Teach your kids to respect the power of the ocean

It pretty much does what it wants, to be honest.
A young child standing alone at the edge of a bright blue ocean, playing in the foam.

The ocean is a big place, and children are so small. Samantha Hartley / Unsplash

From jumping the white-water to surfing breaking waves, the ocean is a lifelong playground. But it’s also a place of hidden dangers. The placid seas that you swam in before lunch could change drastically by midday: rip locations are never constant; calm waters can be replaced with fierce currents; waves can grow exponentially with approaching storms. So it’s important to not only expose kids to the wonders of the ocean, but make them aware of the often invisible hazards.

Help them learn to identify rip currents

While it might seem safest to go into the ocean where the water looks peaceful—where the waves aren’t breaking—these calm areas are typically the most dangerous. Imagine the shoreline without water for a moment. If you started pumping water back into the ocean from the land, how would it travel? Like all water, it would follow the slopes or the path of least resistance. One reason that breaker-free spot looks ostensibly calm is because water rushing back out to sea is colliding with and muting a wave. That’s a rip current: an underwater river, essentially, that pulls you out to sea.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rip currents result in tens of thousands of lifeguard rescues on both US coasts and approximately 100 deaths each year. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) states that approximately 80 percent of all rescues are caused by rip currents.

Sylvia Wolff, who worked for a decade as an ocean rescue division chief in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and who created a junior lifeguard program (among other ocean safety programs for young children), builds models of rips with her junior guards to show how these dangerous currents work. By digging out the letter “T” in the sand—with the top bar parallel to the shoreline and the vertical part running perpendicular—Wolff shows kids how an incoming wave fills the T. Then the water in the top bar races down into the vertical part of the letter to flow out to sea, duplicating the river-like effect of a rip current.

When I worked as an ocean lifeguard at a surf camp in San Diego, we began each week of camp with a class called Sand, Waves, and Rips, teaching campers about how these elements affect the ocean and its visitors. At the end of the class, a lifeguard would take the kids (in life jackets) into the rip current ever-present beside the jetty to show them how quickly a rip could pull a person out to sea. Then, the kids learned how to escape the rip. You should not attempt this lesson with your kids, but you can show them the power of rip currents by dropping a piece of seaweed into the water and watching it get sucked out to sea.

Before going into the water, sit with kids to identify rips. Typically, look for areas where waves are not breaking; where there might be ripples on the surface; where sand might be churned up from the bottom of the ocean. (Keep in mind, surfers tend to enter the water at rip currents. But that’s because surfers want to get pulled out to where the waves are breaking.) Explain to kids that rip currents don’t always travel perpendicular to the shoreline; they can cut diagonally, too. Typically, strong rip currents are ever-present next to a jetty or pier, as these objects are pressing the sand down, causing a slope.

Break the grip of the rip

If caught in a rip current, don’t swim against it. A public campaign promoted by USLA and the National Weather Service runs the slogan, “Break the grip of the rip.” Largely, it’s about remaining calm and recognizing that the rip can be stronger and faster than even an Olympic swimmer.

“The No. 1 thing is never panic,” says Wolff.

Rip currents don’t pull you down, they pull you out to sea. Remaining calm, having know-how, and being able to swim are all you need to get out of a rip. If caught, swim parallel to the shore. When demonstrating how a rip works with a T-model, for instance, also show children which way to swim, as giving instructions with parallel and perpendicular directives might not be as clear.

Another way to demonstrate the power of a rip current is to walk toward your child, preferably a small one, and instruct them to push you backward, (which I’m assuming they cannot). Explain that you are the rip current. If they want to break the grip of the rip, they would need to move to the side. (Make sure to extend your arms to the side to show them that if they don’t swim far enough away, the rip can pull them back in and push them back out.)

[Related: It’s surprisingly hard to tell if someone is drowning, so we made you a guide]

Remind kids that if they do find themselves pulled out by a rip current and are unable to swim in, they should signal to the lifeguards by waving or shouting. There’s nothing embarrassing about being overpowered by the ocean.

Teach kids to watch how the water moves

Another thing to monitor from the shoreline are cross currents. If you’re standing on the beach and see that swimmers and surfers are traveling quickly to the right or left, explain to your children that strong currents are responsible for moving people down the beach. While getting pulled to the left or the right isn’t dangerous in and of itself, there are many risks associated with this sweep. A cross current can pull you into a jetty or some other hazard, out of view of parents and lifeguards, or into a rip current farther down the beach. Teach kids to keep their eyes on a fixed object on the land—a house, boardwalk ramp, or lifeguard stand is best. Choosing a bright umbrella might not work, as those can disappear. If beach flags are set up, use those as markers too. They indicate the end of a swim zone because some hazard or rip lurks nearby.

Explain to kids that if they see themselves nearing a rock wall or pier, they must get out of the water when they’re still far away. Noticing a hazard at the last minute and trying to do something about it could mean trouble.

Ensure they know their limits and surroundings

Sometimes the waves are too big and the currents too severe. Just because you swam out 20 yards from the shoreline yesterday doesn’t mean that the same distance is safe today. Parents and children should have conversations about where they are permitted to go in the ocean, what to watch for, and how things are different from the last time.

Understand that the lifeguards aren’t just positioned on the beach to rescue you. They know about the dangers. So, if you’re not sure where to swim or where a rip current might be located, check with the lifeguards beforehand. (If they seem indifferent to your query and avoid making eye contact, that’s a good thing; they’re watching the public.) Remind kids to pay attention to the lifeguards, too. Flags, whistles, and hand gestures are all the ways they might attempt to communicate a nearby threat.

Remember these other important tips

Whenever you head to the water, check local ocean and beach forecasts, which will advise of potential dangers. Swim with a buddy. Swim where there are lifeguards. (According to the USLA, the chance of drowning when lifeguards are present is 1 in 18 million.) And finally, avoid the ocean if you’re not a strong swimmer; even knee-deep waters can be dangerous, as waves can knock you down and rips can pull you much deeper.