Aikido for Children - Chapter 3

Fun Drilling and Motivational Ideas for Aikido for Children

This article was originally published online by John Sing on August 30, 2001. We are re-formatting and re-posting the article here for posterity.


This article is Chapter 3 in a 3 part series about Ken Ota Sensei's unique, successful, and innovative approach to teaching Aikido to children.  It is based on over 35 successful years of excellence in teaching Aikido, Judo, and Ballroom Dancing to both adults and children, using a complete physical / emotional / psychological approach.

In this series of articles, we'll examine Ota Sensei's successful methods and suggestions for increasing your fun and effectiveness in teaching Aikido to Children.  This article will focus on the Importance of  Teaching Aikido to Children, and Ota's Ukemi Teaching Methods for Children.

This three part series covers:

  • Fundamental ways to keep children's interest (Flow/Tempo suggestions)
  • Importance of teaching and focusing on great ukemi as first priority, including philosophy, tools and drills to teach great ukemi
  • Warm-up games and drills
  • Teaching children through their bodies with a minimum of talking (Backleading)
  • Backleading the basic 8 techniques
  • Discipline and safety guidelines, games, and suggestions
  • Movement drills
  • Safe randori for advanced children
  • Cool down games
  • Role of adults as models and instructors

Q:  Sensei, what ideas do you have for the children to have as much fun as possible while they are learning Aikido?

Ota Sensei:    We really have to remember that in a certain sense, we are in the entertainment business when we are teaching Aikido to Children.  Children will learn fastest when they are really involved,  really interested, really kept alert, when they are really having fun.

So here are some of our non-traditional ideas for keeping the children interested in Aikido!  We rely heavily on the use older students as primary helpers to help teach, and we do a large amount of drills as a primary teaching vehicle.  We tell the older students that "if they can't teach it to someone else, they don't know the technique yet".   We also make sure we arrange special 'older children only' drills or techniques during the class as a reward for the help these students give to the younger ones.

Here are some of the drills we use that are very fun for the Aikido children.   Many of the drills will be difficult to visualize without seeing them in person or in motion video, but I've described them briefly here to give you a rudimentary idea of what's possible for you:

andreas teaching lela ikkyo step 5 sequence.jpg
  • Practice each children's Basic 3/6/8 Aikido attack/defense, over and over, with two ukes alternating attacking per one nage,  until it's ingrained.  This keeps more children busy at the same time, keeps the pace and energy higher, children learn a rudimentary feeling of randori, and the older children in each group get to practice teaching and help move the class progress along.
  • We reward the older helper students in the form of additional drills that are only for them, such as 'Two-on-one randori' drills, more advanced techniques just for them (we use this as motivation tool also as the lower belts watch, rest, and get motivated by the higher belt's skill)
  • We have created a variety of kotaegaeshi, tai-otoshi drills, including one hand / one finger / no hands (because you sometimes have things in your hands or you for some reason cannot use both arms/hands)
  • 'T pad 3x drill' - useful for techniques that open with tenkan, such as kotaegeshi.  Basically, the idea is to do 3 attacks and 3 tenkans, on the 3d tenkan the student actually does the technique.  This teaches motion, movement, agility, practices the tenkan nicely.   This is an excellent drill also for tai-otoshi and even a rudimentary shihonage breakfall.  We recommend doing this drill with landing pads for the uke as the child nage's speed will get up there quickly.
  • Line drills for repetition
  • One finger throws for timing, very essential for developing true centrifugal force and power in Aikido throws.
  • Spacing drills off of ikkyo (three  iterations of the hopping/ma'ai, 3d hop is the throw) - this helps uke get the rhythm and timing
  • Push nage into back roll, followed by one of basic attacks, nage defends
  • Randori drills - we start slow, then build up; child only has to get out of the way and ukes take rolls for them as long as the child is moving properly.  This teaches children to make quick decisions about Aikido movement and then go with them.  As the children get older, being able to move properly makes the addition of the actual kokyunage and irimi throws very easy.

Q:  I understand that you spend a full 40% of the class time on Ukemi and Warmups/Body Conditioning Drills?

