Aikido for Children - Chapter 1

Importance of Advanced Ukemi;  Fundamental Philosophies for Effective Teaching Aikido to 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 1 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 is the importance of teaching Aikido to Children?

Ota Sensei:    In today's incredibly fast paced world, a child's path to growing up represents vast challenges to:

  • Become confident
  • Become capable
  • Build a healthy sense of self-esteem, community
  • Develop willingness and ability to help, lead, and teach others
  • Appreciation of value of discipline and ability to focus and achieve
  • Ability and willingness to work hard to achieve worthy goals

Young minds are like gelatin.  We want to put in good things before their minds firm up and harden for adulthood; we must put good principles in their mind before that mind becomes set.  Aikido for Children offers a powerful tool to teach these life lessons to our children.   Giving them an experience of Aikido blesses them with profound gifts for the future and all the people they will touch...... in ways we'll never know.

Q:   What are your goals for Aikido Children classes?

Ota Sensei:  The vital, effective skills that we want to teach our Aikido children is not the techniques themselves;  it  is what to do BETWEEN the techniques (whether on the mat or off).  The techniques are not as important as what happens in the time in between the techniques, just before them, or just after them. On the mat, these between-the-technique skills are

  • The ability to move, and lead, and always stay just out of reach of their attackers (this produces real skill and effectiveness regardless of size differences) 
  • Constantly sense their surroundings accurately and easily be able to naturally perform quick, effective, spontaneous Aikido movement
  • Naturally and spontaneously perform Aikido techniques with grace, power, and speed
  • Do everything in a kind, gentle, yet powerful way

Q:  What is in it for the adults that teach the classes?

Ota Sensei:  In order to complete your Aikido training, you must be able to powerfully transfer your Aikido skills to children.   Teaching Aikido to children  is not really about teaching Aikido techniques (although you do that and learn more than you ever dreamed possible about your own technique in the process), it is about you learning about how you appear and who you are as a person and a human being to the most honest people on the planet:  young children.

The children will be your ultimate teachers about yourself as a human being.   The children will test and prove your knowledge and effectiveness of your Aikido teaching skills and your ability to apply Aikido principles and philosophy to life.   Children are honest, they don't lie; if they like you, if they learn quickly from you.   If they don't, they don't come back.   Koichi Tohei Sensei has said, "Doing 10-man randori is not impressive if no one in your life likes you.  When everyone in your life loves you, when you create Loving Harmony everywhere in your life, when children always like you, THAT'S Aikido".

The children tell it best as to the value, here's what they have to say:

leyla kids aikido testimonial.jpg
jeanette kids aikido testimonal.jpg

To complete your own Aikido training, you must give back to others.  Someone helped you when you first started.  When you start to help others, and especially children,  you yourself will then know how well you have learned the lessons that were passed on to you.   You will find infinitely pleasurable ways for further refinement."

Q: Is teaching children fundamentally different than teaching adults?

Ota Sensei:  There are really very few fundamental differences between teaching children and adults.  Adults are grown-up versions of children, and the blocks to an adult learning Aikido,  are most often simply some subtle adult version of  a child's attention and interest span.   So, teaching effective children's classes is really experimentation to see what adult-ized versions could be done in adult class.

  • We discuss today ways that you can teach children quickly, using very little talking.  Your effectiveness teaching and practicing with adults will be vastly improved by the same methods.   In fact, almost all of the adult class drills that Ota Sensei has developed originated in children's class; the children have been our best innovators and creators.
  • In Aikido Children's class, we suggest focus is on teaching their bodies, using backleading.  This will work equally well for adults.  Properly done, backleading their bodies will then allow each student to teach their own minds in good time, far more effectively than you ever could.  By teaching primarily through the body, using backleading, high technology drills and games, the Aikido progresses at a much faster rate.
  • We'll cover backleading in more detail in Chapter 2 of this series.

Compared to adult classes, here are the specifics unique to children's class:

  • Kid's attention span, ability to learn, and physical ability / weigh is different, hence, shorter attention span means a faster , more varied class pace than adults.
  • Always remember you are really in the entertainment business, so don't let them pause to let them think too much.   Their fastest learning will occur when the flow and tempo of the class captivates their desire via interest, wonder, and excitement.  Use drilling that keeps their attention and their bodies moving most of the time.  If the drills are good, they work as good or better in adults!!!!!)
  • We have adapted the Aikido techniques for the children, to accomodate the much smaller size of the child compared to many of their ukes.  However, these modifications are extremely good for adults to use!

Q:  What do you mean by 'keep an entertainment or experience pace' for Aikido Children's classes?

Ota Sensei :  Truly effective Aikido teaching to children cannot be attained through slow pace talking, lecture, or slow pace drills. Ki is very dynamic, you must be at realistic speeds to truly appreciate its flowing power  So, I suggest it is important to create very entertaining classes that cater to children's shorter attention span, keep their minds and their bodies busy continuously.  Therefore, I suggest we make heavy use of fun drills and games in teaching children the actual Aikido techniques.

Using this approach, all Aikido for Children teaching methods and drills should be truly dynamic and full of movement - aimed at giving the children the  experience of Aikido movement at a safe (but effectively fast) speed.   Rather than using conversation as a teaching tool (especially for younger children who do not yet have adult conversations),  instead focus on building a collection of drills to help the children experience their bodies, learn to move and use their bodies, in productive, dynamic Aikido ways.

