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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

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