10 Classic Swimming Pool Games

By: Dave Roos
Summer is all about hanging out in the pool with your friends and playing games. See pictures of classic toys and games.

Summertime is pool time. When the temperatures soar, kids and adults flock to pools to cool off in and play some classic pool games.

Finding a pool to play these games is not that hard, at least in the U.S. There are more than 10.4 million residential pools and 309,000 public swimming pools in America [source: CDC]. The first public swimming pools were built in the late 19th century, largely in crowded immigrant neighborhoods in cities like Boston and New York. Oddly enough, the very first municipal swimming pool, the Cabot Street Bath in Boston, wasn't built for recreation, but to provide bathing facilities for neighborhood families that lacked other means of getting clean [source: Martin].


Once you've found your pool, it's time to plan your games. We've assembled a list of 10 absolute favorites for making the best of a long hot summer day in the water. Let's start with most beloved game ever, named after a 13th-century explorer.

10: Marco Polo

Marco Polo is the king of all classic swimming games.

This is the king of all classic pool games. Long before schoolchildren learn about the real Marco Polo, a 13th-century Italian explorer who lived in China and wrote extensively about his travels, they are experts in this aquatic version of Blind Man's Bluff.

To play Marco Polo, you need at least two people, but it's better with a small crowd. One person is designated to be "Marco." That person must close his eyes and try to tag the rest of the people in the pool. To locate the other people, he uses a primitive form of sonar, yelling out "Marco!" to which everyone else must respond, "Polo!" Using the direction of the voices as a guide, the blind Marco lunges after his Polos. The first person to be tagged is the new Marco.


The rules for Marco Polo are pretty simple, but enforcing them can be tricky. The Marco might try to sneak a peek, or the Polos might not yell "Polo." In a classic jerk move, the Polos might even leave the pool entirely. To combat this trickery, some players allow the Marco to yell, "Fish out of water!" when he suspects someone of leaving the pool [source: Retroland]. If he's right, the "fish" becomes the new Marco.

9: Chicken Fight

No hair-pulling, scratching or biting allowed in chicken!
Brooklyn Photo Group/UpperCut/Getty Images

First, a disclaimer. As your mom probably told you 6,784 times as a kid, chicken fighting in the pool is a potentially dangerous activity. Necks have been sprained, pool water inhaled, and more than one bikini top has been, um, compromised. That said, it's still a classic.

A chicken fight in the pool is like double-decker wrestling. There are two teams consisting of two people each. Each team has a "bottom" and a "top." The "top" climbs onto the "bottom's" shoulders. The two "top" people are the only ones who actively fight. The object is to knock your opponent into the water, either by toppling just the "top" or both "top" and "bottom" together.


As with any great sporting tradition, there are variations on the rules. Most chicken fighters outlaw scratching, hair pulling, punching, biting or other nasty behavior. Some don't. Some chicken fighters believe the game is won when any part of the "top" touches the water. Others wait for full-body immersion. In some pools, the "bottoms" are allowed to grapple as well. All is fair in love, war and water wrestling.

8: Sharks and Minnows

The last minnow to be tagged becomes the shark in the next round.

In its most basic form, sharks and minnows is a game of water tag. The game starts with one shark and several minnows. The shark lurks in one end (or the middle) of the pool. The minnows stand at the other end. When the shark yells "Minnows in!" or a similar phrase, the minnows jump or dive into the pool and try to swim to the other side without getting tagged by the shark. Every minnow the shark tags joins the shark's team and helps to tag other minnows. The last minnow becomes the first shark in the next round.

There are rule variations about when a minnow can be tagged. In one version, a minnow cannot be tagged if she is fully under the water. In that case, the shark can either wait for the minnow to surface for a breath, or the shark can try to pull her to the surface to make the tag.


In another version of the game, stealth is critical. The game starts with the shark facing away from the pool. The shark can only turn around when she hears a minnow in the water. Minnows who enter the water silently and swim without splashing are rewarded with a head start toward the other side.

Safe zones are also popular. If a minnow is touching the agreed-upon safe zone (like the pool drain or diving board), the shark can't tag it.

7: Handstand Contest

While you need skill to do a handstand on land, anyone can do it in the water.

For the gymnastically impaired, there are few things more satisfying that doing an underwater handstand. Incredibly, a skill that requires superb balance and strength on solid ground can be executed underwater with almost zero effort.

Since nothing is fun unless someone loses, underwater handstands have been made into a classic pool game. The object of the game is to hold an underwater handstand longer than your opponents. This requires balance, poise, and if you are halfway decent, some serious breath-holding skills.


