On Thursday afternoon, fourth grade students from Florence-Carlton School practiced their dives from the deck of the pool at the YMCA, reveling in an opportunity they lost last year due to the pandemic.
Normally, only third graders participate in the Swim, Play and Learn Aquatic Safety Habits, or SPLASH!, program hosted by the Missoula Family YMCA. But after last year's cohort missed out because of COVID-19, educators at Florence-Carlton School wanted to make sure the now fourth graders still learned these skills.
“It’s just a great chance for kids who might have grown up on a lake and never learned how to do all the swim strokes or kids who just haven’t had access to either swimming or going to lakes or rivers with their family,” said Kathryn Streit, a fourth grade teacher at Florence-Carlton School. “It’s a good combination of hands-on safety learning — it’s awesome.”
Streit said her students were disappointed to see this year's third graders load into buses to head to the Missoula Family YMCA for the program recently because they missed out last year. It was third-grade teacher Sara Kiffe’s idea to invite the fourth graders this year as well.
Missoula Family YMCA Aquatics Director Rose Kahane was happy to have them join.
"My head exploded — why didn't I think of this?" Kahane said. "I think it's genius because they missed it last year and we were able to get them in."
Over four days, students are directed through four different skill sets, including basic swimming, rescue, watercraft safety and outdoor safety. The program meets students where they are in terms of skills and allows kids to work their way up to the deep end.
The four stations are set in the corners of the 25-yard long pool. In the shallow end students practice swim strokes, safety floats and rescue techniques. The deep end is for diving and watercraft safety.
At the watercraft safety station, instructors teach students the importance of wearing a life jacket and take them out in the pool in a canoe before tipping it over.
Elliot Richards, a fourth grader at Florence-Carlton, said getting tipped in the canoe was a little scary, but she had a lot of fun. She also learned new tips on how to be safe and offer someone help in a water-rescue situation.
“If someone’s stuck and maybe needs help out of the water, you want to get on your stomach and lay down,” Elliot said. “That way you don’t fall in the water, too.”
She said she’s excited to have the skills for when she goes swimming at Flathead Lake this summer.
Collin Craun, one of Elliot’s classmates, already knew a lot of the specific swimming strokes before attending the program, but still learned important skills, too.
“I learned a lot about diving, and board and rescue,” Collin said.
Normally the program partners with Missoula County Public Schools and other outlying districts. Due to the pandemic, many schools, like MCPS, are not participating in off-campus field trips this year. In a typical year over 600 students participate in the program, according to Kahane.
“The whole idea is we want to bring these kids and teach them water safety skills,” Kahane said.
The program has been around for nearly 20 years, but was interrupted last year during the pandemic. By the time Kahane had to hit the brakes due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and restrictions, only four schools had made it through the program.
Kahane said the pandemic’s impact was deflating because she had spent the last 13 years increasing participation across the region. She is eager to connect with other educators to continue to grow the program in the future.