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Prof Button is dean of the University of Otago School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, and he undertakes drowning prevention research.
He outlined New Zealand's big water safety challenges, and positive results from a recent Otago study, in a talk yesterday at an Active Living and Environment Symposium on campus.
The gathering focused on "linking transport, health and environment".
Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) says that recently about 82 people a year on average have died through preventable drownings in our waterways.
But a 2016 study showed only 27% of primary schools provided a "minimal or acceptable level" of aquatic education.
Prof Button said most New Zealand drownings were in open-water, but basic aquatic skills were typically taught in swimming pools.
There was a "generally held assumption" that learning to swim in such pools would "drown-proof children" but this was "misleading".
His recent study aimed to determine the effectiveness of teaching children basic survival skills in open-water environments, including beaches, harbours and rivers.
In the study, 120 children aged between 7 and 11 from the Dunedin area undertook a three-day water safety and survival skills programme.
Their water safety knowledge and skills were tested in a swimming pool before, immediately after, and three months after undertaking the programme.
Results were "positive" and those youngsters showing high levels of competency rose from below 50% in the pre-test, to about 80% immediately after the programme and also three months later.
Feedback from parents and caregivers was also "extremely positive", he said.
WSNZ chief executive Jonty Mills said his group supported Prof Button's "great research" and recognised its value for WSNZ's national "Water Skills for Life" programme.