Aqua Skills: Making a splash with the kids!

Aqua workouts for kids can be a struggle if you try to teach them in the same way as your adult classes. It doesn’t have to be like this, says aqua instructor Mel Morony.

From the side of the pool deck the aqua instructor demonstrates a move. Meanwhile, the participants in the pool are mostly giggling, splashing each other and maybe mildly enjoying the entertainment of the aqua instructor struggling to keep them engaged. The instructor looks over to the classroom teacher, hoping that they might intervene, only to see that they are engrossed in their laptop or phone. So, the instructor is left with one option: to grin and bear it, thinking about how their pay packet is going to look with this class included in it.

Most group fitness instructors that have taught school groups, whether on land or in the water, will be nodding in agreement as they read these words. I myself have experienced this situation a number of times, especially when teaching to teenaged groups.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be like this – especially when the school group you’re teaching to is made up of primary school kids. By understanding a few principles of kids, it is possible to teach classes where the focus isn’t reduced to mere survival, and both sides have the opportunity to thrive.

Kids don’t want exercise

While most kids enjoy physical education (though I admit, especially as a teen, I was an exception), on the whole most kids don’t want ‘exercise’. They want ice cream, or video games, or a trip to Dreamworld. For most school groups it is a decision that the teacher has made for them to come and experience an aqua class. Generally, kids don’t realise that there is an obesity epidemic in Australia. For our middle-years high school students, PE might even seem like a waste of time, especially if they have an idea of what they want to do for a career.

While our adult patrons may understand the benefits of exercise, we’ve got to remember the underlying motivation for any human behaviour – to avoid/ move away from pain and move toward/ keep experiencing pleasure. Hence, even for the bulk of our adult patrons, their desire to see results – whether physical or mental – isn’t for the sake of the results themselves, instead they are in order to look or feel good, be good at their chosen sport, to stay in their own homes, reduce stress or to avoid the consequences of diabetes.

This motivation for human behaviour applies to kids too. The difference, however, is a question of time. While the ability to think abstractly is starting to develop around the age of nine, the results of exercising – and the major effects of not exercising – are generally going to be too abstract to be motivations.

Instead, consider the previously mentioned list of what kids want. All of the activities could be summarised with one word – fun! If we consider that for the bulk of kids, the pain/ pleasure continuum might be a case of moving away from boredom toward fun, then we might have a basis for an approach to teaching aqua to kids that is going to work. In other words, if kids like fun so much, why not make it the focus of their sessions?

If kids like fun so much, why not make it the focus of their sessions?

Think outside the box

While our adult participants may be content to do karate kicks, tuck jumps and an arm move 30 seconds each, and three to four times over, or to run from one barrier in their allocated lanes to the other, this sort of thing will only hold kids’ attention for a limited time.

But what if, instead of running laps, we played a running game? Examples would be variations of chasey or Tiggy, Octopus (which is what the game of my day, Red Rover, is now called). All of a sudden kids will be clambering to be ‘it’ and wanting to ‘play it again’ when the round is over.

Consider the other games that kids play at school. Getting them into teams and doing relay races, for example, might be an option. Over the years I’ve played Tunnel Dumbbell – a variation on Tunnel Ball – with school groups and had grade 6 kids more than happy to join in. Could we get kids to hold a dumbbell between their legs and move vertically through the water with it? What about a noodle underneath the feet and a jumping game to make sure it stays there? The possibilities are endless.

Getting them moving

With the amount of time now spent in passive activities, especially those involving screen time, more than ever kids need to get moving. The moves that we would be using in our adult aqua classes to help improve posture, such as hip extensions/donkey kicks and chest openers, also need to be brought out for the kids.

The difference will be in your presentation. While our adult patrons may be fine to do a choreographed track for five minutes and then a track where they go through three moves a few times over across another five minutes, expecting this approach to work with kids could be a recipe for disaster.

My approach when teaching kids is to use some of the formats found in HIIT classes. For example, Tabata – 20 seconds hard work, 10 seconds recovery; Pelters – 3 x 20-second moves, 3 times over; 2 x 30-second moves, done twice. While I’m not looking for the intensity of HIIT from the kids (though with all the splashing going on, you may be excused for thinking that the intensity is there!), doing a move for a short amount of time before moving onto another leaves very little chance for the kids to get bored and start acting up. I also often include boxing moves, and combinations which, naturally, the kids love. Just make it very clear that it is to be non-contact and is only to be used in the class… they aren’t allowed to go practicing boxing on their class mates or siblings at school or home.

Take a moment to think about terminology as well. This is especially important when we consider the Rocking Horse move. Rocking Horses are for babies and little kids: the older kids get, the more they want to prove that that’s exactly what they are not. My solution has been to amend the name a little and call them ‘Rockers’. I’ve never yet clarified with a bunch of school kids exactly what those Rockers are, but presumably they’ve associated it with moving to rock music or something, because they’ve always been more than happy to do them.

Music

Speaking of music, be ready for a singalong by the kids if you include any current chart hits in your playlist – and give some consideration to the lyrics. Having kids going home singing something their parents might not deem appropriate, or which objectify a group in society, will not win you or the facility that you are working at, any friends (or more patrons). Consider also that while boy bands might be a winner with a group of girls, if you have an all-boys class then they might not appreciate that choice so much.

Also consider just how multi-cultural Australian society now is, especially in urban areas. The values of tolerance and inclusion are taught at most schools now, hence, the inclusion of an ethnic track or two can be a way to engage the kids on this level.

Discipline

Despite all of your work to make aqua fun, you may still find a few discipline problems. Keep in mind that, legally, the classroom teacher has to be there at all times. While they may have disengaged to an extent during the time when they aren’t hands-on teaching, the duty of care still falls to them. They also know the expectations and discipline standards of the school. Hence, there is nothing wrong with summoning them to take on the disciplinary responsibility that falls to them.

Have fun

Remember, the kids are going to make it fun anyway – in whichever way they can. They are going to splash – a lot. I often joke with the lifeguards and duty managers ‘You didn’t want all of that water in the pool, did you?’ Running with making it fun, and letting them make a splash, is going to make your job far more enjoyable than insisting on them doing a standard aqua class.


Mel Morony is a Melbourne-based aqua instructor. She has presented in Aqua HIIT at the Women’s Health and Fitness Summit, 2017 and is available to present ‘Kids Aqua – Making A Splash’ upon request.