Ota Sensei:  True!  We purposely spend the first 20% of class on ukemi practice (for reasons outlined in chapter 1 of this series), and we spend the next 20% of the class on warmup drills.   The reason for such a large amount of ukemi and warmup drills is that we know we have a great deal of kid energy that we must channel and focus;  as well we need to build up their agility, body control, strength, and endurance.  By doing these first, we burn off the excess kid energy and they are then tired enough to be calm and relaxed, and then they can easily focus their minds on their bodies.  Amazing, isn't it?

The warmup and conditioning drills that we do are specifically designed to teach various Aikido and body strengthening skills.  Here are some of the many games that we give our children to do in this segment of the class:

Fun Aikido Warmup Drills for Children

A sampling of tools and Aikido techniques using the length of the mat for children to do:

  • Forward rolls
  • Backward rolls
  • Hopping and Skipping (both forward and backward)
  • Turning drills (ude-furi-choyaku-undo)
  • Stone crawls (very important to develop the skills and strength for children to extricate themselves if they're on the ground and another child jumps on top of them)
  • Lobster crawls (very important to develop the skills and strength for children to extricate themselves if they're on the ground and another child jumps on top of them)
  • Elephant walks (squats)
  • Frog hops (develops leg strength)
  • Samurai walks (shikko)

Fun Body Conditioning Drills for Children

A sampling of tools and conditioning exercises for children to do without moving on the mat:

  • Pushups
  • Situps
  • Leg-overs (preps them for backward rolls)
  • Frog hops (jumping squats, builds their legs for doing ukemi over high barriers)
  • Mountain climbers, bicycles, jumping jacks (for foot agility and coordination)
  • Grasshopper jumps (it's a jumping into a near handstand but not going over, builds upper body strength and sense of balance while inverted)
  • Double helicopters (like leg raises or leg splits but with arms going at same time.  For upper belt children, the arms' direction  must go perpendicular to the legs' direction, which really challenges their minds to develop new neural pathways in terms of body movement)
  • Dance steps:  That's right, dance steps.  Play a dance tune and at the far end, the child must do repetitions of a dance step. We recommend samba tunes because they are easiest to get and sufficiently fast to challenge the children.  We do this not only for fun variety, but because it teaches rhythm, timing, footwork, balance, speed, grace, etc.  Children get extra points for staying on beat.  The children love this challenge!

Fun Children Aikido Games

Good ukemi is really a prerequisite for playing many of these games at a level of speed

  • Simon Says (for ukemi) - when their ukemi skill is high enough and you can go fast, this is a wonderful motivating tool for both kids and parents alike.  Use front and back rolls, airfalls, side slap, full body, kickout, and roll sideways (this is essential to avoid gun attacks)
  • Follow the leader (for any footwork, ukemi, whatever you want)
  • Mirror games:  feet, tenkans, follow the feet,
  • Hara tag
  • Rolling tag
  • Back and Forth - a pair of students alternate attacking and defending (it gets interesting remembering who is who!)
  • Throw the Circle - form a circle.  First student starts around the circle throwing each of the others.  Can get multiple children going around the circle to maximize time efficiency.  Builds repetitions
  • First One To Eight - do relay races wherethe race is to see which team of students can complete 8 repetitions of one of the Aikido techniques the fastest.  This teaches repetition, rhythm, timing, relaxation, movement
  • How Many Can You Do in 1 Minute? - same as 'First One To Eight', except now we're counting to see who can get the highest number of smooth but quick repetitions.  Really requires lots of good ukes (who get tons of ukemi practice in the meantime!)
  • Advanced Ukemi Crossing Drill


Ota Sensei:  We also cool them down afterwards, here are some fun Children Cool down Games to complete their children's energy:

  • Four Corners Sumo Wrestling - object is to off-balance partner to the ground or move partner out of the 'four corners'
  • Back to Back - multiple small kids vs. one older kid - older child is responsible for their safety and to teach the smaller ones to work together to pin the older child

All these games give the children opportunity to interact with each other in positive way (they are going to interact with each other anyway), and gets the maximum drilling and conditioning done in the minimum amount of time.   This is the purpose of the warmup games. 


Q:  What do you mean by "Appointing the older children as Team Captains"?

