Most of us know the common saying when it comes to diving: take only pictures, leave only bubbles, kill only time. But kids learn by touch from a very early age. Children’s books provide different textures for them to feel and explore. Gently touching the family pet introduces them to the texture of fur. Museums, aquariums and parks almost always have hands-on areas to help kids understand rough, smooth, hot, cold, etc. Many aquariums even offer “petting” times for stingrays and small sharks as well, so kids won’t know that touching marine life is a strict no-no unless you educated them.
It’s no surprise that they want to touch things while diving, so they’re confused when we suddenly tell them not to. It’s difficult for kids to remember this rule change along with all the other new information they must learn, and habits are hard to break. When it comes to kids especially, we must take extra steps to ensure that they do learn this new set of underwater rules because the stakes are much higher. Touching something in the marine world puts not only the creature in danger, but possibly the diver as well.
So how do we teach kids that touching marine life is always a no-no underwater?
Repeat and remind
Parents must cover all the diving rules again and again with kids. Parents must reinforce safety rules over and over, just like with turning off the lights and cleaning up their rooms. When you’re discussing the rules as related to touching marine life or corals, remind them how fragile the corals are. Tell your kids that they’re are actually tiny, delicate animals and even a single finger touch can make the corals very sick or kill them.
Remove the sense of security
Removing the sense of security may sound counterintuitive, but here I’m talking about gloves. Kids usually need wetsuits, even in warm water. During multiple-dive days, they’ll need some exposure protection to stay comfortable as their core temperatures drop. But, unless you’re doing temperate diving, they typically won’t need gloves. Wearing gloves will only make touching marine life easier, and in fact, many warm destinations prohibit gloves for adult divers as well.
Relate the underwater rules to what they know
Frame your visit to the marine environment as though you’re visiting a friend’s house. Just as you expect them to behave appropriately in that situation, so to should they behave when visiting our marine friends. Kids understand that we expect them to use their manners and clean up after themselves at someone’s home. Putting the experience in these terms will help them understand that the same holds true underwater.
Make them good stewards
It is never too soon to teach kids to be good stewards of the marine environment. When you give kids a sense of responsibility and purpose, they tend to embrace that sense of empowerment, and it may help them manage their frustration with being told not to touch. Remind them to be polite to the sea creatures and explain what that looks like in the marine environment. We observe the animals and the coral, but we keep our hands to ourselves. We should not disturb the animals or spur them to move so we can get a better view or picture.
If we continually look for opportunities to leave the environment in as good, or better, shape than we found it, we can teach kids to respect it, both above and below the surface. Marine life will be glad to welcome us back to their homes again and again, but only when we show respect by observing from a respectful distance.