Activity: What does Drowning Look Like?

What Drowning Looks Like graphic

Summary: Students explore and discuss how to recognize the signs of drowning and how to help someone else.

You Need:

  • 50 minutes
  • Signs of Drowning graphic (PDF)
  • An understanding of currents and the danger they present
  • Paper


Many deaths have occurred in Michigan (more than 135 since 2002) and experts believe these deaths could have been prevented through better education and awareness about dangerous currents.

Unlike movie renditions of drowning, where a person might be thrashing around and yelling wildly for help, real drowning is often a very quiet event. People about to drown may seem like they are treading water or swimming but not making much progress.

Can you imagine being at Lake Michigan, having fun with friends, swimming or soaking up the sun on the beach? The sun is warm. It’s a beautiful day. Everyone is laughing. What do you do if you see someone in the water that looks as if they are in trouble?


  • Review the signs of drowning and the basics of dangerous currents.
  • Break-out into groups of 3-5
    • Ask students to break into groups and to determine their individual roles. Each group needs:
      • 1-2 people who are acting like they are in the water swimming.
      • 1-2 people who are acting like they are playing along the shore.
      • 1 person as  a “water watcher.” This person imagines they are on the beach and are keeping a close eye on friends in the water.
      • 1 person as the note-taker, writing answers to What Can You Do to Help a Friend in Trouble at the Beach?
  • In each group, have the swimmers pretend to get caught in a current and pretend to start drowning based on the signs they recently covered.
  • What should happen next is up to the students – ask them to play out a real life scenario. First, can you recognize the signs of drowning? Second, what do you do then?
  • Have them work together to figure out the safest way to help, while writing down their solutions.
  • If you have extra time, have the students switch roles within the group.

Discuss the Results:

  • Each group reads some of their suggestions to the question: What can you do to help a friend in trouble at the beach?
  • Answers should include:
    • Always swim with a friend.
    • Look for a lifeguard.
    • Understand that swimming near certain areas of lakes presents more danger than swimming in other areas. Stay away from things like piers and river outlets.
    • Keep a close watch on people in the water.
    • Recognize the signs of drowning so you can get help quickly.
    • Act quickly: Ask someone that looks like they might be in trouble if they are okay.
      • If they cannot answer, they need immediate help.
      • Throw them a life ring.
      • If you have to enter the water, bring something that floats with you.
      • Successful rescues happen when everyone returns to shore safely.
  • Discuss the following as a class:
    • What other types of behaviors could help keep you safe in the water? (Always have a floatation device available like a boogie board, stay in the shallows, stay away from piers and rivers that empty into the lake, etc.)
    • If the water is rough and the waves are choppy, should you go swimming? What if your friends make you feel like a wimp — do you go in? What if they’re jumping off of a pier or a breakwall and want you to do it too? How do you deal with peer pressure? (Jumping off piers/breakwalls can be the most dangerous activity. There may be no way to safety when caught in a current near a structure.)