Ota Sensei:   We always nominate older children (who are mature enough and ready) to be 'Team Captains' to monitor and teach and monitor two other younger children, the older children are the ones that 'qualify when ready' for the 'honor' of being the team captain.  We reward them with special drills and techniques just for them.  More importantly, for many older children it is the first time that they learn they are capable of responsibility and leadership, and they quickly find out how capable they are compared to their younger classmates.

The team captain is a title that is earned, so there will always be some older kids that are not ready;  but because they quickly will find out that they need to earn the right, they will push themselves to earn the right to be a team captain.  All the older children learn to be a role models for the younger childrer, in this way you have them as your helpers to keept the younger children in practice safely, staying in order, and become good students. 

Q:  What are these Fun Warmup Relay Race Games that you use for teaching Motivation, Teamwork, and Leadership?

Ota Sensei:   We use friendly, properly regulated, teach-you-about-competitive-realities-of-life warmup games in Aikido Children's classes after we finish ukemi practice.   These games serve as an excellent teaching tool for Aikido basics like rolling and hopping, and provide body conditioning for the children.  Most importantly, the warmup games burn off excess child energy so they can be present and calm enough to enjoy learning Aikido techniques.

The following benefits are derived from using warmup relay races:

  • Teach basic skills (ukemi), start low, slowly build up so your body / back / arms / etc. all  learn how / when to do it right
  • Develop their bodies and coordination (exercises)
  • Teach children to become a leaders, teach humility, being a model for the younger belts
  • Teach healthy motivation
  • Value of hard work
  • Value of Recognition
  • Value of Teamwork
  • Value of Leadership

It is unfortunate that competition has a bad name in our society, especially as it pertains to children's education.  For this reason, and also because O'Sensei clearly prohibited competition in Aikido, there is significant resistance to competition in any way within Aikido.  We understand this.

However, Ota Sensei suggests that in the specific case of warmup relay race games, the spirit of healthy fair competition is usable and invaluable in teaching life lessons to children.  To maintain fairness and accomplish these objectives, we use a very specific handicapping system in the warmup relay races. This handicapping system transforms the warmup relay race games into a superior tool for teaching healthy self-confidence and independence; it teaches the children to let go of ego.

Ota Sensei believes the relay race warmup games are in no way in conflict with the concept of non-competition for Aikido, because the games are not about competing with the Aikido techniques.

Q:  So you use a Handicapping System in Warmup Relay Race Games to eliminate the downsides of competition among the children?

Ota Sensei:   Absolutely.    Our 'handicapping system' in the warmup relay races are the essential key element that makes the relay races useful by continually equalizing the teams and their chances to win.

In this way, no child's ego hurt by too much losing, nor is anyone's ego inflated by overconfidence of winning.  Children learn that the warmup games are not about who is 'stronger, faster, weaker, slower'.  Rather, they  know that if they work really hard, they all have an equal chance to win a reward.  The best team doesn't always win (in some cases, by design of the instructors).   Strong, fast children need to learn that life is like this.  Small, less coordinated children sometimes win, IF they work really hard up to the level of their ability.

This promotes a healthy self-confidence and image in all.  The small  reward  is not the prize, of course, it is the recognition that motivates the children.  These important life lessons are the real gifts that we are trying to give our children, and we're just using Aikido as a tool.    For many children, this is a experience missing from the rest of their lives in school , elsewhere on the playground, or even in competing with their brothers and sisters for attention from their parents. 

Q:  How would I run a Aikido Children's Warmup Relay Races using the Handicapping System?

Ota Sensei:  I realize the following discussion is going to be difficult to follow without seeing it in action.  Regardless, I document it here for you and future generations to know what it is that we do, how we do it, and how you could do it for yourself.    Here are the steps:

