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Water Safety New Zealand

Are our kids learning to swim? Or are they learning to survive?

Updated: 4 days ago

Developing vital survival skills for open water environments to improve chances of survival when things go wrong.

Opinion: Water Safety New Zealand Interventions Manager Esther Hone

Someone asked me recently what my mission was. I liked the question! To put it really simply – I’m trying to influence New Zealand that water safety is about so much more than just wearing life jackets.

My mission is supporting the evolution of New Zealand’s aquatic industry to make water survival skills part of how and what they’re teaching our tamariki.

I passionately believe in the competencies of Water Skills for Life. I’m hunting down a world where its core skills and knowledge are the foundation for every water-based education programme in the country. If this was our reality, we can prepare our next generation and make a huge difference to the future of New Zealand’s drowning numbers.

What’s simulated open water education all about?

Right now, we have more than 50 providers using the Water Skills for Life programme around the country. Alongside our continuing work with the Ministry of Education to integrate fundamental aquatic skills and aquatic literacy into the school curriculum. All of this work is about teaching water skills with purpose.

It is not about stroke technique or just being comfortable in the water – it’s about putting ‘the why’ behind everything. It’s all about purpose-based skills and knowledge.  

The shift to simulated open water education goes deeper to focus on scenarios where the student uses critical thinking – to make real decisions by exploring and experimenting. We know experiential learning stays with us for life. By learning about the hazards and potential dangers of open water in a simulated environment the student is much more likely to draw on those skills and knowledge if and when they ever face them in the real world.

Real-World workshops

We designed our recent Real-World workshops for Water Skills for Life educators in a way that they, as educators, can pass on the knowledge and scenarios to others in their programme. Each scenario emphasises the importance of understanding why each skill matters in open water.


Scenarios are designed to simulate various water-related emergencies and test students' ability to respond effectively to different challenges. By immersing students in realistic scenarios, they can practice essential skills such as staying calm in emergencies, signalling for help, and safely navigating through changing water conditions.

Each scenario provides a structured sequence of actions, allowing Water Skills for Life educators to assess students' abilities to handle unexpected situations and make informed decisions under pressure. Through these simulations, students gain valuable experience and confidence in their ability to stay safe and assist others in water-related emergencies.

Getting real – what’s next?

The four workshops were such a great learning opportunity for all of us involved in Water Skills for Life. It was great to be with people face to face and there were definitely a lot of laughs with all the serious business in the pool. I’m estimating around 20 per cent of the industry working with Water Skills for Life came away understanding how to apply real world into their lessons. Identifying this in-person was very important so I can specify what support and resources I need to create to better support everyone on this part of the Water Skills for Life journey.

I want our aquatic industry to come together and all be part of the solution to reduce our drowning rates. To achieve this, we need swim schools and aquatic educators to understand where drownings are occurring in our communities and work out how they can integrate these environments and activities into their programmes. Together it is our responsibility to give our tamariki a better chance of survival when things go wrong.

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