From time to time I'm going to post articles on here as part of a wider focus on improving of public image, one of the ways I'm going to do this is through written articles. To start off the new year, here is the first. Osu! Sensei Marc
Like most dojo leads, I can say 2020 has been a tough year for Ty Sign Aikido and it is clear we’ve done well to survive. Like many clubs, we have kept members engaged and have been proactive and like everyone else, we have had our losses. Assessing the club for the coming year, one thing is very clear, the mainstay of our dojo is our junior members. These members have been a consistent source of inspiration as well as vital to keeping our club above going. This article reflects some of my views on why I think children are a vital asset to the aikido community.
Children in Aikido
As honourable as the ethos of Aikido is for self-improvement, to be a viable club you need to make money. That’s a fact of life. For a club to make money, you need committed and reliable members who pay. Looking at my books, it is significantly clear that children and the parents behind them are those members who pay regularly and on time and very rarely miss a session. That in and of itself should speak volumes.
Ty Sign Aikido has been active for six years. Before pandemic we averaged thirty-two members. Of those thirty-two, twenty-four members consisted of children. Currently, we have dropped to a solid twelve juniors attending regular weekly online sessions. Of the other twelve, eight will return once physical training resumes, two have emigrated and the other two are undecided. Of my adults, all eight are committed to returning once physical training can resume (at time of writing, our area is in local lockdown).
As we return to the dojo I am confident our numbers will increase with an average drop of one maybe two members, which is an annual average for us. I won’t talk about my opinions on the pros and cons of the ‘digital dojo’ suffice to say that my underlying opinion is that it is fit for purpose as a placeholder to engage and keep focus on the club. It has worked in favour for keeping active engagement and has been the go-to replacement for the dojo, my junior members love it.
Financial benefits to the club withstanding, there are more gains to running a children’s class than not and are points often overlooked to those dismissive of children in the dojo.
To clarify, first and foremost, teaching children is not all fun and games. Nor is it running a babysitting service. If anything, it is more serious and takes more skill and energy than running an adult class.
A one hour children’s class consists of all the elements you would expect to see in an adult class, everything ranging from etiquette and self-discipline to focussed based techniques including weapon work and randori, all focussed and working toward gradings. Games and fun activities should and can be regulated to those sessions closer to celebration days such as Christmas or Easter but ultimately training should be just that, training.
As a qualified instructor I was taught the same way as everyone else but often found myself having to adapt and change teaching for children. To be succinct, children are an unforgiving lot, often brutal and not shy in voicing their opinion, you need to be adaptive, know your stuff and be on top of your game for every minute of that lesson. To reiterate, it can be brutal and unforgiving. I also had to change the more traditional structure of the class, adapting, refining and adjusting to what works.
This experience has kept me engaged and on my toes as an instructor. Subsequently, my confidence at all levels has grown and improved allowing me to feel a connection to aikido in a modern setting where often the term ‘modern’ is a dirty word in aikido. Not for me. Now the term ‘modern’ has context and meaning in relationship to my personal aikido as well as my classes and training methods.
Additionally, having to constantly work at communicating with children has furthered my understanding and knowledge of technique. In short, I find myself learning and understanding just as much from the children around me as they learn from me.
How this translates to your dojo is as varied and as broad as your members and club. In my opinion, a children’s class should be an integral part of the dojo yet run separately from any adult class.
The two classes can be integrated in name only but should be kept physically separate. Separate training nights and times are a good way to avoiding safeguarding issues whilst helping to keep those adult members who have more ‘traditional’ views of children on the mat, happy.
Often, junior dan grades new to their instructor qualification or who have been lost in a crowd of hakama will benefit in either running or assisting a junior class. In my experience there are adult dan grades who would welcome the opportunity to gain experience in running and planning a class. Why not give them an opportunity in running a children’s class?
The benefit to your club is immeasurable but will include giving these instructors more motivation, giving them a sense of worth as well as a sense of purpose. It will also help them with their own understanding of technique and curriculum. In short it is an excellent training opportunity for everyone concerned.
That is not to say these members should be running the class with impunity. As everything in the dojo, lead instructors should be keeping an eye on proceedings, ensuring the right instructors are in play, making sure lessons are planned and on task. This in turn raises yours and the other instructor’s profile in context to professional development. Yet another gain.
One last benefit of a children’s class is simply, recruitment. Out of my eight adult members, five of them are parents from my junior classes. At this time, I have not actively recruited any adult member in six years. My adult class shrinks and grows like anyone else’s but has consistently come from parents’ interest after having been involved and seen their children practicing. To be contrite, that’s recruitment of over half my adult membership without any active marketing.
In closing, running a children’s class can be challenging and draining but the benefits to all concerned outweigh everything. In my opinion, every aikido club should be running a children’s club of some sort to help keep the club being progressive as well as keeping aikido relevant.
Sensei Marc George is dojo lead at Ty Sign Aikido based in South Wales, UK. In 2019, alongside two other clubs, Ty Sign Aikido successively ran the first children’s aikido course within the Shin Ghi Tai Association.
In his day job Sensei Marc works with autistic and emotionally challenged children for his local authority and surrounding schools.