A main theme that runs throughout the majority of serious aquatic incidents that involve children is the lack of parental supervision at the time of the incident. And, though it seems like something rather simple, getting parents to properly supervise their children proves to be one of the most difficult tasks that waterpark operators face. Whether parents feel like their children are strong enough swimmers and don’t need their help, or they relax because the park has lifeguards on duty, the operator’s challenge is to promote the message that parents are the first line of defense when it comes to their own children’s safety. This article will outline several ways that facilities can add layers of protection to educate and encourage parents to take ownership of their children’s safety while they are in your park.
Getting the message across actually starts before guests arrive at the waterpark. Parks need to make sure they are promoting safety through their website, social media and promotional literature. It could be as simple as putting a “Parents: Watch your children” graphic on the homepage, or being very intentional about adding safety themed messages throughout Facebook status updates and tweets. Operators need to keep the “rules” page on their website updated and add in safety rules that lay out the requirements for parental supervision, something to the tune of “Children under the age of 7 must be accompanied by an adult at all times.” And, don’t forget to add the message to flyers, brochures and other park advertisements. Letting guests know the safety expectations before they visit the park will provide for an enhanced atmosphere of safety and better educated guests.
The next opportunity for education and safety awareness comes when guests arrive at the facility. Operators should not shy away from educating their guests through signage, employee to guest communication and policies and procedures. If the park’s expectation is for parents to supervise their children at all times, then that message must be communicated effectively, consistently and repetitiously. And, proper staff training is an essential part of this process. The waterpark operator needs to ensure that their staff is well informed of park policies, rules and expectations, as well as properly trained to communicate those to the guests as they come into the park.
At my old facility we started the process several years ago by placing signs at the very front of our park stating “Children under the age of 7 must be accompanied by an adult at all times.” We then reinforced this signage next to the ticket window, and also throughout the park on portable signs. Though the new signage helped, we realized that an additional step of employee to guest communication was still needed. The next summer our guest services staff started placing a wristband on every guest under the age of 7 that states in both English and Spanish “I am under the age of 7 - I must be with an adult.” While the wristband is being placed on the guest, it gives our staff a great opportunity to reinforce the safety message to the parent. “I’m placing this wristband on your child as a reminder for both of you to stay with each other at all times.” We have also added a safety graphic to the back of our lifeguarding staff shirts that reads, “If your child is in the water then you should be too!” Use any and every opportunity that you can to promote this message to your guests.
Park staff also needs to be aware of the parent to child ratio for groups, camps and daycares. Ratios should be clearly posted at the entrance to the park, and consistently enforced by staff. Even if the group leaders understand that it’s their responsibility to supervise all of the children that come to the park with them, they may not be able to adequately do so. This is where staff can get involved to promote and enforce the proper adult to child ratios before guests enter the park to ensure that not just supervision occurs, but effective supervision.
In addition to the signage at the entrance to the park, signage should be created to place around lifejackets bins since those are typically high-traffic areas for parents with children. The signage should not only spell out how to properly put on a lifejacket, but also that lifejackets are not a replacement for parental supervision. Parents need to be reminded that just because they put their child in a lifejacket, it doesn’t mean they can shirk out of their responsibility to keep an eye on them.
The next step to creating a culture of safety awareness and parental supervision is having a staff that will proactively enforce the message. Be sure to train the management team, guest services and lifeguard staff to be on the lookout for unattended children and distracted parents. Park staff should be trained to be proactive when they see these situations so they don’t turn into something worse. If staff see a parent relaxing in the shade while their six-year old plays in the water, they need to be trained how to address the issue and enforce the park’s rules. Or, if a lifeguard sees a four-year old entering the wave pool without a parent, train them to call management ASAP or, better yet, to go ahead jump in. There’s no shame in making a “rescue” before it becomes a real rescue. When it doubt, check it out!
Creating a culture of safety at a waterpark through guest education and enforcement is no small task. It takes a lot of planning, training and commitment, but in the end our parks will be much safer if we can better train parents to do one simply thing, watch their children.