We need to talk about school swimming carnivals.

A recent Ausplay survey looking at Sport Participation in Australia found that swimming is still the number 1 sporting activity for children in Australia, followed closely by soccer, gymnastics, dancing, aussie rules, basketball and netball. The survey results further indicated that 59% of children (under the age of 15) participated in some form of organised sport or physical activity outside of school hours at least once a week, with 22% participating three times or more per week.
Looking at swimming specifically, AusPlay estimates that approximately a third of all Australian Children aged 0-14 participated in organised swimming out of school, with boys almost as likely as girls to take part. So you would forgive me for hoping to see a large and enthusiastic turn out at my children’s primary school swimming carnival, despite declining rates of participation in recent years.

Unfortunately, this was far from the case. Admittedly, due to Covid, many school swimming carnivals are ‘twilight’ events taking place in the evening, and I absolutely understand the pressure on families outside of school hours, so that would be one reason for reduced attendance. However in recent years, pre-covid, with the whole school in attendance, I have been consistently disappointed with the decline in the number of children who are willing and able to even attempt to swim fifty metres freestyle, with only four or five children in each gender and age group 8 – 12 years standing on the starting blocks to race – approximately 10% of the children at the school, as compared to approximately 50% a decade ago.
Ausplay reports that the peak participation rates for children’s organised out of school swimming are between 5 – 8 years old, with close to half of girls at this age (46.9%) participating. However by 12-14 years participation had decreased to just 16%.

Royal Lifesaving Australia research further supports these findings, reporting that 40 per cent of Australian 12 year olds can’t swim 50 metres of freestyle or backstroke, and one third can’t swim 25 metres of survival strokes. Frighteningly, 83 per cent of 12 year old children couldn’t tread water for two minutes – the goal for children by the time they finish primary school, and an important skill in a life threatening situation. When these sporting participation statistics are considered with the other alarming finding that 24% of children aged 5-14 are overweight or obese, it is clear that something needs to change.
We lost 248 Australians to drowning last year. We need to do all we can to improve swim skills into adolescence across the board so that we do not see this number increase in the future. The goal is zero drownings. Please, prioritise your child’s swim skills, and do all that you can to enable them to reach their swim safety milestones.