How going to the beach can help us understand principles of Child Safe culture

4 Lessons from Australian beaches

We all love a day at the beach. The ocean can be revitalising, calming and fun; however it can also be unpredictable.  Australians are very aware of the dangers encountered when swimming.  We could be swept out to sea in a rip, taken by a shark, or drowned by unrelenting waves.  Despite this, we have a very strong beach culture.  This is largely due to the amazing work of lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers, who not only patrol the beach, but also educate us on how to keep safe.  We know we can relax and enjoy the ocean, as long as we swim between the flags and listen to the lifeguard on duty. 


Beach Safety is the perfect analogy for understanding how to build the culture of safety in Child Safe Organisations.  For children, relationships with adults are much like the ocean.  Mostly the relationships are positive and fun, but some adults use their strength and power to hurt.  Child Safe Organisations are about adopting a prevention culture that keeps children as safe as possible when interacting with adults, while ensuring they can still enjoy quality, meaningful relationships.


Here are 4 lessons we can learn at the beach about Child Safe Culture:



Swim between the flags

Make the boundaries clear

The first rule we are taught at the beach is to “swim between the flags.”  The flags are easy to spot and carefully positioned at the safest point to swim.  While the ocean may look calm enough to swim at other points on the beach, we are aware that there can be hidden dangers like rips or undertow, so we all know to encourage children and others to swim only between the flags.

In a Child Safe Organisation, employees, children, parents and other adults know the boundaries of safe child/adult relationships.  The boundaries are clearly communicated and based on safety.  Children are reminded of safe boundaries when they access the organisation, and they internalise safety messages. Importantly, everyone feels comfortable reminding others where the boundaries are.

If you asked every employee, volunteer, child and parent who accesses your organisation about what makes a child/adult relationship safe – would they all give the same, clear answer?


Watch out for drift

Create a Speak-Up culture

Even in the calmest water, it is easy to drift outside the flags.  One minute you are diving under waves and laughing with your friends, then you look back to the beach and can’t see your towel, or realise you are about to get hit by a surfer.  When this happens, you warn those around you and together make your way back within the flags.  Sometimes you see a friend drifting away, so you call out and encourage them back towards the flags.  You don’t call out to others to shame or embarrass them; you call out because you care about their safety.

In organisations that provide services to children, there can be drift in the boundaries of safe relationships.  Human relationships are complex and within a genuine and meaningful connection, unintentional drift occurs.  In a Child Safe Organisation, all adults (employees, volunteers or parents) will watch out for drift.  They correct their course of action when it occurs and re-establish safe boundaries.  They will also look out for the safety of children and other adults and speak up when it looks like others are drifting outside safe relationship boundaries.  Children should also feel comfortable to speak up if they identify unsafe or inappropriate behaviours.

In your organisation - how comfortable do employees, parents and children feel to raise concerns about unsafe behaviour or practices in child/adult relationships?


Have a lifeguard on shift

Have a dedicated role

There is a tragic story about a family Christmas party when a child drowned in a backyard pool with 15 adults present.  With so many responsible adults there, everyone assumed that the children were being well supervised.  The new family rule is that one adult must always take responsibility for supervising the pool and they must wear a "lifeguard hat".  When they need a break, they pass the hat onto the next supervisor who is expected to pay full attention. Similarly, on a hot summer’s day the beach may be full of families, with adults swimming and watching their own children. In this instance there is always a professional lifeguard supervising safety. The lifeguard is trained to both prevent and respond to people at risk of drowning.  They also have a unique perspective from the watch tower, which allows them to monitor everyone simultaneously and observe patterns of behaviour. 

There may be an assumption when working in a school, in child protection or other youth serving organisations that everyone is collectively looking out for children’s safety.  This may lead to complacency; alternatively, staff may be caught up in an unrelenting workload and unable to gain the perspective needed to identify unsafe behaviours around them. In a dedicated role, an individual has allocated time and perspective to monitor Child Safe practices and intervene when necessary to prevent harm. 

In your organisation – who monitors Child Safe Practices?  What other duties may obstruct their ability to perform this role effectively?


Develop a community around beach safety

Build child safe communities

Australia’s beaches are filled every Saturday with children training to be lifesavers.  They start soon after they can walk and everyone is encouraged to join.  They learn about beach safety, how to help themselves and how to rescue others.  The entire family can join the club and everyone can play a part in keeping people safe at the beach, whether through fundraising, volunteering at events, or training to be a lifesaver.

Child Safe Organisations have opportunities for children and parents to be meaningfully involved in defining and monitoring Child Safe practices within the organisation. Children and parents know whom they can talk to about concerns, when they should speak-out and what their rights are.  Parents are given opportunities to contribute by identifying risks, sharing ideas and supporting others to speak out.  Children feel that they are part of the organisation, will have their voices heard and opinions taken seriously. 

How well does your organisation involve children and parents in shaping child safe practices?


Australia has one of the lowest drowning rates per capita in the world (#152 of 172; WHO, 2014). This beats our old rivals (NZ#137, USA #138), land locked countries (Nepal #102, Bhutan #64, Slovakia #93) and ridiculously cold countries (Finland #132, Mongolia #66). In the last 12 months, there were no reported drownings in Australia within the flags.


It’s time for Australia to generalise the principles of beach safety and lead the world in the prevention of institutional abuse of children.

If you want to know more about how to develop a Child Safe Culture in your organisation - please contact us: