The Art of Play

by Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE on Feb 01, 2008

Use your knowledge and expertise to let the kid in you come out and teach.

As I approached the pool to teach my first water fitness class, the theme from Jaws grew progressively louder in my head. Looking through the window, I could see the “sharks” beginning to circle—these were the regular participants known for chewing up many highly skilled instructors in the past. Obviously, they were awaiting the arrival of the “new” instructor: me. I developed a lump in my throat, although I couldn’t figure out why. I had been teaching group exercise for many years, and yet I felt like fresh meat.

I entered the water with my proverbial harpoon, ready to strike. After all, didn’t I have to prove to the sharks that I knew my stuff? However, this uptight attitude did not float. And besides, it wasn’t really me. At the risk of making a fool of myself, I decided to have a little fun. During an exercise with the water bells, I asked the class to imagine they were running through the aisles of a supermarket. They had to “push” the cart. Along the “aisles” we stopped at various departments. At the bakery, we all jumped up and down 12 times for a dozen cookies. The trip through the store continued as we called out numbers at the deli, cut chicken in the meat department and reached for cans on the top shelf. We even took items from the cart and placed them on the conveyor belt for checkout. One shark yelled out, “Clean up in aisle 5!” That was it: I knew I had won them over, not with my knowledge or experience, but with my willingness to let go and play. I had successfully transformed a group of sharks into friendly, playful dolphins! I realized that this playful approach offered a winning formula for any class.

Connecting Through Fun

Participation in the aquatics class mentioned above had been waning, with the former instructor averaging six to eight attendees per week. Now the class consistently draws more than 35 people. Each week participants eagerly ask, “Where are we going today?” Our themes include trips south of the border, football camp, the rodeo and even a “pool-ka” party sans lederhosen. The irony is that I am not doing anything different or earthshattering. I have simply incorporated the art of play.

Playing with your participants is a way of connecting. Some call it “exertainment.” You may have multiple certifications or a degree and a head full of fitness knowledge, but if you are unable to communicate and connect well with participants, the class experience goes flat. By introducing play, you help participants feel more welcome and at ease. You motivate them to feel successful and assure them that they’re part of the group. “Some members do not like working out, but they know they need to,” says Terry Howard, group fitness director for Merritt Athletic Clubs in Eldersburg, Maryland. “Playing takes the ‘work’ out of ‘workout,’ which can inspire those who may feel intimidated but desperately need the benefits of exercise.”

The Play Date

So how can you connect and play with your participants? The following ideas will get you started.

Battle Boredom. Many instructors, particularly those who have been teaching for a while, tend to fall into a rut and revert to autopilot. “When we lose our spark internally, we lose it externally,” says Howard. This greatly affects the members’ experience. If their instructor is bored, the participants may also feel that way, as they tend to “mirror” the instructor. Using the same music, the same cuing and the same moves or combinations is a trap many instructors fall prey to.

“We find a combination that’s easy to remember and we put it in every workout,” points out Howard. “Instructors may be too busy to figure out new choreography or attend continuing education courses. When they become stale, participants stop coming, and even if the instructor changes, it may take some time to win those participants back.”

There are a variety of ways you can avoid becoming snared in the boredom pitfall. Jackie Frederick, group fitness coordinator at Oxford Athletic Club in Wexford, Pennsylvania, suggests learning a different format. “If an instructor only teaches [indoor cycling] and would love to try her hand at Zumba®, I try to encourage her to do that. It’s an immediate way to bring back excitement to the teaching experience.”

Face the Fear of Failure. Playing requires you to veer off the normal and routine path. It can be a scary trip. You’ll have to deal with doubt. “What if the members don’t like it? What if I look silly?” You may fear failure, but failure is what helps you grow. “When you do mess up, be big enough to laugh about it,” advises Howard. Is it possible that my experiment with the pool sharks could have failed miserably? Absolutely. The worst-case scenario, however, is usually not as bad as you imagine.

Stay Up-to-Date. When we have been teaching for a while, we may look at continuing education with an attitude of “been there, done that,” not realizing how valuable that education can be. Workshops offer the latest training techniques and teach you how to put a new twist on old exercises. You recharge your batteries as you feed off the presenter’s energy and knowledge. Attending a workshop also puts you in a participant’s role again. This is key, as it allows you to revisit the reasons why you became an instructor in the first place. You remember how participants must feel when standing on the other side of the class.

Experiment With the Unfamiliar. The more you know, the more you grow and the farther you will go. Be a sponge and soak up all the information you can from live workshops, online courses, articles and other professionals. Don’t be afraid to attend workshops that aren’t related to formats you currently teach. For example, attending a Pilates workshop may give you a better understanding of alignment and help you create amazing visual cues you can incorporate into your strength class. Confidence grows as you learn, making it easier for you to play with your participants. This also helps you keep your workouts fresh as you continuously replenish yourself with new ideas.

Practice Your Craft. You should practice not only your combos and technique—to ensure their validity—but also your cuing. We’ve all heard of muscle memory. You can create the same type of memory by constantly practicing and trying new cues. When practicing, perform the movements and speak as though you were in front of a room full of participants. Once you are more familiar with the material, you will be in a better position to incorporate play. It is important to sound natural, not scripted. Invite friends or colleagues to watch you practice, or visualize yourself teaching a class when you are rehearsing. This will help you buff those connecting skills and make you shine!