You can hold a handstand contest with two or more people, although it's important to have an impartial judge. The judge counts to three, yells "Go!" and the contestants submerge themselves to assume their handstand position. The handstand is good until both feet are underwater. The last person to tip over wins.

Variations include one-handed handstands, one-finger handstands, and the rare no-handed handstand, also known as treading water upside-down. If it sounds hard, that's because it is.

6: Holding Your Breath Contest

Breath-holding contests can be fun. Just be careful not to do it too long.
Eyecandy Images/Thinkstock

In 2012, Danish free diver Stig Severinsen set a new world record for holding his breath underwater [source: Grenoble]. How long did he stay under? We'll give you a hint: You are way, way low. The man held his breath for 22 minutes. Twenty-two minutes!

Underwater breath-holding contests are a classic, if controversial pool game. The rules are simple. Two or more people count to three, take a deep breath, submerge themselves, and see who can stay under the longest. When kids play the game, it's usually harmless, since no one tries to hold their breath for a dangerous amount of time. Tragically, that can change as kids get older.


The biggest danger of breath-holding contests involves forced hyperventilation. By taking a series of large forced breaths (which people tend to do before submerging), you can expel CO2 from your system. The lack of oxygen and buildup of CO2 in your blood is what triggers the impulse to breathe. By artificially lowering your CO2 level before entering the water, you buy yourself extra time before having to breathe.

Unfortunately, that technique can also backfire. As oxygen levels decrease, you run a greater and greater risk of losing consciousness. If you lose consciousness underwater without close supervision, you can drown [source: Canadian Red Cross].

So if you are going to play a breath-holding game, please keep it safe and fun. And if you feel dizzy after a couple of rounds, switch to a different game.

5: Diving for Treasure

You can dive for pennies, rocks, small toys or anything else that will sink!

This is a great game for kids with goggles. The concept is simple: Choose a small, non-floating object and toss it into the pool. Have the kids race to locate the object and pick it up first.

There are lots of fun variations on the diving for treasure game. You can turn it into a longer challenge by tossing a dozen pennies into different parts of a large swimming pool and challenging kids to find them all. For stronger swimmers, you can play the game in the deep end.


When we were kids, we used pennies and rocks as the treasure, but now they sell special dive rings and dive sticks just for the game!

4: Cannon Ball Contest

To perform a perfect cannon ball, leap from the side of the pool and clutch both knees to the chest, forming the shape of — you guessed it — a cannon ball.
Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty Images

American diver David Boudia took home the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games by executing a near flawless two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists in the pike position from the towering 10-meter (33-foot) platform [source: Coffey]. But can the dude cannon ball?

To perform a perfect cannon ball, one must leap from a diving board or the side of the pool and clutch both knees to the chest forming the shape of -- you guessed it -- a cannon ball. Unlike competitive diving, the goal of the cannon ball isn't to slip noiselessly into the water, but rather to create the biggest splash possible.


In a cannon ball contest, two or more competitors try to impress one or more judges with their cannon balling skills. Judges can rate competitors by biggest splash, best cannon ball style, or whatever random criteria they wish. Until cannon ball becomes an Olympic sport, there are no official rules.

3: Belly Flop Contest

The belly flop is sort of the opposite of the cannon ball. To perform, leap from the side of the pool, spread both arms and legs wide, and attempt to produce the loudest, most painful “smack” when entering the water.
Aurelie and Morgan David de Lossy/Cultura/Getty Images

A belly flop contest is a classic companion to the cannon ball contest. To execute a perfect belly flop, the contestant needs to leap from a diving board (very brave) or the side of the pool, fully extend both arms and legs, and attempt to produce the loudest, most painful "smack" when entering the water.

As with the cannon ball contest, there should be a judge or judges to rank contestants on criteria like the loudest smack, the reddest belly and the most stylish flop.


2: Dolphin Race

In the dolphin race you try to get to the other side of the pool while keeping your head underwater.

This is another classic pool game that doesn't require any special props or toys. The object of the dolphin game is simple: Try to swim the farthest distance underwater. Two or more people begin on one side of the pool. On the count of three, they submerge, kick off from the wall and try to swim all the way to the other side without taking a breath. Strong swimmers can do a flip turn on the opposite wall and attempt to swim back. The person who swims the farthest without taking a breath is the winner.

