When Water is the Teacher: These Pools Are About the Fun of Learning

by: Dana Vollmer-Grant, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, CBSM
When people think about kids and water, one thought usually comes to mind: swim lessons. It’s critically important — life-saving, even — that children learn skills like floating face-up, holding their breath, and pulling themselves over the pool wall.

But water provides another benefit that we tend to overlook: it is the perfect medium for experimentation. In water, kids can develop their confidence and their senses, all while exploring feelings of safety and tranquility.

As a parent, I’m always looking for new experiences where my boys (three and five years old) can be challenged, places where they can play, experiment and learn. That’s why water is such a great tool. They can easily fall down and get back up, building their confidence and skills. This kind of learning also reminds me that I am able to give my kids plenty of freedom without feeling overprotective.

Dana Vollmer-Grant and her son at play.
Dana Vollmer-Grant and her son at play.

When teaching children to swim, it’s easy to focus solely on developing the skill alone — that is, on how the body looks as it moves. We adults tend to forget about the learner’s sensory experience of the action. (We also forget just how scary it is to be floating in the water, thinking only of the danger of the unknown and unseen place just below.) For example, I often see teachers manipulate the child’s body into a certain position and then watch as the child tries to hold onto it for as long as they can. The child may have learned the position, but they didn’t learn how to sense their own body in the water.

Instead of focusing on positions, we want the child to focus on the sensations of their body in the water. They may notice how their pelvis wants to sink and the lungs want to float. And we want them to calmly process the anxiety that comes from laying back fully into the water, even when human nature tells them to keep their head upright.

“Learning to swim is an annual rite of passage for children of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Water is also an equalizer by allowing children to do things in the water with the reduced buoyant body weight unachievable on dry land, creating opportunities for learners regardless of their physical or mental capacities.” 
–Dennis Berkshire, President, Aquatic Design Group

Kids today have an incredible resource to facilitate this range of experiences and sensations: fun water pools. Amid supervision, of course, these are places where kids can explore water on their own terms and in their own way, free from restraint by a parent or an instructor, leading to a profound sense of freedom. Milton Nelms, with whom I worked closely during my training years, is one of the world’s leading experts on swimming. He says that with fun water pools, “more diversity in the environment means more learning. In essence, the pool itself becomes a teacher.”

In the paragraphs that follow I will walk through the most common fun water features and explore what they offer children.

Zero-Depth Beach Entries

A zero-depth beach entry allows learners to easily enter and exit the water at their own pace and according to their confidence and experience. They can explore new and unfamiliar depths, and then retreat to a place where they are comfortable, a learning pattern that is helpful throughout childhood (and adulthood, for that matter). People can lay on their bellies in a shallow spot and experiment with dipping their face into the water, or they can sit at the water’s edge, legs straight out in the water. Observing or directly engaging with those at play, they’re able to model their behavior on those in front them. Zero-depth beach entries and shallow-water play areas are also great for kids to practice falling and recovery by getting their hips underneath them, a little recognized but important safety skill. Eventually, they can easily and safely practice more advanced swimming skills like putting their entire head in the water, kicking their legs, and mimicking side breathing. These are also welcoming places for the elderly to ease into the water and interact with younger generations.

A zero-depth beach entry at the Morgan Hill Aquatic Center.

These are like tiny geysers that can be added around the edge of zero-depth beach entry pools. While sitting in the water, kids can feel the power of the water, and put their hands and faces in the spray. Even babies can sit near a bubbler, experiencing the feel of the water filling their palms, watching as gravity pulls the water back into the pool. Bubblers aren’t just extremely engaging, they serve an important learning dynamic. Their turbulence habituates children to the sensations they’ll encounter in natural water (lakes, oceans and rivers). This familiarity can turn into life-saving knowledge once a child has left the calm predictability of a typical swimming pool.

Spray Features

Spray features can take countless forms: mushroom tops where kids can walk through a waterfall and hide underneath, pipe sprayers, cannon sprayers and so on. Through self-regulated play, kids learn how to react when they get water in their face or in their eyes. Some sprayers have variations in spray pattern, providing a randomness that helps children develop necessary skills.

Dump Buckets

Another learning opportunity comes from dump buckets, which fill with flowing water and tip over once they go beyond a certain capacity. There’s the initial suspense of waiting for the buckets to fill until they reach their tipping point, followed by a brief surge of water that is thrilling in its weight and power. Being under a dump bucket prepares children for a lifetime of exposure to waves and currents in natural water. While completely safe, dump buckets have risk-taking feel, which childhood-development experts have identified as an important part of learning.

“After 23 years of managing a traditional pool, we opened a new aquatic center with an activity pool featuring a beach entry, interactive play structure, and giant water slide. A pool with water features is a game changer in both programming and attendance.”
–Sharon Grant, Retired Aquatic Supervisor, Livermore Area Recreation and Park District
Play stations at the Morgan Hill Aquatic Center.
Play Stations, Play Structures & Slides

Play stations engage young people in what is essentially a classroom devoted to water physics. By adjusting to the stations’ vessels, pipes, troughs, and levers, children experience a whole range of real-world concepts, from leverage and flow to planning, sensation and cause and effect, all in a context that would be impossible outside of a water environment. These can be included in splash pads or in beach-entry play zones.

In-water play structures compound the many developmental benefits of traditional play structures, creating a place for kids to learn about gravity, spatial awareness, control and decision-making. Climbing, experimenting, and interacting with other kids in water serves to amplify their stimulation and adds sensory diversity to their experience, along with developing muscular strength through water resistance. Even better, kids often show increased confidence on a water play structure because of experiences at playgrounds elsewhere. Playing in water as they would normally act on a playground, they learn to manage the water around them almost without realizing it.

Play structures have a variety of slides designed for age- and skill-appropriate play, from kids’ slides to those much larger. For the younger set, the speed of one’s sliding body gives an exciting and completely safe sense of risky adventure, but in complete safety. And then the speed of the body as it shoots from the slide into the water expands kids’ range of comfort and, as noted above, helps build safer swimmers, especially in natural water.

Elk Grove Aquatics Center.

As the slides get bigger, so do the related skillsets they facilitate. At the top of large slides there is gushing water that the rider sits in while managing anticipation, adrenaline and possible anxiety. They then experience their body quickly slipping down the slide’s surface while being engulfed in water, which immediately teaches learners how holding the body’s tone can offer a sense of control. The rider knows that the inevitable end — a plunge into much deeper water — will require them to hold their breath and then manipulate their post-plunge bodies back toward the surface. In this supervised environment, kids get exposed to conditions similar to those found when jumping off a dock into the lake, rafting on a river, or being tumbled by a wave. Speed and unpredictability give way to greater skills and confidence.

Lazy river at the East Oakland Sports Center.
Lazy Rivers

Spending time in lazy river is a great way to learn about how water currents work and how they feel on the skin. The distinct experiences available to learners — whether going with the current, going against it, or standing to the side as the current flows past — will later apply to their time in the ocean or in real rivers. Lazy rivers are also used for a range of physical therapies, where varied flows combine with physical effort to target certain tissues and joints and improve strength and balance. The rivers can be used for preparation for other sports, or for therapy after injury or surgery.

Fun water pools provide unique learning opportunities that lead to a lifetime of confidence, comfort, and safety in the water. Here, kids can learn as they are designed to learn, through experimenting and feeling their bodies interact with an environment that feels like the best kind of risky. Beyond the fun of it all — and it’s really fun — there are clear benefits worth exploring. Just remember, the pool itself can be a teacher.