How surf education can teach kids to live in an unpredictable world

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For much of the last two years, our children lived half-lives. Bit by bit, things were taken from them – school, friends, holidays, extended family, sport and the opportunity to learn life skills, including swimming.

For my own children, aged 4, 8 and 10, it is the isolation that they struggled with the most – the way our family unit had to become the island it was never meant to be.

Children have missed out on many activities during the pandemic, including swimming lessons and family holidays.Credit:Louise Kennerley

As their world shrunk, there were consequences – to their mental health, their socialisation skills and to their safety. According to a Royal Lifesaving Society Australia report, there was a devastating 108 per cent increase in drowning in Australia for children aged zero to four in the 12 months to June 2021 compared to the previous year, and a 56 per cent increase for children in the five to 14 age group.

So, when I heard that Nippers, a beach program that introduces children to lifesaving with the emphasis on education and fun, would be going ahead this summer on a normal basis, I felt a swell of relief – not just for the practical skills my children would have the opportunity to build upon, but also because of what it could teach them on a more philosophical level.

As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn famously says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

As I walked down the steep path towards the endless expanse of sand and water on the first day of the program, I felt a familiar lump rise in my throat – that sense of gratitude that settles now whenever I glimpse life as it should be for our kids.

Nippers teaches children surf skills through fun and education.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Apart from the QR code taped to a sign, life seemed almost normal. The beach below was a neon buzz of hundreds of seven to 14-year-olds getting ready for their first activity of the day, peppered with the parent helpers and the incredible group of 15-year-old volunteer instructors – the young who give me hope for our future.

Today, I watch my daughter and her new found friends in the Under 8s from up on the dunes – their tiny sun-soaked bodies gripping the boards until a wave pummels half of them off, disappearing into an angry white froth studded with upturned boards.

On the sidelines beside me, parents are calm despite the dangers. You learn to let go, to trust the process, and your child – their judgment, their resilience. In the ocean, the water safety team are at the ready – guiding, assisting and supporting each child to assess the risks and work their way through them.

They soon emerge, running from the water, dragging boards that seem double their size with a quiet pride spread across their faces. The realisation that they can do this – giving things a go, even if it’s not their strength.

Learning to adapt, to sit alongside unpredictability, rather than fearing it or fighting it. Stuck between these uncertain years, right now it seems the greatest lesson we can teach our children.

On Championship Day, my kids will run and swim and paddle their little hearts out to be one of the lucky few that win a ribbon. However, they are well aware it’s not the winning that matters, but the fact they are able to be there at all. Grabbing the moment, cheering on their mates, losing graciously. A growing confidence in themselves and their ability to live – even thrive – in the unpredictable world around them.

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