Water safety project helps tackle high drowning rates in Fiji

UniSA student, Emily Behn, celebrates achievements with her swimming students and local co-teacher, Bindu. COMMUNITY
UniSA student, Emily Behn, celebrates achievements with her swimming students and local co-teacher, Bindu.

While most Australians consider learning to swim a rite of passage, for children in some of Australia’s Asia-Pacific neighbours, it is a potentially life-threatening skills gap. Many children in Fiji aren’t taught to swim – a major contributor to the country’s high drowning rates.

Between 2014 and 2016 Dr Bec Neill and Alexandra Diamond from UniSA’s School of Education, worked in a coastal, rural community Fiji developing a preschool literacy initiative designed to improve children’s multilingual literacy. As part of the project, they became familiar with the community’s context, needs and stories.

“It was distressing to learn that so many families had relatives who had died through drowning,” says Diamond.

“Most of the adults we spoke to had never learnt to swim, and devastatingly, nine-year-old Kushal Lachman Gounder had recently drowned, which hit the community hard.

“As educators, we thought we could find a way to help prevent drowning deaths, and that’s when Dr Alison Wrench, Dr Bec Neill and I came up with the idea to develop a water safety program in the community.”

Knowing that some undergraduate teachers were also qualified swimming instructors, the UniSA team constructed a cross-cultural leaning opportunity for pre-service teachers to teach swimming to children in Fiji, while also enabling them to learn more about Fiji’s life and cultures.

With guidance from UniSA undergraduates and a local teacher, a group of children practise the correct kicking technique before re-entering the water.With guidance from UniSA undergraduates and a local teacher, a group of children practise the correct kicking technique before re-entering the water.

Successfully applying to the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP), the Fijian water safety program was established and delivered in late 2018. The New Colombo Plan is a signature initiative of the Australian Government which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region.

The project was named the Kushal Lachman Gounder Memorial Swimming and Water Safety Project (with permission from Kushal’s parents), and saw 11 AUSTSWIM-qualified swimming instructors from within the UniSA cohort of undergraduate teachers deliver a free two-week program of daily, one-hour swimming and water safety lessons to a group of 80 children aged between 4-12 years. The program of lessons focused on each child’s individual learning needs.

“On day one, some children were well on the way to swimming competence, while others were too afraid to enter the water,” Diamond says.

“To meet each child’s learning needs and to build trust, we grouped the children according to their existing abilities in relation to water and ensured that they had same teacher every lesson.

With playful support from UniSA undergraduates and a local kindergarten teacher, a group of children become more confident in the water.With playful support from UniSA undergraduates and a local kindergarten teacher, a group of children become more confident in the water.

“As their confidence grew, so too did their skills, and by the end of week two, not only did the children have much more knowledge and water safety skills, but so too did their parents.”

The curriculum included core swimming skills, recognising and responding to dangers in the water, performing rescues and being rescued, with a central focus on fun to ensure the children were motivated to learn and become water-confident.

Diamond says that the program generated immense interest from the local and broader communities, especially as the Australian students spent time engaging with local families and organisations.

“The success of the swimming and water safety program has depended on both Australian and local support,” Diamond says.

“Locally, parents and teachers from the kindergarten, school and college were all keen to support the program, and to continue to remind and educate children about water safety.

“Fiji Surf and the Fijian Lifeguard Service provided much needed expertise about local water conditions, lifeguard services, and the loan and transportation of equipment.

“Plus, the local Sangam Temple Committee offered us free use of their premises, if weather conditions prevented safe water-based lessons.

“We were also fortunate to be supported by additional funds from the Organisation Mondiale pour l’Éducation Préscolaire (South Australian branch), Rotoract and the Rotary Club of Salisbury, South Australia, and a number of South Australian families and individuals.

“Without question, it was absolutely a cross-cultural experience and effort.

“Bringing it together and watching the kids and communities learn and advance, was an important experience for all involved.”

Extending the learning, Dr Neill and others involved in the project also produced a multilingual book for young children in Fiji, Keimami Na Dau Qalo Qaqarauni / Hum Sab Safe Swimmers Hai / We Are Safe Swimmers, which not only reiterates the lessons of the project, but also provides children with a literacy resource in their home languages, a need identified in the preschool literacy initiative which first brought the UniSA team to Fiji.

The UniSA team will reapply for NCP funding to continue the learn-to-swim and water safety education project, that was highly valued by participating families and schools in Fiji.

The UniSA team and local participants gather for a photo on the last day of the project.

The UniSA team and local participants gather for a photo on the last day of the project.

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