How do you teach Aikido to Children?

By Peter Bernath, 6th Dan, Shidoin
[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a planned series on Aikido and children. It is written by Peter Bernath, who in addition to being Chief Instructor of Florida Aikikai and one of the senior instructors of the US Aikido Federation, is Co-Editor in Chief of Aikido Online.Photos courtesy of Florida Aikikai]

For some reason, teaching Aikido to children is very challenging for many instructors. It’s amazing that such little people can strike such fear in the hearts of so many big black belts. Even experienced Aikidoka who are excellent instructors for adults can become absolutely clueless when it comes to teaching children.Today there are numerous books, videos and web sites devoted specifically to teaching Aikido to kids. A lot of the information they contain deals with “Aiki games”, designed to teach kids Aikido movement and to hold their attention. Games can be fun from time to time but I think the best way to teach kids Aikido is simply to teach them Aikido. Aikido is fun to do whether you are eight years old or eighty. Aikido is supposed to be for people of all ages so why try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to teaching children?A number of years ago I had the opportunity to assist Shibata Sensei when he was still living in Japan and teaching the children’s class at Hombu dojo.

Before the class began, I asked him what type of games he did with the kids. He looked at me somewhat surprised and said that he didn’t play any games with them at all, he just taught Aikido. I remember the class was conducted about the same as a normal adult class and all the kids had a great time. I’ve structured my own children’s class similarly ever since.I began teaching children’s class when we first opened Florida Aikikai in 1980. Over the years, both my children have practiced in the kid’s class.

My teenage daughter Madison is still training, which makes me feel less anxious about her eventually dating boys … in 20 years or so. Over the years I’ve made certain observations about teaching children, which I’d like to share. While I know a lot of this will be obvious to you, I hope you nonetheless will find something of benefit.In terms of actual instruction, I’ve found that children learn best with minimal verbal explanations. They seem to easily pick up the techniques by simply watching and doing. For example, in teaching a forward roll, I just try to get them to do a somersault at first. I avoid giving any long technical explanations of what angle to roll or where to put their hands etc.

After a few classes and a couple of pointers, they start doing Aikido type rolls simply by watching the other kids.My goal with the children is for them to have fun while developing good basic Aikido skills. It then becomes an easy transition into adult class (although most of my kids enjoy being with their friends and are in no hurry to join the adults). I’m happy to let them be kids as long as they like.We have testing and colored belts in the children’s program similar to other martial arts. I believe it is important for kids to be rewarded for their progress, especially when their friends in other martial arts are getting trophies and colored belts. However, we try to not make it pressured and competitive. They get pushed enough in school, and in other sports and activities they’re involved in. I don’t want them to feel they have to test at a particular time or are in competition with each other. We emphasize that testing is beneficial because of the preparation and hard work that is put into it, not just because they are getting a new belt. We stress that Aikido is unique in being non-competitive and we try to have all the events in the dojo reflect that attitude.Children’s class, at Florida Aikikai, is conducted similar to an adult beginner’s class.

We usually begin with breathing meditation. I have the kids line up in seiza with their hands folded and thumbs touching. I tell them to concentrate on their breathing, counting up to ten and then repeating the process. When they realize their mind is drifting I tell them to resume counting their breaths. Basic meditation like this helps to calm and focus the kids.After a short warm up of general stretching and wrist exercises, we practice tai sabaki and the rowing and ikkyo exercises. The kids like to count in Japanese during these exercises, quite loudly I might add. We also spend a lot of time on ukemi drills. They make two lines with the seniors going first so the newer students can see what to do. The drills include:

small forward and backward rolls
forward shikko with forward rolls
backward shikko with backward rolls
large standing rolls forward and backward
forward roll, tenkan backward roll
forward breakfall laying out (i.e. koshinage ukemi)
forward breakfall and stand up (i.e. ukemi from projection)
forward leapfrog breakfalls over each other’s backs.
forward and backward shikko with turns.

We then line up, the instructor demonstrates a technique and the children pair off and start training, just like in the adult class. We usually pair the kids off by experience level. Sometimes the higher ranks will practice a more advanced variation of a technique and the younger ones a more basic movement. Or the seniors will do nikkyo while the juniors practice ikkyo. We end each class with kokyudosa and meditation before bowing out.Along with ukemi, the most important things for the children to learn in the beginning are, hanmi (ai and gyaku), tai sabaki (irimi, tenkan, tenshin) and kokyu (ikkyo) arm movement.

I use these terms repeatedly while demonstrating a technique. It helps them attack properly and they also start to see similarities in the different techniques they practice.For example, when a child becomes confused doing kotegaeshi, I can just tell them to tenkan when uke punches and tenshin when they apply the technique. It helps the children find the connection between their Aikido drills and exercises and the techniques they practice.One other thing I’d like to mention is the great impact of parents’ involvement in the children’s class. Once parents of the students start getting involved, it makes the program run much more smoothly. Some parents train themselves and can help with the instruction, providing much more individual attention to each child.

Others don’t train but help out in other ways by bring in snacks, assisting with parties or even taking the littlest one’s to the toilet. It’s nice for everyone when the dojo becomes a family affair.We now have almost fifty children in the dojo with classes three times a week. As the program grew we started offering other activities for the kids like hosting birthday parties and having pizza / video nights. The kids love to watch the old O-Sensei videos and apparently any video that has me taking ukemi and getting smashed.Camps and seminars are also a great addition to a children’s program.

They’re just as beneficial for kids as they are for adults. I always see the children’s Aikido grow by leaps and bounds. It’s a good place to introduce a new weapons kata, or explain more about the philosophy and principles of Aikido.Incorporating arts and crafts into the seminar and camp curriculum allows you to expose the children to other aspects of Japanese culture as well. Younger and older kids alike enjoy making Noh masks, folding fans, writing in Japanese calligraphy, composing haiku poems or making fighting kites. It gives the kids a break from physical training and educates them at the same time.We end each camp with a party, where we serve Japanese food like sushi, and make rice balls and other dishes. We often combine this with a ceremony in which we award certificates.

These events are a lot of fun and it’s also a good way to generate added income for the dojo. I am very pleased with how rewarding they’ve been for everyone and it helps in building a close camaraderie within the dojo. It’s good to see the interest being generated in children’s Aikido. The focus and attention being given to the youngest members of our Aikido community is very heartening, after all, they are our future.

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