Again, please use caution when playing any game that requires you to hold your breath. There have been cases where children who have repeatedly held their breath underwater have passed out and even drowned. Pool safety advocates call it shallow water blackout [source: Margetts]. Adult supervision is always recommended when young people are playing in a pool.


1: Human Whirlpool

With a pool crowd this big, you'll get an awesome whirlpool started.

This is an incredible pool game if you have a large crowd of people in a big pool. It's perfect for summer camps or other large aquatic gatherings. In nature, a whirlpool is formed by ocean currentsmoving in a rotating direction, usually caused by rising and falling tides [source: BBC]. Whirlpools are extremely rare in nature, but with enough people, you can create a powerful whirlpool of your own.

Choose a large shallow area of the pool and get as many people in the water as possible. If there is a mix of adults and children, make sure that all kids are strong swimmers and tall enough that the water level is at chest height when standing.

Now have everyone start walking in a large circle in the same direction. Start slow and get progressively faster. It will be hard at first, because the water will resist your motion. But after 30 seconds, the coordinated movement of so many people will create a strong circular current in the water. Once you've created enough momentum, tell everyone to pick up their feet and float. You've created a whirlpool! If the whirlpool starts to lose momentum, have everyone start to run again.

For lots more tips on classic summertime activities, check out the links on the next page.

Swimming Pool Games FAQ

Should you leave pool floats in the pool?
It's recommended that you store pool floats in a cool spot. If it's left in the sun, the pool float (especially plastic ones) could wear out faster.
Can you keep water in an inflatable pool?
Yes. You can use chlorine tablets to keep the water safe.
What should you put under an inflatable pool?
Interlocking foam tiles, ground covering, an intex ground cloth or even an old carpet are good options to put under an inflatable pool.
How do you play Marco Polo in the pool?
One person is "Marco." That person must close his eyes and try to tag the rest of the people in the pool. To locate the others, he yells out "Marco!" to which everyone else must respond, "Polo!" Using the direction of the voices as a guide, the blind Marco lunges after his Polos. The first person to be tagged is the new Marco.
How do you play the color pool game?
Everyone lines up at one end of the pool. One person is out of the water with their back facing the water. Those in the water choose a color in their heads. The person outside then yells different colors out loud. If your color is yelled, you start swimming to the other side. But careful — if the person hears you swim away, they will jump in and attempt to tag you before you get there.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Classic Swimming Pool Games

I spent most of my childhood summers in the pool. Ours was at the local YMCA, a large outdoor pool with a couple of diving boards, a snack shop (King Cones!) and acres of hot plastic lawn chairs. My sister and I could spend hours in that pool playing every possible game. Handstand contests were big, as was some weird game where we tried to talk to each other underwater. As we grew older, we dared each other onto the high diving board, where I once accidentally executed a perfect belly flop. Ouch. Now I take my kids to the pool and have the unique pleasure of teaching them Marco Polo for the first time, showing them perfect cannon ball position, and tossing the same dive ring into the shallow end for hours and hours. As an adult, there's one thing that I love even more than pool games: how fast the kids fall asleep after an afternoon in the water.

Related Articles

  • BBC. "Wind, whirlpools and waves." March 2004 (July 18, 2013) http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/blueplanet/infobursts/whirlpools_waves_bg.shtml
  • Canadian Red Cross. "Holding Your Breath Underwater" (July 18, 2013) http://www.redcross.ca/what-we-do/swimming-and-water-safety/swimming-boating-and-water-safety-tips/holding-your-breath-under-water
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Healthy Swimming/Recreational Water" (July 25, 2013) http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/
  • Coffey, Wayne. "Olympics 2012: David Boudia joins Greg Louganis as USA men's divers to win gold." August 12, 2012 (July 18, 2013) http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/olympics-2012/olympics-2012-david-boudia-joins-greg-louganis-usa-men-divers-win-gold-article-1.1134642
  • Grenoble, Ryan. "Breath-holding World Record." Nov. 16, 2012 (July 18, 2013) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/16/breath-world-record-stig-severinsen_n_2144734.html
  • Margetts, Jayne. "Grieving family warns of dangers of kids holding breath." ABC. Feb. 28, 2013 (July 18, 2013) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-27/family-warns-of-dangers-of-holding-breath-underwater/4543432
  • Martin, Michel. "Public Swimming Pools' Divisive Past." NPR. May 28, 2007 (July 25, 2013) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10495199
  • Retroland. "Marco Polo" (July 18, 2013) http://www.retroland.com/marco-polo/#.UeV3G2RASDE