  • Count the number of children and divide 3.  3 is optimum number of children per team.  This will give you the number of teams and the number of 'team captains' that you need.
  • Select senior children as 'team captains', and call them to line up in the front of the dojo.
  • The team captains then select, one by one, the members of their team.   Children learn about selection processes, how it feels to choose and be chosen, learn about how others are perceiving them.
  • These senior children learn to be leaders, they are the model and are responsible for helping the younger children on their team, as well as keeping them well disciplined.
  • The teams then line up, and the instructor calls out the first race.   Example of the first race call:  "forward rolls to the end of the mat, then 20 pushups, then forward rolls back".
  • A scorekeeper (an adult or senior child who is not participating - assists the instructor using a notepad and pencil) writes down the name of each team captain and prepares to keep score.
  • Each team sends one of it's members to the opposite end of the mat, to hold each adjacent team accountable to the proper number of exercises at the far end,.  Everyone learns to play fair, and young children even learn to count.    The teams must stay alert, as the 'counter' must exchange places with other members of his / her team as the race progresses.
  • The instructor calls out, "On your mark, get set, Go!"    The relay races are on!
  • The 'relay race' naturally motivates the children in ways you would not believe!  They do more exercise in shorter time than you could ever imagine because they are competing in a healthy way.
  • As each team completes it's relay, they race up to the shomen to report in to the scorekeeper (a adult who is assisting the instructor using a notepad and pencil) who records who finished in what order.
  • The instructor then calls out the next relay race.  Example:  "back rolls, then 'xx' situps, then backward rolls back".  The 'xx' repetitions , however, is a different amount for each team, to assure equal ability for each team to compete.   The number of repetitions is computed as follows (it's the scorekeepers job to track it).
  • Let's take an example.  If there are 7 teams of 3, then whoever finished first in the previous race, needs to do 70 repetitions;  the 2nd place team needs to do 60; 3d place needs to do 50; 4th place does 40; etc.  As you can tell the last place team in previous race only needs to do 10 repetitions, so they'll finish much faster and thus everyone knows that everyone has an equal chance to compete.   Cool, eh?  Fairness, competing against yourself, .... so many positive lessons can come from this simple repetition modification.
  • Remember, the teams send one of their members to opposite end of mat to count for an adjacent team.  Since all 3 team members have to race, the team captains have to remind their team to switch the counters.  This added little complication also keeps the children on their toes and keeps them moving.
  • Depending on the exercise, sometimes you divide the repetitions in half because the exercise would be too difficult otherwise.
  • A team gets bonus points if they do a exercise really well, and loses points if they are talking or messing around when they're not racing
  • This process is repeated, usually we do 4 relays or so.
  • As the warmup races continue, the children get their blood moving, bodies loosened, and most importantly, their excess kid energy gets channeled into  positive body conditioning , self motivation and practice of fundamental Aikido or judo skills
  • We constantly remind all team members to support their other team members, this develops teamwork
  • Once the races are complete, the children move on to Aikido techniques.
  • We don't announce any results until the end of class, so there is nothing to brag about during the rest of class
  • Only at the end of class, at closing, do we announce the winning team and the losing team.  The winning team gets a Coke or other appropriate small reward, (it's only about the recognition and recognizing that in life, there is great value to challenging yourself to be the best you can be!).  The winning team also gets to tell the losing team what exercise they have to do around the room (it's not about punishment, it's about recognizing the realities of life and motivating children to do their best so they are less likely to be the last place team).
  • As a final kicker, a team member who brought another child guest gets 200 bonus points per guest.  That's a big amount, and really helps children encourage their friends to come to class.   (again, just teaching the children about real life)
Here is a copy of the scoresheet, you can see how the games evolve:

Here is a copy of the scoresheet, you can see how the games evolve:

Q:  So the purpose of the warmup relay games is to develop the children's healthy self confidence, without ego?

Ota Sensei :   That's right.   All these games, including the healthy, regulated warmup games with fair competition, are vital to help the children experience and develop a healthy self confidence without ego;  to prepare them for the realities of life as an older child, a teenager, as an adult..

Because of the handicapping systems, the relay games become a primary tool to help the child learn to compete with the child's self.  The games encourage them to be the best that they can be.... and not to be better than someone else.   When children start to learn that they are the only ones that hurt their own chances... and that each of them are the responsible ones for helping their team........... then we have given them a powerful tool to determine their own destiny!  We have given them an experience of competing and winning in a fair and honest manner.

Properly done, these warmup games are especially beneficial to young females:  it helps them develop their independent spirits and be able to take care of themselves, to realize their own potential , develop their own self-confidence, to see that their gender does not in any way limit them from achieving their potential.

Children learn leadership, learn to support and interact with their teammates and their friendly competitors in a positive manner. Friendly competition, properly applied, results in children interacting with each other and highly motivating each other in natural ways that cannot be done sole by teachers.

