Purposeful Play

By Dave DuBois Carlile Swimming



Play is a tremendously useful tool in teaching children. Play is the primary method through which most of a child’s learning takes place. This is especially true in children under 5 years, but does apply to all ages.


To this end, if a student feels like the entire lesson is “fun” and is play oriented, the teacher will have a high degree of success in motivating the swimmers and, as a result, building skills. Play activities during the lesson can be directed and purposeful in order to meet the goals of the particular class that the students are involved in. In contrast, it is possible to play and have the students enjoy themselves, but do very little that relates to the goals of the class. While outright “play” as an end in itself is an important part of every child’s life, in the service relationship of the swim lesson, this is often when parents will complain that there is too much “play” and not enough “work”. It’s possible to achieve both simultaneously and not “stop the play,” to “start the work”… This is what we call “purposeful play”.


Many play activities can in some way be related to the specific skill goals of a class. As an example, organizational games like “red-light, green-light” can be a useful way to get a class moving along the wall, following simple directions, learning to work together, and recognize the teacher as the leader of the group. In that scenario, students might monkey walk along the wall and perform activities associated with different color lights; Green light for go, red for stop, yellow for slow, blue for bubbles, etc.


If a play activity or game goes on for too long with limited skills being involved, the “purpose” of the play may become compromised. However, if the play involves key skills appropriate for the ability of the child and the level they are in (which can include underwater work, swims, floats and more advanced skills) then the play has been purposeful. When evaluating a teacher’s class, the issue shouldn’t be if they played too much, but what was being achieved by the play.  In this sense, the whole class can be a play based experience from the child’s point of view and is using very good teaching methodology to deliver the teaching at the child’s level.


From an organizational perspective, whenever a game is introduced, it’s advisable to choose a game which involves as much of the group as possible and involves the


water in some way, avoiding situations in which the teacher might turn their back or move too far away from the group. An example of how this might happen would be with a game involving a ball … If in the course of the game the ball is thrown away from the class, it’s easy for the teacher to be drawn into retrieving it and in the process getting too far away from the group, especially if they are beginners.


An alternative might be something like “Simon Says” in which you can involve any actions you want to, including water and swimming related things, and get the entire group participating. Even simple activities like getting the face wet, can be presented as a fun story … Take the group for a pretend play in the mud and then get everyone to wash up (face washing). When doing a skill like streamlining, you can do a lot more than just give it a creative name like “rocket-ships” – You can build the rocket-ships, blast them off with a countdown, ask each swimmer where they are flying to, and ask them what it was like on the planet they flew to. These types of stories can become very involving, help maintain focus, enhance retention and increase the enjoyment.


In this way, every activity can be a fun game, but involve great purpose as well, and the list is endless. Discuss the games you play with your team and come up with ways to make sure they’re purposeful, as well as a lot of fun.


The end of the lesson is not the only place for a game. Have fun and ensure there’s “purpose to your play” throughout your whole class.