By Dr Isabel D Reader
A parent’s perspective
Scuba diving is an increasingly popular adventure sport. Often, entire families become involved so that, sooner or later, parents ponder the present age restrictions for scuba diving certification and wonder about the potential safety issues associated with diving at a young age. Training agencies and diving schools impose age restrictions for training courses, and diving operators typically deny air fills to divers who are not certified; still there are no actual legal restrictions that prohibit children from diving. So, the decision to let a child dive ultimately lies with the parents and whoever teaches them to dive, whether officially or unofficially.
How old is old enough?
In many respects, age is actually used as a surrogate for a required measure of physical strength and emotional and intellectual maturity. Some children may be strong and mature at a very young age, whereas others may remain at risk even at an age that they can be fully certified. When reviewing the age restrictions, consider the following underlying issues:
- Is your child’s psychological development suitable for training and complying with safe diving rules?
- Is your child physically “big” and strong enough to wear and use the required scuba equipment without difficulty or being at risk of suffering injuries?
In September 2001, an article appeared in Undercurrent by Dr Vikingo titled “The mind and bodies of children – are they really suited to scuba?”. He outlined three developmental stages of child development according to Jean Piaget, namely:
This phase begins at ages two to seven, where a child’s perceptions still dominate their judgement. They tend to focus attention on one aspect of an object while ignoring others. They are unable to understand the principles underlying proper behaviour and rely on dos and don’ts imposed by authority. Some children aged eight years and even older can be delayed in this phase and this may only be detectable with proper screening.
Concrete operational phase
At approximately seven to 11 years of age, logical thought starts to develop, but it remains dependent upon concrete references. During this phase, the child develops the ability to appreciate mass, volume and length and to arrange objects in a logical sequence. However, note that logical thought remains linked to objects present rather than objects in abstract.
Formal operational phase
From ages 11 to 15, thoughts gradually become less tied to concrete reality and become more abstract. This allows them to think about what might be rather than just what is. This level equates more to the thinking pattern needed for safe diving as the child is able to envisage and appreciate risk.
Simply applying depth restrictions to children does not guarantee safety.
According to Dr Vikingo, the policies of PADI, Scuba Schools International (SSI) and other agencies clearly allow entry to children who are still in the concrete operational stage. His concern is that, although children may be able to understand Boyle’s law and solve a few mathematical problems, they may still fail to appreciate how this applies to them in an out-of-air situation and to understand the implications of a breath-holding ascent.
Even more worrisome is an emergency situation such as a stuck buoyancy compensator (BCD) power inflator mechanism where the child is neither likely to generate multiple solutions nor choose the best alternative. Children at this age are also very impulsive and do not appreciate their physical restrictions, which could lead to risk-taking behaviour.
Simply applying depth restrictions to children does not guarantee safety. The most devastating diving accidents with arterial gas embolism and death often occur in less than 5 m. Panic is one of the leading factors in serious diving accidents and children are more susceptible to it. The absence of mature reasoning and psychological maturity undermines self-soothing strategies in stressful situations.
What about the physical concerns?
Dr Carl Edmonds offers the following physical concerns:
- Children’s Eustachian tubes are narrower and smaller, increasing the risk of middle-ear infection.
- Children’s upper and lower respiratory tract passages are narrower by comparison to the air cavities associated with them and this predisposes them to pulmonary barotrauma when compared to adults.
- Asthma is more likely in childhood than in early adolescence when the airways grow relative to the lung volume.
- The risk of barotrauma, causing more damage to developing organs than fully-developed organs, is of further concern. Injuries do not only affect the existing structures, but may also significantly alter their future growth and maturation.
- Patent foramen ovale (which is a small opening between the right and left upper chambers of the heart) is more common in children than in adults. As such, dives leading to significant venous bubble formation might predispose children to a greater risk of neurological decompression illness.
- Due to a relatively large skin-to-body-mass ratio, children do not regulate their body temperature as well as adults do, which makes them susceptible to hypothermia.
- Children’s bones are still growing and damage to growth plates might lead to stunted growth. Nitrogen bubbles in the small vessels that supply these growth plates might lead to the damage of these critical tissues.
Diving equipment is relatively complex and may present various challenges to smaller children. Heavy gear, adult-sized equipment, designs presuming adult hand-grip sizes and strength, and poorly fitting BCDs and wetsuits all have the potential of causing discomfort, dysfunction and distress in children. Uncomfortable equipment will also cause excessive strain and the child is likely to tire quickly and may even be at greater risk of developing decompression sickness (DCS) on deeper dives.
