Water games and sports

Water games and sports

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children traditionally played many fun water games to practice their swimming and diving, develop their coordination and teamwork, as well as to cool off and play.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of learning through water games and sports

Water is a big part of Australian life, reflecting our outdoor lifestyle and our hot climate. The same has been true for children in this land for thousands of years, both for recreation and for activities such as fishing and gathering food in and around water. Spending time in and around the water is important family time, a time to play, share stories about the water, as well as learn skills like swimming, fishing, and gathering bush foods.

Australian play and sport culture is an old one, with many sports played competitively in traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, from ball to corroboree and water games1. The traditional Bunya festival in the Bunya Mountains in Queensland where tribes from far and wide gathered to feast on bunya nuts also hosted an array of games, including bowls, running races, spear and boomerang throwing2.  Marngrook is a traditional Aboriginal football game from Victoria played with a possum skin football3. This culture of play and games continues today in contemporary forms, with marngrook likely having influenced the way AFL is played today, although this perspective is sometimes seen as controversial4. Marngrook demonstrates that Aboriginal culture has a long history of valuing athletic abilities and sportsmanship, above and beyond purely practising hunting and fishing skills.

The water games outlined in this resource have been adapted faithfully from the resource ‘Yulunga: Traditional Indigenous Games’, which was prepared by Ken Edwards through extensive research of historical records and a consultation process with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities nationwide to ensure the activities are an accurate reflection of play culture5. Many of the original accounts of Indigenous games were recorded during the nineteenth century by explorers, government officials, settlers, scientists and missionaries1.

Games you may know…

Some of these games may be familiar, as children from all backgrounds share a sense of fun and play and enjoy similar activities. Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander games that you may recognise as common water games that Australian children play todayinclude:

  • Bubu Sagul – two or more children move round and round a central point in a pool or creek to create a whirlpool
  • ‘Bomb diving’ to create the biggest splash possible
  • Udai - similar to ‘Piggy in the Middle’. In waist-deep water, in teams of two, children throw a ball (or traditionally, a hard fruit) to the other person on their team, while the other team tries to intercept it.

Classroom activity - Health and Physical Education Years 3 and 4

Four water games are described that develop students’ teamwork, swimming, hand-eye coordination and throwing skills. These were traditionally played to give children the opportunity to practise their fishing and hunting skills, as well as to have fun and keep cool. Two games are water and swimming-based and will require a creek, pool or beach, and another two are land-based but use water. These activities have been adapted from Yulunga Water Games6. Several other water games are described in the original resource.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Participate in outdoor games and activities to examine how participation promotes a connection between the community, natural and built environments, and health and wellbeing (ACPPS041)
  • Participate in physical activities from their own and other cultures (ACPMP108)
  • Apply basic rules and scoring systems, and demonstrate fair play when participating in physical activities (ACPMP050)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 3 and 4 in Health and Physical Education:

  • apply strategies for working cooperatively and apply rules fairly
  • refine fundamental movement skills and apply movement concepts and strategies in a variety of physical activities and to solve movement challenges

Activity 1 – Yiri

Suggested timing for activity: 30 minutes

Required resources: A pool, lake or flowing water; sticks, short lengths of dowels or tennis balls, a floating target, e.g. a life ring or rubber duckie, rope.

‘Yiri’ means to throw in the language from around the Sydney area. This game is known from Ulladulla in New South Wales, and Dunk Island in Queensland. This can be played from the bank or edge of the pool, or with one person or more people in the water as targets (with soft balls being thrown only). This game is basically moving target practice, useful for fishing and hunting and will build student’s throwing skills.

If it is not possible to throw objects into a flowing body of water, buckets of water or hula hoops placed on the ground at varying distances can be used. Mark out the boundary of the ‘water’ with a line or skipping rope.

  1. Players stand on the edge of the water and throw their ‘spears’ (sticks, short dowels, or balls) at the floating targets. Once they are all thrown, the game is stopped and they can be retrieved.
  2. For moving target practice, a target can be towed across the water using a length of rope. Students each have two tries to hit the target. Scores can be kept to make it a competition.
  3. Stones can also be used to throw at pieces of bark floating on the water. Safety precautions will need to be discussed with students for all of these options.

Activity 2 - Reflection

Suggested timing: 15 minutes directly following Activity 1

Required resources: n/a

Following Activity 1, students should engage in a class discussion and answer the following inquiry-based questions:

  1. Discuss with students which skills are involved in this game e.g. teamwork, throwing aim, strategy, swimming.
  2. How are these skills useful in their lives? What other sports can they be transferred to?
  3. How may these skills have been useful in traditional life?
  4. What other situations might these skills be useful for?

Extension activity – Kwatye

Note: this activity involves water throwing and players will get wet

‘Kwatye’ means water in the Eastern Arrernte language of central Australia

Suggested timing for activity: Up to 30 minutes

Required resources: Bucket, water, paper cups or small buckets, large open area suitable for running, e.g. oval, ground markers

This is a land-based water fighting game with two teams of four to ten players. Players will get wet. Instructions should be given to avoid contact to keep the game safe. This game builds teamwork, throwing skills, fitness, and uses strategy.

  1. Place empty bucket or a large empty bin at the centre of a 1 metre and 3 metre diameter circle.
  2. One team is armed with small buckets or cups, and must try to put as much water in the centre bin as possible without going inside the marked circle. This water will come from a couple of large bins placed outside the playing area.
  3. The defending team stands inside the 3 metre circle and tries to stop the other team, but must stay outside the 1 metre circle.
  4. After a set time, measure the water in the bucket, empty it, and swap teams. The team that got the most water in the bucket wins.


1 Traditional Indigenous Games for Aussie Kids (Bond University, 2008) https://bond.edu.au/news/44561/traditional-indigenous-games-aussie-kids

2 The Great Bunya Gathering (National Library of Australia, 2012) https://nla.gov.au/tarkine//nla.obj-412554926/pdf

3 Marngrook (possum skin football) (Culture Victoria, 2016)https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/the-koorie-heritage-trust-collections-and-history/marngrook-possum-skin-football/

4 Indigenous influence on AFL creation confirmed by historical transcripts, historian says (ABC News, 2017)  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/historian-reveals-marngrook-influence-on-afl/8439748

5 Yulunga Traditional Indigenous Games (Australian Sporting Commission, 2009) https://www.sportingschools.gov.au/resources-and-pd/schools/yulunga/

6 Yulunga Traditional Indigenous Games (Australian Sporting Commission, 2009) https://www.sportingschools.gov.au/resources-and-pd/schools/yulunga/age-category

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.