Every martial art has something unique and special to offer an adult student. However, we believe that children have particular needs that are nurtured through Aikido practice. For instance, Aikido is non-competitive, allowing children to discover the art through inward focus and self- motivation. Character building is important in an increasingly competitive and stressful culture that all too often rewards exterior, material success rather than inner qualities of self-confidence and composure.
If your child enjoys and excels in competitive sports, then Aikido is a nice counterbalance to team competition. Many children and parents have commented that several years of Aikido significantly improves their athletic ability and understanding of teamwork. If your child dislikes competition and team sports, he/she often discovers the excitement of improving coordination, flexibility and movement through Aikido.
Many martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do, Karate and Wu Shu (Chinese forms like “Kung Fu”) emphasize striking and kicking skills. This could lead to a false sense of power that does not help children creatively resolve conflict on one hand, or effectively defend themselves on the other. Aikido, by emphasizing the importance of blending with an attack, intrinsically promotes the peaceful and creative resolution of conflict.
Striking and the contraction characteristic of more linear martial arts potentially heighten tension and inhibition in the upper body; in contrast, Aikido continually promotes core power and relaxation. The open handed, relaxed stances of Aikido allows the child to learn centered, calm and circular movements instead of relying on the rigid mechanics characteristic of many striking and kicking styles.
Children’s Aikido classes dynamically balance technical training with teamwork exercises and games. The games that we play provide a fun dimension to the focus of Aikido, while emphasizing fundamental principles of the techniques themselves, such as centering, blending, teamwork and non-violent conflict resolution. We also teach some yoga during warm-ups to promote flexibility and unified movement, essential qualities of the young athlete and martial artist.
Beware of any martial art that claims it will make your child a good fighter, or grant them the ability to evade or escape a significantly larger and stronger attacker. For instance, it is somewhat unrealistic to strike, throw or pin someone that outweighs you by 200 pounds (although not impossible, provided the right strategy, many years of training and the advantage of surprise). It is important that children are not deluded about their power and ability to defend themselves.
On the other hand, children need to know that there are times when it is appropriate (and necessary) to say “no,” assert boundaries, and possibly fight back. The most important self–defense skills involve the promotion of self-confidence, street smarts and awareness. In Aikido class we teach street awareness and abuse prevention skills. In addition, by learning how to move in a relaxed, confident and aware manner, children naturally learn how to establish boundaries and avoid potential conflicts or dangerous situations.
We emphasize the art of ukemi, or methods of falling that are safe and fun. Children are allowed to progress to a more dynamic fall (higher from the ground) only when they feel comfortable with the movement and the instructor believes that they are ready. Our safety record is excellent; there are many more injuries in team sports like baseball, basketball or soccer. In fact, by learning good ukemi, the child will reduce the chance of injury in other physical activities like skiing, snowboarding and team sports.
We learn how to deal with bullies creatively by using Aikido principles. Children discover that metaphors are powerful tools to understand difficult concepts, so we integrate imagery, movement and metaphor in a dynamic and unique manner in order to promote peaceful conflict resolution. For example, Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, believed that Aikido embodies the principles of the Square, Triangle, and Circle depending on the martial context. A square represents stability (the ability to say “no” and express the necessity of boundaries or take a strong Aikido stance), a triangle might illustrate a direct entry (the ability to directly communicate feelings in a clear and non-confrontational manner) and the principle of the circle represents the way of harmony (the ability to be compassionate and understand another perspective or to blend with an attack). Each principle has an appropriate application in self-defense and in the peaceful resolution of conflict. We apply these principles in fun ways – through games, role-playing (as a bully, victim, or a bystander), and discussion.
Aikido is a wonderful method of transforming angry energy into something more positive because children with power issues appreciate the physicality of the classes and the fact that Aikido is fun. In class we always emphasize the importance of cooperation and the fact that the highest goal of a martial artist is to keep from fighting. Children learn through the centering movements and strong ethical emphasis that a good martial artist is compassionate and learns how to protect other children, animals, and the environment.
Aikido is a wonderful choice for children struggling with issues of power due to its intrinsic emphasis on the peaceful resolution of conflict and the fact that while we learn how to defend against strikes, we don’t rely on strikes in the techniques themselves. Children are only allowed to test when they complete a worksheet that demonstrates their understanding of principles of compassion and mindfulness (see the following question). Children are told that except in extreme cases, Aikido should never be used outside the dojo, and they will not be allowed to train if they cannot follow this rule.
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