How People Play

Play is a dynamic process that changes as people grow. The simple act of play actually becomes increasingly more complex and is an essential part of a child’s development. The demands on today’s children are much different than those from previous generations and, consequently, there is less play time in their lives. It is our responsibility as “professionals of fun” to understand this important lifelong skill and know how to integrate play into designs, facilities and programming.

Youth At Risk

Watch the news: “Studies show early signs of heart disease found in American children. One in seven school-age children have three or more risk factors predisposing them to deadly cardiovascular conditions. Sixty-five percent of all children 10 to 18 years cannot pass a minimum standard of fitness. One out of every four teenagers is dangerously overweight!” Additionally, drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is largely due to a lack of access to recreational water activities.

We continuously preach the importance of exercise, but how do we “force” children to do it? Perhaps we make it more fun. Humans have a natural affinity to water, and it is associated with fun in many instances--taking bubble baths, running through a sprinkler or open fire hydrant on a hot day or spending time at a lake or ocean. This may account for census results that report swimming is only second to walking over all other recreation activities.

In order to understand what aquatic trends will become popular and how to design for multi-generational programming, we must first look at the fundamentals and benefits of play, what motivates an individual to participate, and how each age group plays in the water.

Physical Development

Swimming can improve strength, balance and flexibility. It provides an aerobic benefit that is relatively injury-free in comparison to other sports. “The water’s unique properties allow the pool to provide an environment for people of all abilities,” according to the Aquatic Exercise Association. “Buoyancy creates a reduced impact exercise alternative that is easy on the joints, while the water’s resistance challenges all the muscles. Water lends itself to a well-balanced workout that improves all major components of physical fitness-aerobic training, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition.” It is also a sport that can be a lifetime activity--from 1 to 101 years old.

Social Development

Through social play, children and adults learn to cooperate and appreciate the importance of taking others’ needs and feelings into account. Playing together fosters awareness of a variety of values and attitudes. These great strides in development all happen while a person is laughing and establishing friendships, while having fun. Water is a safe sport for children of all ages and proficiency levels. Learn-to-swim and aqua classes are socially enjoyable, and provide fitness benefits at the same time.

Psychological And Emotional Development

Water sports promote fitness and cultivate a positive attitude. Finally mastering the back float or competing in a swim meet increases self-esteem. Spend some time at a pool and count the times you hear, “Watch me, Mom!” Playing in the water promotes increased energy levels as children strive for physical achievement.

Water is iconic to stress relief, like the sounds of soothing waterfalls, gentle rains and trickling waters. Swimming forces one to regulate breathing, and allows more oxygen to flow into muscles. The warm water of a wellness pool or whirlpool helps calm nerves, stimulates cardiovascular circulation, and soothes the mind and body.

Age Groups--How They Play

Each age group plays and responds differently to pool amenities. An accomplished aquatic designer understands the “play needs” of each generation, and translates these into pool designs to engage users.

Understanding the needs for multiple programming spaces is another design consideration often overlooked by an inexperienced team. Knowing what areas can double as teaching spaces, training areas and recreational swim/buy-outs and rentals, while still meeting guests’ needs is an acquired skill. For example, current channels or lazy rivers can be used for resistance or assistive walking classes during one time of the day, and can be used as a recreational river to serve another group. Warm-water wellness pools provide a place for therapy and rehabilitation, and also present adequate and appropriate depth and temperature for learn-to-swim lessons.

Ultimately, it is important to provide a safe environment for any type of play, especially in the water. Supervision is imperative in any form of design. Understanding how these facilities operate helps the design team to properly place offices, observation and seating areas for easy maintenance and safety.

Zero To 3 Years

Concentrating on their own needs, infants play alone, while toddlers play side-by-side, engaging in activities that stimulate their senses. Playing involves physical activity and is closely related to the development and refinement of a child’s motor skills and coordination processes. Infants intuitively prefer high-contrast edges and patterns, and respond best to primary colors. Interactive play structures available today are popular within this age group. Modest-sized water-spray features initiate the quest to interact with water in motion, and stimulate rudimentary fantasy play. Infants respond visually; smaller toddlers will approach and interact.

Many babies learn to swim before they walk because of the buoyancy they encounter in the water. Infant and toddler swim classes are often the first social experience outside the home. The zero-depth edge of the pool presents a gradual, non-threatening entrance into warm water. Aquatic classes in the leisure and shallow water pools, such as splash time, and parent and tot classes are popular among this age group.

3 To 5 Years

This age group plays in small groups, uses props, and does it passionately with no absolute goals in mind. Blissful. Individually they are building confidence, and socially they are learning to share and cooperate. In the water they respond to interactive play, including small dumping buckets, floatables and children’s slides. Slides that accommodate several children at once are timeless--3-year-olds initially ride with the assistance of a parent, but eventually graduate to going down in pairs, holding hands with another child as they become more daring. Eventually they are racing their peers down the same slide.

Aquatic lessons should be fun and kept to smaller numbers--about five children per class. In the pre-school level, skills range from children kicking their feet at the edge of the pool to swimming up to 25 yards on their front and back.