Q:  Sensei, please tell me about your highly modified Children's Belt System used for further Motivation?

Ota Sensei:  The best motivation for children is when they see other children their own age doing things that are good.  In a healthy way, this subtle competition invokes their internal desire to improve.

  • One of the strongest motivator for children is accurate recognition. (false recognition is of course recognized by children as exactly that, they themselves know if they deserve the skill level that they're being awarded).    To achieve accurate recognition, and to make sure that every child gets recognition no matter how well he does on his tests,   we provide  many levels of  multi-color belts with many  levels, so that children always advance in true proportion to their skills, and instructors have many degrees of granularity to help give children accurate feedback on how they're progressing.
  • Children are thus always motivated and can see their own progress without ambiguity.

All of these principles could be adult-ized for your regular classes as appropriate.

Q:  Finally, what do you see is the true role of Adults and the older child students?

Ota Sensei :   We specifically trains adults and upper belts to be very effective as one-on-one teachers to the lower belts.  I believe that if you can't teach a technique quickly, kindly, and effectively to a lower belt, then you don't yet know it yourself.    Therefore, in all classes, the senior students are charged to go find a lower belt to teach.  This raises the overall skill of the dojo as quickly as possible.

If the technique is particularly new or difficult, sometimes I will have the upper belts practice with each other so that they get the technique down and have some good practice among themselves before teaching the lower belts.  Or, as a reward to the upper belts, after teaching the lower belts, I have  the lower belts sit and put the upper belts together practice between  themselves.  This is very motivational for all involved and a reward, recognition, and better hard practice for the upper belts.


  • Emphasize upper belts finding a lower belt to teach one on one
  • This raises the overall level of the dojo's skill as quickly as possible
  • The upper belts really learn the techniques only when they can pass it on to someone else!
  • Upper belts gain confidence that they are capable, receive recognition for their skill, and are able to enjoy the responsibility of being a leader
  • Upper belts are rewarded with extra work, practice time, and this motivates the lower belts

Q:  Sensei, certainly some very interesting, entertaining, and unusual ideas.   What final thoughts would you like to leave us with concerning teaching Aikido to Children?

Ota Sensei:    In summary, I see the role of of all of us as Aikido children teachers and senior children students as being in the most beautiful role of human life:  giving back to the younger ones the same gifts and lessons that were given to us.  In this way we pass on and improve our human race in the most generous manner possible.

As teachers of Aikido Children, we should keep in mind these final thoughts:

  • Always set a lively, interesting, kind tone, pace, and variety for the class
  • Give interesting, parental 'lectures' as necessary to pass on the lessons that we ourselves have learned
  • Give the children the skills and experiences that Aikido can give them using the technology we've discussed in these articles
  • Lovingly, kindly, and with parental guidance, let the children's energy play and learn at the same time, giving them the proper balance between being stern, disciplined, and the fun and wonder of allowing them to be children
  • Give them enough safe repetitions, drills, and teachings to develop automatic 'fast twitch' muscle memory, rhythm, timing, relaxed Aikido power for real life

Summary: Aikido for Children

Aikido for Children, specifically tuned through advanced high technology methodology and innovative drilling, is a beautiful tool to teach life skills to children.  Children properly taught and highly motivated at this young age will naturally develop great Aikido at the same time.

We hope you have enjoyed this documentary three part series on the unique teaching philsophy and ideas of Ken Ota Sensei for teaching Aikido to Children. Be sure to see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series if you missed them.

We owe it to our children to not only give them Aikido philosophy, but also the true Aikido ability to be able to appropriately, wisely,  and powerfully use Aikido for real on the playground or in real life danger situations if they ever need to.

Some of the ideas in this article may seem quite a bit out of the ordinary.  However, we suggest that the world our children are growing up in has radically changed, but education and teaching methods haven't necessarily changed with it.  Therefore, as parents or as role models, we need to be open to new and bold, effective ideas.   In over 35 years of teaching, Ken Ota's methods have graduated over 30,000 students.  We offer those ideas and methods here for your enjoyment and use.

Aikido is a powerful tool for all of us is to develop the ATTITUDE of self-confidence with kindness, power with gentleness, speed with grace.  To give to our children the ability to see, learn, and do Aikido in both spirit and relationship will be a gift for their lifetimes.