This year's Kenshukai -Teaching Aikido to Children 2008 held at Aikido of Berkley was a wonderful success! We had presenters and participants from all over the U.S. and a few Aikidoist joined us from as far away as Brazil and Africa. This two-day event was held on the weekend of October 4 & 5 and was wealth of information for all that attended. I personally took away at least two new ideas from all 14 presentations. The majority of all presentations where delivered "as-if" you were taking a class.
We kicked off the weekend with a wonderful presentation by Michael Friedl Sensei. Michael is a joy to work with and you can tell right away why kids are drawn to him. He incorporated balloons and even magic tricks into his Aikido teaching, which was a definite, hit with the kids and adults that attended that presentation. Michael had a wonderful way of distilling the complex into simple ideas. For example when doing warm-ups he associated the positions with simple shapes like circle, square and triangle. So instead of explaining something he just said, "Make a triangle" and showed what he meant.
Bill Gray Sensei followed Michael and he too had a feeling about him, which you could tell why his kids program is so successful. Bill Gray Sensei said that one of the main thing he stresses in his teaching is "Focus". He does many things throughout the class that constantly causes the kids to maintain their focus. One example is he hides a small beanbag in his Gi and he'll throw it to the kids to catch when doing techniques or sitting in seiza to help them maintain their focus. He has a wonderful way of teaching forward rolls that was straightforward and simple. I've been teaching kids Aikido for 4 years and thought I did a pretty good job of teaching forward rolls but I learned a lot about how to make it even simpler for kids and even adults!
From here we moved into Aviv Goldsmith Sensei's presentation on Verbal Aikido. The intent here was helping kids take the skills/principals they are learning in the dojo out into the world and applying them in daily situations like at school and on the bus. We broke into groups and role played like we were children on the bus. Aviv first demonstrated the 4 basic options we have when sitting on the bus next to another child that is bothering us. They were:
Option 1 just say "Stop it"
Option 2 if that doesn't work say "Stop it" with more authority.
Option 3 is learning to disengage. Just walk away and find another seat.
Option 4 is learning to ask for help if the instigator is persistent.
Aviv followed up this exercise with another one where Nage was surrounded by four attackers. The Nage had to face each attacker and each attacker had an opportunity to say something negative about the Nage. For example: "you're a poo-poo head". The Nage's response was a simple thank you and moved onto the next attacker. Then we debriefed and asked both attackers and Nage how they felt. Then we did the same exercise again but with saying positive things. Finally we debrief as a whole group and Aviv asked the questions "Was the attack real? Was the attack physical or verbal?" The obvious intent is to help kids learn the distinctions between a true physical threat versus an emotional one and give them alternatives to hitting or pushing someone when someone doesn't say something very nice to you.
Melissa Fischer and myself of Tenzan Aikido in Seattle gave a presentation on helping kids to reach their potential. Melissa's underlying goals and philosophy when teaching focuses on balancing 3 aspects when teaching Aikido to children. They are the physical, mental and social. To explore the physical world Melissa used Aikido techniques, body movement and stillness studies and ukemi (falling). To explore the mental she used Mountain practice (seiza with eyes closed) at the beginning of class allows kids to go inside, get acquainted with their quiet, inner selves and sets the tone for a focused practice. To explore the social dimension she had us get in a circle and hold hands. She demonstrated how a shift in one could affect the whole. As for myself my goal when teaching Aikido to children is to expand their self-awareness. I focus on body awareness, our inner dialog (stories) and emotional awareness. The main thing I primarily stressed in my presentation was to get out of telling kids how to do Aikido and start showing them and asking them powerful questions to bring the awareness back into their bodies. For example: instead of telling them they stepped with the wrong foot just ask them what foot did you just step with? This places the focus back on them.
Lisa Smith Rice gave a great presentation titled "Randori for everyone!" At her dojo they've come up with a simple set of principals that they teach to kids and adults when doing randori. The first 3 are protect yourself at all times, stay on the outside and keep moving forward. We broke into randori groups and practiced these first three principals. In addition, she shared with us some high percentage throws that work best when doing freestyle. It was a great presentation and a joy to participate in.
Ross Robertson Sensei gave a presentation that was truly unique. Ross takes an approach that doesn't stress teaching specific techniques but instead focuses on what options manifest at that moment and he calls this "finding the doors". For example, we started with Uke grabbing katate-dori in gyaku-hanmi. He didn't call it this he just said "OK someone grab's your wrist like this?" And followed that statement with a question "What doors are there here?" He said, "if you walk through the door like this you could do this" (he demonstrated kaitenage) and then said "or you could walk through the door like this" (he demonstrated shihonage). What I thought was so interesting about this approach was it was teaching kids to really look at what is going on in the present moment and finding the appropriate response versus getting caught up in a mental dialog of should I do this technique or that technique?
Robert Kent Sensei gave a presentation on teaching aikido to teens. What I took away here was really how unique this age group is and that like anything you've got to find out what works best with them. Some important points are one; you need to make it appear dangerous for teens. Otherwise you are going to loose their interest pretty quickly. Rob did this by introducing tanto (knife) attacks pretty early in his teaching with the teens. They see this stuff on T.V. and video games so it's something that's part of their world and are interested in. The second point that I thought was really important is that teens travel in tribes and you must teach to the tribe first and then the individual otherwise you'll lose them.
Donna Pienkowski gave a talk on Developmental Learning. While the focus of the weekend was on how to teach Aikido to children this presentation focused on how children learn and grow. Donna provided information by age groups and specific developmental milestones kids have within these age groups. The milestone dimensions she shared had to do with their physical, cognitive and social/emotional milestones. This information provided us guidelines and areas to focus on depending on the age range of the students we were teaching. She also shared with us a simple questionnaire one could give to determine if the child's primary learning behavior was visual, auditory or kinesthetic/tactile. Interestingly enough the majority of participants at this weekends' seminar where either visual learners or tactile learners.
Alex Vanderburg Sensei, gave an entertaining and enjoyable presentation called "Martial Play". He uses many props to teach this class which definitely makes it fun and engaging. Alex works with many troubled kids and his primary focus is not to teach them a martial art but to get them ready to participate in a martial art or sport. Many of the kids that Alex works with are unable to participate in traditional sports or martial arts because they are constantly getting kicked off the team or out of class. His focus is to help them learn emotional intelligence to participate in whatever they wish to pursue. It was a great presentation and anytime you have an opportunity to participate in one of Alex's classes I would highly recommend it.
The final presentation of the weekend was by Jose Bueno Sensei from Sao Paulo Brazil. Once again this was a delight as where all the presentations. I'll have to admit this one touched my heart the most because of the work that Jose Bueno is doing with disadvantage kids in Sao Paulo. In 2003 he founded Acao Harmonia Brasil (Harmony in Action Brazil) that teaches Aikido to children in Sao Paulo offering them an alternative the violence they learn on the street. Many of the children are orphans and don't have a place to call home. They look to Jose and the dojo community as their family and role models. One thing that Jose does is ask other dojo's to write letters to his kids. He says this means the world to them and also teaches them there's a larger world out there besides just the streets where many of them live. If you are interesting in donating your time or having your kids program write letters reach out to Jose via their website: www.aikidoharmonia.com.br
In summary, this was a wonderful weekend and well worth the time, energy and effort I spent to attend and present. If you are a kids Aikido teacher or thinking about starting up a kids program at your dojo I would highly recommend you attend next year's 2009 Kenshukai -- Teaching Aikido to Kids.
Pete Wilkins Shodan Tenzan Aikido Seattle.