about water temperature:
- In general, 82°F–86°F (28°C–30°C) is comfortable for recreational swimming for children.
- Babies are more comfortable when the water is on the warmer side of this temperature range.
- Body temperature drops more quickly in water than on land. It doesn't take long for hypothermia (when the body loses heat faster than it can make it) to set in. Get a child who's shivering or has muscle cramps out of the water right away and warm them with towels, blankets, or clothing.
Learn more about safety around water here!