Not long ago, a mother-of-three was refused entry to a Sydney pool because of its policy of one adult for every child aged under six.
It’s true drownings can and do happen at public pools. Active supervision means focusing all of your attention on your children all of the time, when they are in, on or around the water.
But with a bit of policy and institutional support, we can make it easier for solo parents to go to the local pool with kids in tow.
Our research in progress suggests a group called Surfing Mums, a social network administered by and for women, may provide an instructive example.
Pools are not just for swimming
In Australia, public swimming pools are significant community assets. Their importance as community anchors are often obscured until we hear of plans to close them or reduce their funding.
The average Australian visits a local pool more than four times a year - that figure is equal to more than 100 million visits annually.
For women and children, swimming remains one of the most popular forms of physical activity.
And public pools are not just for swimming laps. Many also feature spas, river rides, water slides, wave pools, hydrotherapy pools and water spray grounds. Little wonder, then, swimming and other water activities are growing more popular for sport, fitness, rehabilitation and fun.
Publicly funded pools are also important sites for social connection and belonging. For people who live alone or spend long periods at home with kids, without adult conversation, the pool is a crucial part of social and physical life.
For women with children, physical activity is important, especially post-partum. Swimming after giving birth may help restore muscle tone. It also boosts strength and energy, which may be sapped after pregnancy and childbirth.
But just how public is the public pool?
Historically, woman’s admission to and freedoms in these public spaces were closely regulated and mediated by segregation and notions of modesty. For example, woman’s aquatic dress was highly regulated to ensure decorum and propriety. Significant restrictions were placed on when and where women could bathe.
While formal restrictions of this kind no longer exist, access and usage for some women to these important public spaces can be limited.
We need to find new ways to make it easier for mums and dads to get to the pool, and ensure they can have a swim too.
So, in light of the clear need for active supervision, how can swimming pools foster the joys of childhood swimming, regarded by many as an Australian birthright?
‘Surfing mums’ at the pool
Perhaps local governments and commercial pool operators can learn a thing or two from Surfing Mums, a social network developed by two mothers who met up regularly to mind each other’s children while the other surfed.
Surfing Mums is like a playgroup, but with benefits like full public liability insurance and affiliation with the national body, Surfing Australia.
The “surf swap” system sees mums in the group partner up with one another. While one supervises the kids, the other goes for a surf and then they swap.
If used in a pool environment this swap system would ensure children are actively supervised at all times, thereby meeting Royal Lifesaving and state government policies and guidelines.
The adult supervising children would be identified by a hat and brightly coloured shirt and would not enter the water with children while the swap was in progress.
This approach means miscommunications regarding supervision, identified as a contributing factor to drowning fatalities, can be redressed.
Creative strategies can boost access
The result? Active supervision of children, safe pool access and enjoyment for women and their families, all while parents reap the physical benefits swimming offers.
While primary supervision through this network is a focus, there may also be opportunities to provide mothers with important skills and knowledge relevant to secondary drowning prevention through learning resuscitation and lifesaving skills.
For governments at all levels this kind of initiative would have far-reaching benefits, particularly in linguistically and culturally diverse populations where swim safety skills are often less developed.
A pool-swap style system might not be the only or final answer. But creative strategies which enable supervision, connection and friendships just might keep us afloat.
You can read more articles from our summer series on public pools here.