Learn to Swim

A guide to the Learn to Swim Programme

The 7 factors to consider when swimming outdoors versus a swimming pool

Learning to swim in a warm swimming pool is great for building the confidence and ability of children when they are learning to swim.

However, it’s really important for parents and guardians to be aware of seven key differences between swimming in that pool versus going for a swim in an outdoor setting, such as a lake, river or the sea.

1) Temperature 🌡️

An average swimming pool is a nice even 29°C. Children will learn to swim in their lessons in these conditions which are vitally important to build their water competence and to ensure they can practise the skills to make them safer in all water settings.

In contrast to this, outdoor water temperatures in the UK  can be as low as 2°C in the winter, with the average summer sea temperature being just 16°C. At this temperature, our bodies ‘cold water shock’ reaction markedly increases.

If a child immerses into water like this it will cause them to gasp sharply, and possibly inhale the water around them, also their heart rate and breathing rate increase uncontrollably.

If they try to swim hard or panic this causes lots of splash and may cause them to inhale enough water to start the drowning process.

However, if they remain calm after 60 to 90 seconds, they should begin to regain control of their breathing and their heart rate should recover.  At this point, they should signal for help or move to safety.

Swim failure can occur in as little as 10 minutes in 10°C water. As the nerves and muscles in the arms and legs begin to cool, this results in movement becoming uncoordinated, which can result in a child being unable to stay afloat without assistance.

Temperature is also not consistent outdoors as currents, thermoclines* and upwelling* can cause the temperature to change in a matter of metres.

*Thermoclines – an abrupt temperature gradient in a body of water such as a lake.

*Upwelling – this is a process in which deep, cold water rises toward the surface.

2) Currents 🌀

Whether inland or at the coast, outdoor water is always moving. At the coast, currents can be driven by daily tidal movements, changing wind direction or the movement of water from incoming waves back out to sea (rip currents).

Children should always be supervised in these outdoor water settings, and it’s best to visit lifeguarded beaches and ensure children swim between the red and yellow flags.

Also, before you head out it is good practice to check the tide tables, so you don’t get caught out.

During the summer months, you can book your child onto a Swim Safe session near you. Swim Safe teaches youngsters how to stay safe in and around open water – and what to do if they, or someone else, gets into difficulty. Find out more

Inland, rivers flow at varying rates with eddies* and helicoidally flow* often go unseen below a calm surface. Even lakes can be affected by inflows and outflows and the wind can cause movements.

*Eddies – this refers to water currents that move upstream and typically form behind an obstruction (e.g. surface rocks).

*Helicoidal flow – a corkscrew movement of water which is thought to transport eroded material downstream from one meander bend to the next.

3) Entries and exits ⛔

Getting in and out of the water is very different to a swimming pool, while some beaches may have gently sloping sandy entries, many don’t. Mud, stones, steep drop-offs can all cause problems entering and exiting the water.

Tidal movements and changes in water levels can also make previously safe entry or exit points dangerous in a short amount of time.

4) Weather 🌩️

The weather can have a significant effect on the outdoor swimming experience. Unfortunately, in the UK our water companies have permission to discharge raw sewage into the rivers and sea when the system is overwhelmed, this happens regularly after rain.

Shocked by this? Help us fight for cleaner waters, better access and increased safety in outdoor swimming settings by signing our Outdoor Pledge today.

We can all help the situation by only putting the 3Ps (Poo, Pee and Paper) down the drain and avoid clogging up sewers with baby wipes, cooking fats and other things that should not go down the drain.

Wind can cause waves that make it difficult to swim in, inflatables are for the pool and should not be used when swimming outdoors.

It is also extremely dangerous to swim outdoors in thunderstorms.

5) Physical hazards ⚠️

Manmade and natural hazards can often cause problems; piers, groynes, old infrastructure, abandoned items, and litter can all cause problems as well as other water users.

Natural hazards like rocks, weeds and overhanging or fallen tree branches can all be hidden under the water, the varying depth of water can also make jumping in very dangerous.

6) Visibility 🌫️

Our swimming pools are always clear, allowing us to see where we are swimming and putting our feet down, this isn’t always the case outdoors.

Judging distances is also more difficult outdoors, every year people are caught out when they misjudge the distance they are planning to swim.

7) Wildlife 🦢

While we don’t have a large amount of deadly wildlife in the UK there are a few animals that can cause problems (Weaver fish, Jellyfish, Swans) and we should always take care to be considerate of the environment we are swimming in. Remember to give wildlife enough space.

Do it safely – follow the water safety code

  • Stop and Think – Always Swim in a Safe Place – this is a lifeguarded beach, supervised venue or as part of an organised group.
  • Stay Together – Always Swim Together – parents/carers should keep young children within arm’s reach even at a lifeguarded beach or supervised venue. Older more competent swimmers should swim together as well as letting someone onshore know their plan and when they will be back.
  • Float – If you fall in or get into difficulty float until you get your breath back, know how to signal for help by putting one hand straight up in the air and shouting for help. Then know how to self-rescue.
  • Call 999 – If someone else is in trouble or you can’t self-rescue call 999, do not enter the water to attempt a rescue. Shout, Reach or Throw to help someone if you have been trained and then know how to do CPR.

Download your own water safety guide, so you have the best knowledge to keep children safe in the outdoor swimming settings.