Tairua Surf Life Saving Club partners with school to bring beach safety education into the curriculum

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

It's our big blue backyard, but we are dying out there - and not every east coast Coromandel kid knows how to be safe in the ocean.

A new partnership between a school and its local surf life saving club is challenging that.

Life saving knowledge and the learning benefits of a risky and unstable natural environment is part of the everyday learning for every kid in Tairua.

Despite the red traffic light system, Tairua School has partnered with Tairua Surf Life Saving Club to bring outdoor beach safety education using the equipment and skills of lifeguards into the regular curriculum.

All students are taking part in the programme that the partners hope will continue for five years.

Club president Tony Cheetham says it's a continuation of its goal to draw in more locals and upskill the community after an appalling year of drownings nationally.

The 2020-21 Beach & Coastal Safety Report shows that New Zealand has a 44 per cent higher 10-year average beach and coastal fatal drowning rate per capita than Australia.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand is saying "enough is enough" and supports water safety and public sector collaboration to tackle our dire drowning figures.

The organisation is also highlighting the need for significant and sustained investment in public education strategies and campaigns for beach and coastal safety.

Getting the programme into the school curriculum is an extension of the Tairua SLS club's Saturday programme, as opposed to "block" nippers programmes held over the busy holiday peak which tended to attract children of bach owners.

Principal Brendan Finn and Tairua Surf Life Saving Club have a joint goal to cut drownings and increase local participation in the club. 

Tairua School principal Brendan Finn says the progression witnessed by teachers is mindblowing.

Last week the senior students swam 200m offshore at Tairua Beach and every child - regardless of their baseline water confidence - has shown improvement.

"Kids can be confident in the pool but it's a completely different environment 200m off the beach. We're blown away with the programme and the progress we're seeing. We're seeing significant growth in our kids' confidence in the water.

"We're saving lives here, that's how I see it."

Tony Cheetham said while the local community lives around the beach, everyone can gain a deeper understanding of the environment they live in and SLS had the equipment and trained professionals to help.

"The SLSC occupies that operational function of patrolling the beach but it can also provide that extra education and involvement with its local community. That's a great opportunity for us as a club. We really like that and see that as important."

The club has applied for funding for the programme to continue.

"We'll make it work however it can but with funding it allows us to look at paying instructors and get in gear and equipment that can be used for the programme," says Tony.

"If we bring in more local kids through this programme, those who are more confident in the water have an opportunity to show leadership, and there's then an opportunity for paid work."

Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield leads the surf life saving programme with guards including former Tairua students now highly qualified and experienced in real-life rescues.

He says there's no better place in Tairua than its surf for teaching young brains, particularly those belonging to boys in the 8 years to 16 years age group, about risks, choices and consequences.

"It's the sea. It's changing, there are waves, there's fear involved. All these things that get lost in a mollycoddled society."

He says exposing kids to risk but minimising the bad outcomes and giving them to option to learn is how the frontal lobes develop.

This is where the training and equipment of surf life saving guards comes in.

"When they're young they climb trees, but from Years 7 and 8 they need to be exposed to risk because that's how the prefrontal lobes develop.

"The emotional midline of the brain is well-developed when you are born whereas the prefrontal cortex of the brain develops as a teen.

"I'm a firm believer that when you are in an unstable outdoor environment, they become the adolescents that understand the consequence of their behaviour, 'if I do this, this will happen', and that's about choices in risky environments.

"When they're 18 and driving a Subaru, they're going to benefit if they have been exposed to an unstable outdoor environment. My preference is for them to do it in some sort of controlled way."

The Tairua-based professor says he also wants Kiwis to turn back the clock and once again become the most active population in the OECD.

"In 20 years, we've gone from that position to the middle of the pack.

"For example a classic Dunedin study on kids born in the early 70s held a beep test to assess their fitness. Their kids have now reached that same age of 12 years old, and it found they are 25 per cent less fit than their parents were."

Brendan Finn says while the sea is on his school's doorstep, the risk management, student-teacher ratios required and equipment is not available through a standardised education model.

"The sad thing is people look at outdoor education and think 'it's too hard, and decide not to do it. The only casualty is the kids who miss out on some really important learning.

"Our Years 7 and 8s are the next generation who will be protecting us on the beach, it's just an epic programme to be part of and we're indebted to Grant Schofield and the team at SLS Tairua."

He said the red traffic light system should not be a barrier.

"You still can get these programmes over the line, it's a matter of doing your homework."

Report Findings:

• Nearly three in 10 New Zealanders cannot swim or float in the ocean for more than a few minutes.

• Only 9 per cent of New Zealand adults swam further than 50m in the ocean in 2021, while over one quarter have never swum this distance in the ocean.

• Over the last 10 years, other ethnicities had the highest fatal drowning rate per capita (2.49 per 100,000 pop) followed by Pasifika (1.28) and Māori (1.15).

• Males are drowning more than females on our beaches and coastline. Of those who died from drowning over the last 10 years, males represent 87 per cent and females 13 per cent.

• Over the last 10 years, 38 cent of beach and coastal drownings occurred at a surf beach in New Zealand. Rip currents are the greatest hazard at a surf beach.

• Waikato recorded 62 drowning claims over the past decade, the second-highest behind Auckland's 95. January was historically the most dangerous month for drownings over the past decade.

• Of the swimming-related claims, 17 occurred at the beach, 12 at rivers, and five at lakes. Another 33 did not specify where the drowning happened.

Article and image credit - with thanks to Alison Smith @ Bay of Plenty Times