By Marci Martinez, Grass Valley Aikikai
I absolutely love teaching children Aikido! I want to help them learn to fall without hurting themselves, throw someone without hurting them, and how to speak up for themselves if something isn’t to their comfort level. In turn, they share enthusiasm, creative ideas, and at times, silliness.
When working with kids, I find that they bring out our best Aikido. I have heard that some adults are afraid to work with children because they are concerned they may hurt them. I think this is what Aikido is about – being able to control without hurting your partner. People can use that fear to make sure they are going slow, that they are exerting just enough force to make the technique work, and that they aren’t pinning hard and fast. The reverse side of this is another reason I love teaching kids; I love that I get to remind them to speak up for themselves in a way that is respectful while creating a situation where they are listened to respectfully as well. I love that they are learning that it’s okay to tell an adult, or another child that what they are doing is not comfortable, or hurting
them. Then the behavior changes and they learn that communication can work to make things better for them, not just on the mat, but in life too. I have seen children, who would first just get upset and shrink away when they were grabbed too hard, develop the confidence to speak to their partner and tell them that they need less pressure or to go slower. I think this is such a valuable ability to learn, not just for Aikido, but for life.
Another aspect I enjoy while leading kids class is that their minds are so creative. We feed off each other’s creativity. When we play a game, after playing the game a few times, the kids love to pipe in with new variations of the game and look for something to make it more exciting. We have a game we call the “Timing Game” where the students run from one corner of the mat to the other without getting hit by a foam noodle. They learn to anticipate the timing of the noodle swing, watch where it goes, when it’s coming, and learn when to run flat out. Being somewhat tired with the game, one kid suggested that we do it as a group and try to run past a blind tagger who lies on the ground. Now the students must navigate other people and the noodle. A new game was born which we now affectionately call “Blind Alligator.”
Not only do the kids love to share their ideas to modify the game, they also enjoy analyzing the efficacy of the game, or how to make it use Aikido principles even more. Just today, we were warming up with a game the kids love. The students were supposed to get up as quickly as possible after falling but it was difficult to tell who got up first. Seeing some kids so set on winning that form was being sacrificed, I also shared my dilemma. After a bit of sharing, we came up with the addition of standing up into a hanmi. We practiced some more, then a new challenge arose. Two students were exactly in sync with each other. I had them ro-sham-bo it out, which resolved the issue, but then another student suggested that the leader judge which hanmi was better. Just brilliant!
When I work with the really young children (3-5 year olds), it helps me to discover how to break things down to their simplest elements. You step back and think, “What is the first thing we need to do?” Then we practice that, add the next bit, practice that, then add another bit, until finally, something emerges that resembles a roll, or a back fall, or a technique. We celebrate with a high five or huge smile of appreciation as they experience a 155 pound adult fall to the floor from their throw. Working with small children, not only do you have to break things down to their simplest parts, you also learn to celebrate small victories, point out what they did well, see how it inspires them to do better, or try again until they have it. I think this celebration of small steps is imperative to success as I see people, young and old, getting frustrated when they can’t do something well the first time. I remind them of babies… they can’t walk when they come out… I couldn’t do a back fall well when I first tried….so just try and get one thing right and into solid memory, and then add. Fall down seven times, get up eight.
I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to get to work with the youth at summer camp this year. I look forward to hearing about the games they play at their dojos, the way they stretch, what they really enjoy in their classes, and to see how they learn. Last year, we had a meeting with the youth of summer camp but there weren’t many young kids, and there wasn’t a kids corner to the training mat. Our meetings for the Youth Program became a meeting up of experienced and new teachers and allowed an exchange of ideas for teaching youth things like rolls, warm ups, games, etc. I’m hoping that this year we get more time to exchange ideas between teachers, but also a chance to work with the young people present. I want to hear what they have to say about learning Aikido, their day-to-day training, and their hopes and dreams for the future.