Backyard Olympics: Gymnastics and Swimming Games

When the summer Olympics roll around every four years, kids across metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and beyond set their dreams on BMX, trampoline tricks – maybe even tackling a triathlon. But two of the most iconic sports of all just might be gymnastics and swimming, as powerful athletes slice through the sky and water with power, speed and impeccable form.

As the games head to London in 2012, why not channel some of that spirit by having kids try a few challenges on their own, on home turf? We checked in with two local spots that had cool DIY games that translate nicely to your yard or community yard. Whether your Olympic hopeful is a future Shawn Johnson or Mike Phelps – or just needs to blow off some steam – these'll get it done!

Gymnastics Plate Skate

Every Olympic season, the kids at Mills Gymnastics USA in Southgate compete in some fun "games" of their own. This simple "plate skate" is a favorite – and helps budding tumblers with their coordination. It's perfect-10 way to channel kids' energy.

"It teaches kids balance," too, says Ellen Vreeland, office manager. That's key in gymnastics, and this activity helps kids become aware of how to position their weight. That, and – "It's exercise, definitely!"


  • Start age: 2, with parents' help; as young as 3, alone
  • Location: A stretch of dry lawn (taller grass is better); 12-50 feet long or beyond, depending on skill and age
  • Group size: 2 to 8-plus
  • Stuff: Dixie paper plates (two per child); stopwatch, prizes (optional)


  1. Designate a starting and ending point. Lining up at the starting line, each child gets two plates; turn them upside-down, and place them on the ground.
  2. In bare feet (no socks!), each child steps onto her two plates – one foot to a plate.
  3. Let 'em go! Kids "skate" by pushing their feet, one after the other, onto the ground and "moving out" at the same time. First to the finish line wins.

Swimming Water Polo Relay

Setting a pool on fire requires speed and control. Just look at Michael Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medalist (the 2012 games will be his last). At the Ann Arbor YMCA – located in the city where Phelps once trained – swim lesson coordinator Kira Collins offered this game, which piggybacks two Olympic water sports.

"Kids have to kick and use their arms and push (the ball) down the pool," Collins explains. "It's teaching them correct body placement with swimming, and the motion of their kicks."


  • Start age: As young as 3 (with personal floatation device)
  • Location: A home pool at least 12 feet in diameter can work for smaller kids; otherwise, check with a community pool (lane dividers are helpful)
  • Group size: 1 to 12-plus
  • Stuff: A floating ball (water polo ball or beach ball of similar size); personal floatation devises like foam-and-PVC "barbells," kickboards or noodles (if needed); stopwatch, prizes (optional)


If space is limited, have one child go at a time and clock his personal best time; or, have three or four kids line up, at a time, at the shallow end for a bona fide race.

  1. Each child starts with the ball floating in front of him. Keeping his head out of water, his goal is to move the ball without touching it. How? With the motion of his arms, in either a basic "doggy paddle" or freestyle (i.e., frontward) stroke. Meanwhile, he'll kick his legs to "propel" himself forward. Point out that strong kicks alternate from the hips – not the knees – and feet should be relaxed.
  2. For extra endurance and comfort, regardless of age, consider using personal floatation devices, which kids sit on (avoid inflatables, as they tend to lose air quickly). They'll still need to move their legs and arms.
  3. If "relay racing," have kids "pass off" the ball to the next child, either at the end of one pool-length or two, depending on your group.


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