Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the things a parent should expect when they take their children to a dojo, and to my dojo in particular. I knew, at the time, that I wasn’t covering everything that I could possibly say on the subject. So let’s take a look at a few other things that, as a parent, you should expect when your child visits our dojo.
Ukemi, the art of falling, is one of the more important, and most fun, parts of aikido training. Most kids love to run, tumble, to test their physical capabilities. They want to be challenged, but too often the only ways they get challenged come with the unnecessary baggage of dealing with “winners” and “losers.” Think about soccer. Certainly, soccer tests a childs physical capabilities, but the context in which they “play” soccer requires they face the fact that, at the end of the game, they either won or lost. Learning that not every one wins all the time is a great lesson, but should this be the only context for physical activity that we can provide? Certainly not. In Aikido, for example, the focus is on the child. I constantly tell the kids (and parents) that I do not care if they are better than the student standing next to them. I DO care that they are trying to be better today than they were yesterday. Competition within oneself is just as important as competition with others, but many parents today never consider the former–they only do the latter.
But I digress. Ukemi, in our classes, embody a wide range of movements. Forward rolls, back rolls, large rolls, forward flat falls–these are the classic ukemi skills. But ukemi is more than just learning how to roll around. It is an opportunity to see how well a student can control him or herself. This is, after all, one of the important skills aikido has to offer: self-control. A lot of kids step onto the mat and have no idea how to move. They flail around wildly, whether they are on the mat or not. My goal is to help them not just learn how to control their movements, but to show them that, by acquiring such control, they can better impact the world around them.
Ukemi skills also help teach kids perserverance. Usually, during ukemi drills, there’s at least one student who says that they bonked their elbow, or their knee, or something. I and the other instructors listen very carefully when they bring up such matters, but as most parents know, a lot of times kids complain because they think it’s a fast way to get out of a given activity. I have no idea how schools deal with these issues, as my own child isn’t in the school system yet–but in our dojo, our typical response is to use humor: “Oh no! Is it broken! Will you ever play the violin again?” Often, the response is laughter: “No sensei! I don’t PLAY the violin. And anyway, it’s my FOOT!” “You don’t play the violin with your foot?” More often than not, if the child’s sense of humor is intact, we send them back out on the mat. If the jokes aren’t funny, then we know there’s probably something we need to look out. I’m happy to say that our dojo rarely has any injuries whatsoever, and the most common injury is maybe a stubbed toe. But the point is that it is ukemi training that starts teaching kids that–hey, it’s not easy, and it’s not cushy. But I can do this. And over time, they find that they’re able to handle more and more challenges.
“It is not always about you.” This is another important lesson we try to teach kids. Often, through no fault of their own, kids are very self-centered. We try, in our dojo, to encourage students to realize that they are part of a community and, as a result, it is not always about them. One way we teach this is at the end of class. During the last 5 or 10 minutes, we do what we call “Presentations.” At this time, the students sit in seiza, just as they did at the beginning of class. We call out one student, and they in turn choose anyone on the mat (kid or adult) to demonstrate the technique we were practicing in class that day. This activity serves three purposes: (1) it puts the student under a bit of pressure to perform the technique–learning how to perform under pressure ensures a better rank test later on; (2) it gives parents an opportunity to really see what their child is learning; and (3) it lets the other students learn that, sometimes, the most important job they have is to pay respectful attention to the person up in front. In fact, sometimes we are less interested in the student who is performing the technique than we are the students who are watching. This simple investment of about 10 minutes has paid off huge dividends. Students treat each other with respect, and they help each other to learn their techniques.
In addition to presentations, we also have a very simple rule regarding kids tests: a given child will test no more than twice a year. We do testing roughly every 3 months at our dojo. It would be easy for us to test kids every single time, but we deliberately choose not to. The reasons are simple. First, I don’t want any parent to ever think: “Oh, it’s test time. My kids getting another belt, and it’s going to cost me $20.” Second, we don’t want kids to think that, every time there’s a test, they get a new belt. So we ensure that every other test session, a kid has to be a part of the audience. We also point out that their role as an audience member is critical to helping their fellow students test well. This practice has also paid off well for the dojo: during tests, the entire dojo turns out, whether they’re testing or not. And when I call out for an uke during kids tests, nearly every student runs up to participate. (It’s actually great fun to watch.)
So, I hope these additional thoughts provide more insight into how our dojo works, and what you as a parent should expect from a dojo. I’m sure there’s still more I could write on this topic, and I definitely want to make it clear that our kids program is a learning process for everyone–we’re constantly looking for ways to improve it. But, as you can see in our pictures, we must be doing something right so far!