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Natural environments beneficial to learning


New research shows teaching water safety in a range of natural open water environments, instead of exclusively in a swimming pool may be more beneficial for learning.

In a study conducted by University of Otago researchers, retention of important water safety skills was improved following teaching undertaken by experts in different open water environments.

Led by Professor Chris Button, dean of the School of Physical Education, Sports and Exercise Science, 120 children undertook a practical water safety program in ocean, harbour and river waters around Dunedin.

The children learned to evaluate risks in the different environments alongside some key skills like floating, getting in and out of water safely and how to fit a lifejacket properly.

Professor Button's research has shown that while children can learn well in both pool and open water environments, the retention of water safety skills was best for those children who had been taught in open water.

"Learning water safety skills seems very much attached to the context in which they are taught, and that's why we think learning only in the pool is problematic as most drownings around the world tend to occur in open water," says Professor Button.

"The essence of our water safety research is that learning new skills in different environments allows the development of transferable skills that can be applied to different contexts more readily."



One of the arguments against the closure of school pools, as the traditional place of water safety learning across New Zealand, has been the potential negative impact on water safety.

However, Professor Button says New Zealand is fortunate to have easy access to alternative learning places such as lakes, rivers, and the ocean.

"These types of environments are already used by other countries that don't have easy access to swimming pools, and our study highlights the value of them as places of learning."

While Professor Button's research has shown that teaching in open water is beneficial for skill retention, he also says children develop competence and learn to evaluate their own boundaries when playing and learning in nature.

"We want to teach Kiwi kids to be safe for the diversity of water environments and conditions they may engage with, which can all change quickly and dramatically in this country."

"Our study promotes the value of learning in these places and allowing children the opportunity and freedom to explore their limits in nature, but doing so in a safe way such as swimming between patrolled beach flags."

Water Safety New Zealand CEO Jonty Mills says the organisation would like to see Water Skills for Life taught in every New Zealand primary school, and being able to maximise the use of natural resources would help with access to aquatic education.

"These results around the retention of taught knowledge indicate there are additional benefits to teaching in these environments, as well as being enjoyable and fun, which is what Water Skills for Life is all about,” says Mills

"Aquatic education needs to prepare our children for life in New Zealand. Any opportunity to give them experience in open water in a safe and controlled way is a massive positive for any child's development in this country."


The benefits of teaching aquatic education in open water


Children learn these skills with Water Skills For Life

Click on each link to read about what's involved with each activity.

Water safety and awareness skills
  • Recognise an emergency for yourself or others. Know who to call for help and how
  • Know, understand and respect water safety rules, hazards and risks around the home, farm and around pools
  • Know, understand and respect water safety rules, hazards and risk in natural environments such as at the beach, offshore, river or lake.
  • Know, understand and respect water safety rules, hazards and risks for water activities such as swimming, water sports and boating
  • Know how and why t make safe decisions for yourself and others
  • Know how to recognise hypothermia and how to treat it
Getting in and out of the water
  • Get in and out of the water safely in any environment.
  • Perform this sequence with a buddy watching: check the depth of the water, check that the area is safe, jump into deep water, float on back for 1 minute to control breathing, return to edge and exit
Going under the water - Submersion
  • Get under water, open eyes and control breathing
  • Pick up an object from under the water
  • Dive from a horizontal position in the water and move underwater for a slow count to five
Floating on the water - Personal Buoyancy
  • Float, then regain feet
  • Control breathing while floating on back for at least 1 minute
  • Scull head-first and/or scull feet first for at least 3 minutes
  • Tread water for at least 3 minutes in deep water
  • Perform this sequence in deep water: correctly fit a lifejacket then tread water, scull, float or a mixture for 3 minutes while controlling breathing. Then return to edge and get out of the water
  • Perform this sequence for five minutes: signal for help while treading water, sculling, floating, or a mixture, and while controlling breathing
Rolling and turning in the water - Orientation
  • Horizontal rotation (front to back and back to front)
  • Horizontal to vertical rotation and vice versa (front or back to upright and return)
  • Vertical rotation (half rotation and full rotation) around the body’s vertical axis
What to do in an emergency - Safety of self and others
  • Float and signal for help with and without a flotation aid
  • Do a reach rescue and a throw rescue with a buddy
  • Perform this sequence: correctly fit a lifejacket, do a step entry into deep water, float in the H.E.L.P. position, then with a couple of buddies or a group form a huddle, return to edge and get out
Moving through the water - Propulsion
  • Move 15m non-stop, using any form of propulsion
  • Move through the water environments of all kinds (currents, waves, depth – in situ or simulated)
  • Move 50m and/or 3 minutes non-stop, confidently and competently – using any form of propulsion on their side, front, back, or a mixture
  • Move 100m and/or 5 minutes non-stop, confidently and competently – using any form of propulsion on their side, front, back, or a mixture


Click here for the directory to contact a Water Skills for Life instructor.
Click here for Database User Guide and School Resources


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