By Dominic Moore ’05
It’s the middle of the school day in New York City and classrooms from the Bronx to Brooklyn are full. But for many of the city’s 70,000 second graders at more than 130 schools, learning takes place in an entirely different kind of setting: the local indoor pool. Entire classes of second graders have traded in schoolbooks for swim goggles as part of an innovative program to teach swimming skills and improve physical health.
Peter Kohnstamm ’71, the director of Swim for Life, is the creator of this groundbreaking public health initiative, pairing New York City public school children with qualified swim instructors and indoor pool facilities. Not only an important skill, the ability to swim can literally mean the difference between life and death. Accidental drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related death among children under 14, and the toll is borne disproportionately by minority groups.
“I vividly remember the events of the summer of 2010, in which seven children drowned in New York City,” says Kohnstamm. “I was determined to do something so that those tragedies would not happen again.”
Building on a proven model of swimming education, Kohnstamm targeted second graders and worked to build a network of more than 30 participating recreation centers with indoor pools. “It is a good age group to teach children to swim and it is an efficient use of our resources,” Kohnstamm says. “The pools are open but underutilized during the middle of the school day at that time and we can make use of school buses which are already operating.” As a way to overcome fear of the water, entire classes go together. The children are then placed in small groups, six per swim instructor for 10 lessons during 10 weeks of the school year.
Drawing on talented staff provided by each recreation center, children rapidly gain proficiency in the water, and when they complete the program successfully, they also receive a free membership in the participating recreation center—an opportunity to continue to use the pool for fun as well as exercise. “Our research shows that in some neighborhoods as many of 40% of the population doesn’t ever exercise,” Kohnstamm says. “We think this is another way to combat childhood obesity.” There are academic benefits as well. “Active kids do better in school,” he says. “The teachers tell us the students in our program are better able to concentrate in class.”
But the best reward may be in the new outlook of the kids themselves: the intangible benefits of self-esteem and personal growth.
Kohnstamm tells of a letter he received from a teacher in a Staten Island elementary school where the Swim for Life participants were so proud of learning to swim that they wore their goggles for the rest of the school day. They may be an unlikely fashion accessory, but a beloved pair of goggles speaks volumes about a newfound love of water and a confidence in their own ability to jump in the pool.