Water Safety

One of the things I find overwhelming as a school parent in Japan is the sheer amount of paperwork that comes home. In front of me I have an info sheet reminding me that today is the annual "fall into the swimming pool with all your clothes on" so the children can learn how to save themselves if, well, they ever fall into water with all their clothes on. Isn't this interesting, that they do this with the kids every year? My husband says he only practiced doing this when he was training to become a lifeguard.

Here's the list of things the boys need to pack in their swimming bags:

navy blue school swimsuit 

swimming cap

flip flops 

swimming card (on swimming days we are supposed to take their temperature and record it and sign it and send it in. No signature, no swimming. This is a challenge for me since I almost never take their temperatures and hate having to add one more task to the morning rush)

an extra set of clothes

Shoes (this will be a tough one, as the boys only have one or two pair of shoes each and only one of those are sneakers. They're not allowed to wear crocs to school – too much running around/recess/gym class)

a two-liter empty water bottle (to use as a float?)

an empty plastic bag with no holes in it, plus one or two more for carrying wet clothes home

Swimming is taught in Japanese school, and during summer vacation the pool is open for swim class during the morning as well. Kids take swim tests to move up through fifteen different levels. I think this is generally a good thing, although the water is freezing apparently. My Japanese friends are surprised to hear that most schools in the US don't have their own pools (I don't know of any at all, in fact). Swimming is a part of the national curriculum here.

Here's a photo from the annual "pool opening day" – every year there is a little ceremony with speeches and skits (including role playing what NOT to do around the pool – some of the older kids pretend to fool around, much to the delight of the little ones), then the kids go into the pool for the first time that school year. The ones in yellow hats are first graders – they're the only ones who don't go into the pool on the first day.


The first graders are wearing their gym uniforms, too – white tops with navy bottoms. Usually they wear a red cap instead of the yellow hats. There's a fondness for hats here!

Notice the lovely urban backdrop? That's what life is like in Tokyo. I am envious of those of you who have a nice view out your windows. Enjoy it.

Here's a photo of some kids walking home on one of the quiet narrow streets that abound here, on their way towards the bigger streets. The first graders (in the yellow hats) also put a yellow cover on their backpacks so that they'll be more visible. The little tiny bags hanging off their backpacks are bags containing their lunch mats (placemats) and a toothbrush. I don't remember carrying either of those to school when I was little. 


Our boys learned to swim from us (in fact, I remember teaching B to swim when we went on a vacation in Japan and my husband remarked on how many little toddlers he saw who were able to swim). I once tried to enroll D in a Japanese swimming class that several friends were taking their children to. There were so many children, and so few teachers, and it just wasn't a gentle approach – felt more like a factory. I pulled him out because I felt in my gut that that particular class wouldn't at all suit him. Now he swims like a fish, and I'm wondering how we'll teach our daughter M to swim. She's 3 1/2 and she seems fearful of the water, but water is one of the things I feel really worried about until I know my kids are able to stay afloat on their own. 

Tell me about swimming where you live – how do most children learn to swim? How do you talk to your kids about staying safe around water? Any thoughts on helping my daughter learn to become more comfortable as she learns to swim?


10 thoughts on “Water Safety

  1. Frugal Kiwi

    When I moved down, I was blown away to find that swimming is part of the primary school curriculum in NZ. From what I’ve seen it isn’t a particularly EFFECTIVE part. Frugal Man’s almost 10-year-old son still can’t swim despite years of swimming lessons at school (plus private lessons)- not so good when you live on an island.

  2. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I wonder if swimming is taught more in island countries? Like you say, I’m not sure how effective the actual swimming classes at school are – too much to do in such a short period of time. My impression is that the kids who swim the best are supplementing with swimming time and/or lessons outside of school.

  3. Alisa Bowman

    Wow, this is fascinating to me on so many levels. One, Japan has so little space, so it’s really unusual that they would take up so much of it with a big pool at every school. It must really be a priority. Here in the states the government doesn’t teach anything that can be commercialized. Therefore we pay for swim lessons at private pools–otherwise you just don’t learn how to do it. My high school had a pool and swimming was mandatory, which is kind of weird to me considering they don’t teach kids to swim at an earlier age in schools, so how can they assume that all high schoolers know how?

  4. Natalie

    My two year old has been taking lessons since she was 6 months old. The classes are parent child classes until the kids turn three. We go in together and play games and sing songs. They work on very few skills at this age. They try to get the kids to blow bubbles and kick, and they try to teach them to hold on to the wall with their hands and put their feet against it. (It’s called the monkey grip. You’d think at such a young age that they wouldn’t have a clue what you’re trying to get them to do, but surprisingly, they often do.) Mostly, the classes are about playing and getting comfortable with water. If my daughter doesn’t want to do something, we just don’t. I’ll try to encourage her, but I won’t force her. The instructors don’t mind if you and your baby wander off in these classes. My daughter seems to be very fond of her teachers. She’s eager to please them, and talks about them when we’re at home. Overall, she’s become very fond of the water and the pool.

  5. Cris

    My 3-yr old has been taking lessons on and off for a year, but I’ve been taking her to the pool since she was a few months old. She’s happiest in the water – I’m not exaggerating. She wants to sleep in her swimsuits, too. The longer you wait, the more likely a child is to be scared of the water, so start asap. You can toss a two month old into the water and they will naturally hold their breath (it’s some kind of reflex at a young age), thus the nirvana album cover. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, but we did do lots of baby and then toddler exercises from a great book called “Water Babies” on a regular basis.

  6. Francesca

    Swimming pools in schools? Schools in this country barely have desks and boards! We live by the sea, and because both my boys were terrified of the water when they were little, so I took them to swimming classes from early on. They actually didn’t learn to swim there, but at least got comfortable around water (their first lesson all they had to do was put their head under water and blow air bubbles). Very interesting to learn about japanese school curricula!

  7. MarthaAndMe

    There are pools at the middle and high schools in our school district. I learned to swim in those pools by taking lessons at night when I was in elementary school. My kids also took lessons but both hated them, so we stopped and they basically learned to swim in the pool in our backyard. Everyone here hates swimming in school and completely dreads the prospect of it.

  8. Cricket

    I’m sorry I don’t have any advice about swimming – my kids take private lessons and we don’t even have a town pool, much less pools at the schools.
    I love your pictures, though, and your snippets about life in Tokyo. The first graders hats are freaking adorable!

  9. ana @ imadeitso.com

    this is something i feel very strongly about. in canada, we are surrounded by lakes and open waters, and yet, there’s very little emphasis on water safety (at least through the schools). i think it’s a skill we all should have. i didn’t learn to swim until later in life, and i want my children to be strong swimmers. they’ve been in lessons from a very young age… it’s interesting how the attitude towards this varies from one region to another.
    very interesting read, thank you.


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