5 To 8 Years

At this age, kids are starting to play formal and informal games with their peers. There may be a winner, or just the common goal of accomplishing a task (e.g., hopscotch). This play helps children refine social skills and understand cooperation, teamwork and competition. Role-playing is popular among this age group, and imitating their role models is a popular pastime (e.g., playing house). Providing multi-level play structures with props, such as ropes, ladders, cubby spaces and interactive play will encourage their imaginations.

It is imperative that a child of this age be challenged and provided the opportunity to demonstrate talents and abilities (“Watch me, Dad!”). The leisure and activity pools and lazy rivers facilitate this type of play. It takes courage to ride the flume slide for the first time, engage in a game of water basketball, or hold one’s best friend’s hand down the adventure channel and navigate an inflatable obstacle course.

Aquatic programming begins to take the form of children’s masters and diving classes. Students begin to build upon their learned abilities, moving onto the next level in their swimming abilities. It is still important to offer learn-to-swim classes, especially in underserved populations where children have not had the benefit of aquatic recreation.

8 To 13 Years

In this time span, children become more organized and structured. Achievement becomes more important, and they begin to set goals and milestones for themselves. The activity pool--with deeper water--provides the challenging environment with flume slides, mat racer slides, activity pools, floatables, net walks, water basketball, aqua climbing walls, surf simulators, rope swings, etc. The more exciting and challenging, the more appealing the activity becomes. Studies also show that playing can enhance the learning process--the more physical the play (e.g., moving, stretching, and resistive), the better.

Programming includes junior lifeguarding, advanced swimming and diving. These help to build endurance, strength and speed, and increase overall fitness levels. An activity night or designated swim night with peers is attractive as this age group is beginning to thrive socially outside the family unit.


It is common knowledge that during teenage years, socialization moves from families to peer groups, channeling energy (fun) into specialized clubs, youth groups, volunteer activities and team sports. The complexity moves from blissful play to self-awareness and social standing.

In addition to the entertainment value of the challenging environments of the previous peer group, teenagers desire separate social spaces. This often difficult-to-please demographic does not want to always hang out with mom and dad. An aquatic craze among these participants is the “Teen Zone.” This is a separate--yet very visible--section of the deck or grass area that is established for this specific group. Within their “own space” they can socialize, enjoy popular music, engage in social interactive activities like ”Rock Band,”” ”Guitar Hero” or other video games, and just hang out.

Aquatic programming for this age group includes lifeguard and instructor training and competitive swim groups.


We have a big lesson to relearn here--play. Somewhere along the way, we concluded that grown-up play is viewed as a weakness and that successful people just work; we need permission to play again. We have just agreed that play is a mind-and-body integration and social necessity. Play is a relaxed spontaneity that should be embraced, even into adulthood.

Adults should revisit what fun was for them as a child. Many adults who were involved in competitive swim groups are seeking out adult swim master programs. Water exercise, aerobics, water polo, aqua jog and resistance walk programs translate into fun adult programming. Shh … adults have fun on waterslides, too!


The pool is an ideal opportunity for parents of young children to meet people who share common interests. Take a quick scan over the pool area, and you will find moms and dads congregating in the zero-depth area with their tots. It is also common to find parents floating down the lazy river with a baby or sleeping child strewn across their lap. And imagine the delight of a child telling friends he or she beat Dad down the mat racer slide.

Aquatic programming to support the parent network is important--parent/infant, parent/toddler and adult swim classes.

Active Senior Adults

Swimming is one of the best exercises and social environments available to seniors. It is safe and easy on the body, allowing people to move without bearing the weight. It is an ideal way for seniors to get in shape and improve their overall well-being. For some disabled people and seniors, water gives them a sense of freedom as they move around.

An aquatic fitness class is a great social outlet for seniors. Warm-water lap lanes and wellness pools provide popular activities, such as silver sneakers, aqua restore (stay young with water), low-impact aqua fitness, aqua walking and underwater bikes. Vortex and lazy rivers offer assistive walking opportunities, while whirlpools and social benches offer social spaces enjoyed by this age group.

Do not forget about the non-aquatic amenities in any age group, let alone seniors. Areas that promote socialization outside of class, such as a café or comfortable deck seating, are ideal. These are attractive amenities that promote return guests.

How People Play Together

Multi-generational recreation and fitness provide something for everyone under one roof, for swimming is ageless. It is often said that families that play together, stay together. For example, recreational swimming provides seniors an occasion to frequent the aquatic facility with their children and grandchildren. Teenagers can challenge younger siblings or parents to a game of basketball in the water. Or they can just relax together and float down the lazy river.

It is interesting to watch the interaction between age groups, best friends, rivals, siblings, parents and grandparents. This is where a crossover into each area of the pool occurs, and where we find a social interaction between generations. Water brings together generations, allowing everyone an opportunity to benefit individually and together.

Think Outside the Pool

Many programs are scheduled so parents can enjoy fitness classes while their children take part in separate age- and interest-appropriate activities at the same time. Make sure all programming coincides with the goal of multi-generational appeal.

Aquatic recreation has become more complex over the years, l and people demand more entertainment value. First, understand who your patrons are, then understand how they play, and ultimately you will be successful as a “professional of fun.”

Melinda Kempfer is the Business Development Coordinator for Water Technology, Inc., aquatic planners, designers and engineers located in Beaver Dam, Wis. She has had the privilege of working with several municipal parks and recreation entities to realize their goals of project development from the business development through the completion phase. She can be reached via e-mail at