Training Agencies’ Limitations
The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) offers full diver certification from the age of 15 years. The Bubblemaker programme is for ages eight and up and is limited to 2 m. The Seal Team programme is also for ages eight and up and adds photography and other underwater activities to the mix.
From 10 to 14 years of age, PADI offers Junior Open Water Diver training that is a full Open Water Diver scuba certification course with certain age-related limitations on Open Water scuba diving:
- From 10 to 11 years of age, children must dive with a PADI professional or a certified parent or guardian when diving to a depth of no more than 12 m.
- From 12 to 14 years of age, children must dive with a certified adult (with special training) and they are permitted to dive up to 18 m.
- From 10 years of age, children can take the Open Water Diver course online and from 12 years of age they can also do the Junior Rescue and Master Scuba Diver courses with the restriction of diving with an adult buddy.
The Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS) offers the following courses:
- For children 14 years and up, the Basic Nitrox Diver Training programme teaches how to extend bottom times and reduce surface interval.
- For children 14 years and up, the Wreck I Diver Training programme teaches the fundamentals of safe wreck diving.
- For children 15 years and up, the Rescue Diver Training programme teaches how to avoid and how to assist in diving emergencies.
- For children 15 years and up, an Underwater Navigation programme teaches underwater navigation.
Most Scuba Diving International (SDI) courses are available to children from the age of 10 and up as long as they have parental consent:
- From age four, children can take the Snorkeller Diver course with parental consent, which teaches how to be more comfortable in the water.
- From eight to 12 years of age, children can take the Future Buddies programme which teaches basic diving skills which allow them to dive to a maximum depth of 6 m with the supervision of an adult.
- From 10-14 years of age, the Junior Open Water Scuba Diver course allows children to dive to a depth of 18 m under the supervision of an adult and the Scuba Discovery programme, for children over the age of 10, serves as a precursor to the Junior Open Water Scuba Diver course.
From 10 years of age, children may also take the following courses with written parental consent:
- The Supervised Diver course, which allows dives to a maximum depth of 12 m under professional supervision.
- The Advanced Scuba Diver Development programme, which teaches some advanced diving skills.
- The Advanced Buoyancy Diver course, which teaches children good buoyancy control.
- The Shallow Water Diver course, which teaches how to dive in shallow water.
The Scuba Schools International (SSI) offers full diver certification from the age of 15 years.
For children eight years and older, SSI offers the following programmes:
- For children between eight and 12 years of age, the Scuba Rangers programme is an entry level programme designed to teach children how to dive safely. The programme does not exceed 4 m in depth and aims to teach children the skills required for safe diving.
- For children eight years and older, the Snorkel Diver programme teaches children the skills required to enjoy snorkelling.
- For children eight years and older, the Scuba Diver programme prepares children for diving by teaching some of the skills covered in the Junior Open Water diving programme.
For children between the ages of 10 and 15, SSI offers the following programmes:
- For children 10 years and up, the Junior Open Water Diver programme certifies children to dive a total of 12 m under the supervision of a certified diver.
- For children 12 years and up, the Enriched Air Nitrox programme teaches children how to plan dives with nitrox and how to use it safely.
- For children 12 years and up, the Junior Speciality Diver programme allows children to enrol in a number of speciality courses, including Boat Diving, Wreck Diving, Search and Recovery, Dry Suit Diving, Night and Limited Visibility, Navigation, Equipment Techniques and Underwater Photography.
- For children 15 years and up, the Diver Stress and Rescue programme teaches children how to avoid accidents and how to deal with accidents should they occur.
The Technical Diving International (TDI) offers the following introductory courses to children of at least 15 years of age, with written parental consent:
- Nitrox and Advanced Nitrox
- Semi-Closed Circuit Rebreather
- Diver Propulsion Vehicle
The Rebreather Association of International Divers (RAID) offers a Junior Scuba Diver course for children between the ages of 12 and 14, which allows them to dive up to 12 m when accompanied by a certified diver. The Junior Open Water certification is for children over 12 years of age, which allows them to dive up to 15 m under adult supervision.
For children 15 years of age and up, the following courses are on offer:
- Scuba Diver, allowing children to dive up to 12 m.
- Open Water, allowing children to dive up to 20 m.
- Explorer 30, allowing children to expand on the skills taught in their Open Water certification.
- Advanced 35, which teaches children to dive with no decompression up to 35 m.
- Master Rescue Diver, allowing children to learn the skills needed to aid in underwater emergencies up to 20 m.
The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) minimum age for certification is 12 years.