LIHUE — Laola Aea has spent a lifetime surfing, paddling and swimming.
Monday morning, standing in the Kauai High School pool, the Kauai woman was teaching keiki about water safety.
She loved what she was seeing from the Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary students.
“The kids are doing awesome,” she said. “To go from being afraid of the water to actually going under water, that’s huge.”
About 120 second-graders participated in the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation program on a warm, sunny morning. Six groups of about 20 took turns spending 30 minutes in the pool under the guidance of teachers.
Dean Schmaltz, HAF president and chairman, said swimming is one part of water safety, so the lessons also show keiki how to stay out of trouble.
For instance, what should they do if the water is cloudy? What if it’s rocky? And before going in, they should know how they’ll get out of the water.
“Sounds pretty simple, right?” Schmaltz said. “All those things can help reduce chances of injury.”
“Avoidance is the first thing you should focus on,” he added.
Students learned how to float, how to go under water and return to the surface and how to stay relaxed. They even learned about recognizing if someone is in trouble and how to get help.
A big part is helping them overcome fear of the water, which Aea said is best done using the ABC method: Always be calm.
So instructors led by example.
“It helps if I’m calm, that’s number one,” she said.
This isn’t one size fits all, though. Every child is different, Aea said
“Just like with adults, the same thing doesn’t always work,” she said. “You have to have a bag of tricks.”
She’s big on encouragement and building confidence.
“Baby steps become bigger steps,” Aea said.
Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association, said when life skills like water safety are taught young, they are remembered. So second-grade is a good time for them to learn — and remember — especially on an island surrounded by a powerful ocean.
Schmaltz agreed. He said at ages 7 and 8, children are developing cognitive abilities as well as physical.
He said schools offer physical education courses and have fire drills. On an island, water safety should be part of the curriculum, too.
The five-hour program is free thanks to donations, including from KLA. It includes time in the pool, once a week, and the classroom. Teachers take attendance, record grades and track progress.
Students are separated into smaller groups, each with its own teacher, based on an initial assessment of their abilities in the water so they can progress at a comfortable pace.
It has already been taught to second-graders at Eleele, Kapaa and St. Catherine schools. The goal is to add a new school each year and ultimately, the hope is every second-grader will go through it.
It could save lives, Downs said.
“We’re working more and more water safety awareness into all aspects of the community,” he said.
Schmaltz, based on Oahu, said HAF’s program works best when many are involved.
“If all you did was have one solution, you may make a dent in it, but what you really need is to reach out, you need community support, you need school support, you need parent support,” he said.
Nearly 100 percent of Wilcox second-graders are participating. When it started three weeks ago, about half could swim 10 yards or more. A majority did not know how to float.
Some jumped right in. Some dipped a toe.
“One boy over there, today was the first day he put his head under water,” Schmaltz said.
Swim coach Curt Colby is HAF’s Kauai director.
“It’s such a great idea, such a needed thing,” he said. “And the fact that it’s offered for free to these kids is phenomenal.”
Karen Joto with Wilcox school said the program is well organized and the students look forward to it.
She said she’s seen their confidence grow.
When it started, some were reluctant to go in the water, even with an instructor next to them. Last week, those same students were dunking their heads and flashing the shaka.
“They don’t look afraid and they were so afraid two weeks ago,” Joto said.
Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or email@example.com.