Kids love swimming pool games. They’re also helpful for adults to keep a group of young swimmers contained and entertained with an adult swimmer - who is standing in the water during the games. Being in the water is important, to be safely at hand.
Organizing a few fun swimming games can keep even very young swimmers attention for 30 minutes or more, building their swimming skills and burning some excess energy.
All of these games below are played in shallow water, on the shallow end wall. For families with toddlers, I've included a section of pool games for 2-3 year olds. These games take place in a baby pool or portable pool.
Deep end games are usually played by children older than 5. To test your young swimmers for deep end swimming, they should be able to 'swim' two lengths of the pool without stopping. After a short rest, time them on treading water, in the deep end for 1 minute. Stay within arm's reach while you administer the 'deep water test'.
Swimming Games for children 3-5 years old
Most children at 3-5 years old have developed some coordination but their swimming skills or comfort may be low. Keep the kids on the shallow steps, and evaluate each swimmer's ability and comfort level before beginning any swimming games. Keep a close eye on the games to avoid bumps and bruises. Be IN the water with them during the games, so you can act fast if needed.
One swimmer is chosen to be the whale. Floating on his or her back, (may need assistance) the other kids gather around, making a circle around the whale. The children walk around the whale while you or the children sing a new improvisational 'Hungry Hungry Whale Song' - which could go something like 'Hungry, hungry whale, what's for lunch?' or 'Hungry, hungry whale, floating in the pool'. At any point, the 'whale' yells 'Thar she Blows!', and flips over to chase nearby swimmers. If he tags one before the swimmer has touched the wall, the tagged swimmer becomes the new hungry whale. You can change the animal type if you like (dolphin, hippo, shark).
For your most comfortable swimmers, here's a fun game. This game is simply sitting on the floor of the shallow end, cross legged, and pretending to serve and sip tea from imaginary tea cups (for just a few seconds). You can pour the imaginary tea for them underwater. Their eyes should be open and breath exhaled, to allow them to sink to the floor. Don't allow any hyperventilating before going under the water, this can lead to shallow water blackout.
Arms and Legs Race
Divide swimmers into pairs. Assign them each to be either 'Arms' or 'Legs'. Line the pairs up against the side shallow wall, and tell 'Legs' to hold on tightly to 'Arms' waist. When you say Go, Arms will use his arms to pull across the water, and walk across the floor, and Legs kicks as fast as they can. First pair to go across the pool and back, without breaking form wins.
Beach Ball Race
Using one or two small beachballs, have two kids race each other across the shallow end of the pool, and back, using only their face to push the ball along in front of them. No hands allowed! This makes a perfect swimming relay for young kids. A variation is to have them hug the beach ball tightly, and kick across the pool.
Line the kids up, seated on the shallow end wall. Standing in front of the kids, drop the coins below them as you walk in front of them. Be sure to space them out to give the kids plenty of room without elbowing and kicking each other. When ready, create different games by naming a winner who brings you an exact amount, or the most coins, or the most value overall. Have the kids help count out what they collect.
In this game, the person who is 'it' has to close their eyes, while saying 'Marco!' The other players yell back 'Polo' - to give a hint as to their location. Keeping eyes closed, the searcher has to tag one of the other players. Using goggles or a mask with taped insides can prevent the searcher from peeking.
Use two players per kickboard, or raft. At opposite ends of the kickboard, both players kick their hardest and try to move the opponent backwards. This is a tournament of kicking strength. Have them kick their hardest, and pronounce a winner when one player drives the other backwards by 2-3 feet.
Swimming Games for children 1-3 years old
Toddlers, or kids under 3 are great at inventing their own games. Having a beach play set or various floating or inflatable plastic toys helps encourage activity.
Water Gun Race
Using an inflatable water wings or beachballs or balloons with just a small amount of water in them, have the kids sit on the edge and spray water guns at the floating items, to drive them to the other side of the baby pool. First one to reach the other side wins.
Ice Cube Hunt
Drop several large ice cubes into the wading pool, and have them collect them in a pail. Be quick before they melt!
Ping Pong Pickup
Drop several ping pong balls into the wading pool, and have them collect them with a plastic spoon, and place them in their own cup. For more advanced games, write a star or point values onto several of the ping pong balls.
If you have small plastic boats great, if not, use small balloons with a small amount of water, or small colored balls. Have the children race their 'boats' across the wading pool, to see who has the 'fastest ship'. With a ball of string, you can have boat "pull" races from one side to the other.
Pretending to be animals, as they move from one side of the wading pool to the other. Tell them the animal and let them perform. Kangaroos, hippos, elephants, rabbits...
Using the classic colored stacking rings game that most toddlers enjoy, set it up to float on the water by using an upside down frisbee. Seated on the edge, they can take turns playing a ring toss game.
A word (or two) on swimming pool safety for children under 5 yo. Stay within arm's reach of these young swimmers at all times. Give them a 5 minute break every half hour, to rest in the shade. Swim diapers are a must if your toddler is not potty trained. Use a baby pool float if taking a toddler into a regular depth pool. Water wings are not considered to be the best teaching device. Inflatable floats or swim aids can be dangerous if they leak air.