Research Ideas. Not a creative person? Try searching the Internet! Websites and forums dedicated to fitness professionals abound. Plenty of instructors share successful class play dates. Interact with other instructors whenever possible—via the Internet, within your club or at other facilities. This will allow you to find your inner child! What works for them may not work for you, but it may create a spark of an idea that you can develop into your own phenomenal experience. Look outside the fitness arena for ideas, too. For example, watch a cheerleading competition for dance-based moves. You might also gain some fresh insight from searching videos on YouTube.

Play With Others. Often your own teammates are the best resources for play. It is amazing what can happen when you share the spotlight with a fellow instructor. Team-teaching frees you up from carrying the entire class and allows you to play off one another. Members feed off the interaction and circle of energy that the two of you create. This technique is highly effective in helping all instructors become more versatile. Pair up with an opposite who can inadvertently teach you new skills.

Use Visual Cues and Create Class Themes. Present exercises that simulate activities within a particular theme; for example, the supermarket trip. (For theme ideas for other class formats, see the sidebar “Make Believe in Me,” on page 79.) Common language draws in the average participant more than technical talk. Balance your presentation by combining your knowledge with play. We can dazzle our members with our ability to create a fun environment just as easily as we can by being informative. Just keep in mind the goal, and don’t let the play become so out of hand that you lose control of class.

Look, Listen and Learn

Even though you are the one on stage when you teach, the spotlight needs to be on your participants. This is their workout, not yours. Playing polka music is not my personal preference, but it appealed to the Wednesday morning pool sharks! The payoff: the smiles on their faces. Making their day certainly made mine!

Be daring, open up, relax and show people how much they mean to you. Learn names and use them often—before, during and after class. Make eye contact with participants as you speak and play. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they liked about the class and what they didn’t like. Take that information to heart when planning future classes. You never know when you are going to make a lasting impact. “I never exercised a day in my life,” says Lois Held, a member at Healthtrax® Fitness and Wellness in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and a participant in the supermarket water class. “When the classes are fun and the teacher interacts with us, we want to come back. I look forward to my time in the water class now.”

“If fitness professionals viewed their classes as a ‘journey’ we take together, they would most likely [add] a sense of ‘fun’ to the workouts,” says Frederick. “Top-notch instructors have an effortless way of making their classes playful, well organized and a great workout. Instructors who exhibit these traits are of high value. Positive, playful behavior is contagious!”

SIDEBAR: Make Believe In Me

If you need a little help firing up your “make-believe” brain, take a look at the following possibilities in five different formats, and then come up with your own ideas.
Indoor Cycling. Participants already rely on you to keep them engaged, as they aren’t literally traveling anywhere. Try synchronizing your music and movements to coincide with an actual tour through a foreign city. Post a map of the city along with pictures and postcards to create a greater sense of fun and adventure.

Step. Many step participants have been stepping for years and are well versed in all the moves. Why not let them call out classic moves and let the rest of the class follow? Or create a theme around a participant’s life experience. For example, if someone is celebrating a birthday, those are the number of “steps” everyone must take. Another great way to get steppers to play is to associate a specific move with a particular person. For example, “turn step for Holly,” “across-the-top for Kelli,” etc. Continue cuing the routine like this for a couple of rounds. Then add a twist. On the next round, cue “turn step for who?” “across-the-top for who?” Allow members to yell out the name associated with each move. Now comes the true test and fun. Cue the routine using only the participants’ names, not the moves. This fully engages people and gives everyone a chance to “own” the class by contributing and interacting.

Yoga. Yoga class can get serious very quickly. Why not vary the imagery you use? Instead of cuing the regular cat/cow, ask participants to visualize themselves as a crescent moon and then a full moon. During relaxation, take people on a journey to their favorite childhood playground. Move classes outside (weather permitting) and allow nature to guide your visualization. Encourage people to imagine their bodies being as strong and tall as the trees that surround them. Tell them to reach their hands upward, drawing energy from the sun.

Dance-Based Classes. Pick a music genre, such as sounds of the ’80s, and offer a full sensory experience. Bring bandanas to share, and ask participants what their favorite saying or cultural icon is from that era. Present a Thriller-themed choreography block, or recreate the famous Studio 54. Have one of your club’s personal trainers be the “bouncer” at the door (complete with velvet ropes) who collects VIP passes from “guests.” Transform your room into a dance club. Hang balloons and curly ribbons from the rafters and use special markers or paint to create “graffiti” on the mirrors.

Boot Camp. Try adding a dodge ball station or pretend you are the high-school coach and these are the final drills. Come up with different, playful ways to use the equipment, but always make safety your top priority.

Peggy Gregor is the group exercise director at Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. She also serves as a master instructor for SPIN Pilates™. Reach her at

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About the Author

Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE

Peggy Gregor, AFAA, ACE IDEA Author/Presenter

Peggy Gregor is the group fitness director and corporate group fitness advisor for Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness. She inspires and educates others through her many published articles, dynamic fitness...