As a former lifeguard and water safety instructor, I am impressed with the safety practices of the mega-water-park in my area. Still, I wouldn't rely completely on a well-trained stranger to protect my children. Here are simple rules to keep kids safe when they are supposed to be having fun.

1. Take your kids to swimming lessons.

Whether your kids actually learn to swim is beside the point. Lessons can instill a healthy fear of water. Ideally, before traveling to a water park, your children should know how to:

  • float, which I consider the true survival skill and just as valuable to know as swimming;
     
  • propel themselves forward, which is what most people refer to as swimming;
     
  • blow bubbles underwater, which can help kids to expel water rather than breathe in (or take in) water
     
  • jump off the diving board in deep water and rise to the top, rather than sinking down.

Even if they don't learn swimming basics during lessons (or a few visits to your local pool), your children should get a basic understanding of their capabilities. As a result, they'll be much less likely to take risks on attractions that are well beyond their swimming levels.

2. Plan your day at the park with safety in mind.

Visit the park's website to learn about attractions and view a map. Find rides that you think will be suitable and fun for your children. Make up your mind to avoid rides that seem well beyond their reach.

During your visit, check out the rides that seem scary on paper (or in digital form) but are doable. These might include rafting down steep inclines (requiring effort to get to the starting point but no actual swimming ability) or traveling high speeds down a watery slide and being dumped into a shallow pool of water (where expelling water is a valuable skill).

3. Take a responsible adult with you.

Let your companion watch your children when you can't supervise them. Unless you have totally cooperative children who follow you everywhere, standard scenarios that will require you to leave your children for just a moment include waiting in line for ice cream or a drink, visiting the restroom, fetching a PFD (personal flotation device, formerly known as a life preserver), and asking for directions.

Besides, some of the rides (slides in particular) require that parkgoers travel solo. It's possible that one child will disappear down a slide, land forcefully in a pool of water, and be alone for a while unless you station an adult at the bottom of the slide.

Plan ahead for separation. Walk the park or look at the map together, and set a meeting time and place to reunite if you get separated.

4. Have your child wear a PFD.

I thought it would be impossible to get my youngest child (and then non-swimmer) to wear a PFD to jump off a make-believe pirate's ship into deep water on his first trip to the water park. But the lure of sure-fire fun, a ready supply, and the presence of tons of kids and even adults with PFDs, apparently convinced him of his need. There was no argument and no prolonged discussion about safety: he just grabbed a PFD and started playing in the water.

As a parent, though, make sure that the PFD fits properly and is tightened (ask if you need help) so that it won't slip off.

5. Drink plenty of water and take breaks.

You'll want to avoid heat stress and dehydration, so don't forget to relax in the shade and drink some water sometime during the day.

6. Follow the rules.

Get your thrills from enjoying the rides, not breaking the rules. The water park owners and their legal counsel have figured out what's dangerous, so pay attention to posted regulations and instructions from lifeguards.

The most obvious rules to avoid head injury are 1) no running, and 2) no diving.

Personally, I am fearful of the wave pool. Standing in a concreted area with a crowd of unknown people, waiting for indeterminate amounts of water to arrive seems unwise and not entertaining. Instead, I'd rather take a fast trip down the super-ultra-twister slide for its cool sensation and relative predictability. For fun in a natural setting, I'd opt for a day on the river.