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Although I teach swimming lessons in pools, I work a lot with swimmers that frequent oceans, lakes or other bodies of water and often, those swimmers spend time on the water by boat. Each semester, I run through Safety Week exercises in my group classes to inform swimmers and their families about how to make the most of their boating and active water activities while keeping everyone safe. Naturally, one of the biggest topics during Safety Week touches upon personal flotation devices (PFD’s) and how they work.

A PFD can come in a many different forms like life jackets/vests, puddle jumpers, safety rings, belts etc… but it’s important to recognize which types of flotation devices are certified by the US Coast Guard and which are appropriate to use at any given time.

The US Coast Guard has information regarding the types of PFD’s to look for during your boating and active water adventures, which you can access here. They’re website goes into detail about what factors influence the buoyancy of a PFD, recommendations for PFD’s for different ages and activities and answers to questions regarding safety around active bodies of water. Definitely worth checking out!

Now that I’ve used the term PFD an obsessive amount of times, let’s talk about how I like to incorporate them into my lessons in the pool.

So, obviously I’m not teaching my swimmers how to swim with these flotation devices regularly, but I’ve definitely found a way of using them as a tool while developing certain skills that gives swimmers the right amount of exposure to being supported in the water, without letting them become reliant on that support. My biggest qualm around using “floaties” is that as an instructor, I’m tasked with teaching swimmers how to feel comfortable being independent in the water and overusing things like water wings, puddle jumpers, and noodles, takes that feeling of independence away when they’re used improperly.

Some instructors have disagreed with me on what type of floaties I use during my lessons, but here’s where I stand. I like using water wings to teach buoyancy  and safety skills like treading. Water wings give me control over how much support they give to my swimmers because I get to fill them up with air and deflate them as needed. If a swimmer is uncomfortable with being separated from me, I’m naturally going to inflate the water wings to give them full support when I let go for the first few times. As they begin to understand how to maneuver themselves independently in the water, I’ll begin to let air out of each water wing to encourage them to work on treading mechanics and to strengthen their arms and legs to meet the needs of staying above the water. I’ll generally use water wings once every few weeks as to avoid having my swimmers become enthralled with the idea that they don’t need to do any work to keep themselves above the water.

The main issue with using water wings over a life vest or belt and where some instructors have a different opinion is that water wings are not certified through the US Coast Guard because their design doesn’t prevent swimmers from flipping over. When I’m asked about what kind of flotation device a swimmer should use while on vacation, my answer varies based on where the parents plan to be while their child is in the water. If parents are in the water with their swimmer and are choosing to practice certain skills, I offer that they can use the water wings without need for concern, however, if the parents are watching from the deck, a life jacket or vest might be a more viable option as these prevent swimmers from accidentally flipping over. In terms of a teaching tool, water wings are a great option and give parents and instructors control over what kind of support they’re giving to a swimmer, but should be used knowing that they’re not the recommended flotation device for ensuring our children are 100% safe in a body of water.

There is a lot of information regarding PFD’s online and I suggest doing some additional research before committing to a certain floatation device while on vacation. Make sure that whenever you’re out boating or around active water, you AND your children are wearing the appropriate PFD’s to ensure a fun, but SAFE experience!

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