We aim for the child Aikido student to gain true, usable skill that can be delivered at any time under pressure, with accuracy and effectiveness.  These skills are experiences that  cannot be just talked about.  After all, life itself does not teach us by lecture or in classrooms.  Life just sort of pushes our minds and bodies around through experiences. Real skill in Aikido, or in living life, are best birthed in the interactions, experiences, and relationships that we can give our Aikido children through the drills, games, and practice. 

Q:  You suggest an interesting agenda for your classes, what do you do?

Ota Sensei: Our normal time duration percentages are as follows:

  1. Ukemi Warmup (20% of class time)
  2. Warmup/Conditioning Relay Race Games and Drills ( 20% of class time)
  3. Aikido Techniques and Aikido drills (including time for randori, older kids, etc.) (25% of class time)
  4. Judo techniques as appropriate ( 25% of class time)
  5. Cool down games (remaining 10% of class time):  4-corners (takes 15 minutes)  or  Back-To-Back (takes 10 minutes)
  6. Close

We spend more time teaching ukemi and warming up than most people spend teaching Aikido.  This is how important we suggest advanced ukemi and the warmup/conditioning drills are. 

Q:  What do you suggest are the ingredients for a good Aikido Children's class?

Ota Sensei:

  • The flow of the class moves at a fast and varied pace,  so that the children never have too much pause to think.  The class only slows when children need to catch their breath, then we rev it up again.  Keeping the children's class moving, keep the children entertained by the pace and experience of Aikido.
  • Teach great ukemi from the beginning to allow the speed to come up using ukemi pads.
  • Given good ukemi skills, make heavy use of fun drills as the primary teaching tool to get the repetitions required to accelerate the learning and speed of the children students
  • Keeping children safely moving is especially important to remove the time for the mind to create fears about falling or not being good enough. Rather, by moving the class along at a good pace, and specifically having the younger ones intently watching and being coached by the senior children , the fast class pace raises all children's pace and learning.
  • Choose the training partners for the children,  so that you match the appropriate older children with younger ones for best results from both.  Older more advanced children get to be 'on stage' to give them extra work, and to give them recognition!
  • Run the class with 'rules' that help the children learn discipline and the value of promptness in their lives. Our suggestion:   use the philosophy of Vince Lombardi Time for everything (i.e. always be early for everything).  Specifically in class, use a '5,4,3,2,1' countdown to motivate the children to line up quickly - you'll be amazed how quickly they learn to be alert and move fast.   Failure to do so means a small number of pushups or sit-ups.  This teaches children and adults the value of being alert and being early.   Vince Lombardi , the famous Green Bay Packer NFL Football coach, used to talk about how in  today's society, we arrive at work, take coffee, talk, we take our time (and that of others) far too casually.  The problem is, however,  in Aikido randori and in life, that being outstanding means being on or ahead of time in everything.  So we train the children from the start (smile!)
  • Remember that you are really in the entertainment business when teaching Aikido to children
  • Adult instructors have the primary responsibility to watch for the children's safety at all times.  We always watch the children very carefully, never letting them feel fear.
  • We teach the older child students to act as role models for the younger students.
  • Always allow the children to be children.  While keeping good discipline, we must always be non-fussy and kind with their techniques.  As they grow older, they will naturally modify and refine their techniques to the proper level in beautiful ways you would never imagine.  Why?  Because their minds and their teachers told them they were doing it well at every stage of their young lives.  They learn they can always improve, but that to try and start is always met with kindness and encouragement.

Q:  Sensei, you strongly recommend a strong, primary focus on Ukemi.  Why?

Ota Sensei: I suggest starting all Kid's Aikido classes with safe, fun ukemi drills.    Ukemi warm-ups allows children to burn off excess energy and makes their young minds open and present to learning the Aikido movements and techniques that will follow in the class.

More importantly, ukemi is the major determinant on how much you can accomplish in the rest of the class, how quickly the children can progress, and how safe the class can be. Therefore, the primary skill we suggest focusing and teaching children is ukemi.

Did you know that the #1 reason for injury for children / young people getting hurt or dying  is falling?  And of that, falling and hitting one's head?    Hitting one's head is on the playground, falling of bicycle, etc.......... ukemi skills will save children's lives. Excellent ukemi at high realistic speeds is giving the children an agility level and and survivability skill that far exceeds that of almost any other children's activity (except probably for gymnastics).

We teach them advanced ukemi from the beginning , using warm-up and practice with ukemi on PADS adapted from gymnastics.  Inexpensive futons or discarded mattresses can also be used.  You'll find that with these pads, the kids will LOVE ukemi.  With the pads, we remove fear from their minds (and fear of injury from OUR minds).  Everyone is born with a fear of falling.  But, children also don't know what they "can" and "can't" do.  So, the landing crash pads are the crucial element to start the children on a path to learning good ukemi.   The pads give them the confidence that they can do it, and they do. 

Q:  How should I teach Ukemi to Children using Pads/Barriers/Drills?

Ota Sensei:  The key to our ukemi success is teaching using gymnastics landing pads and gymnastics barriers and at a very safe but eventually high speed.  If the child practices too slowly, they will always have time to develop fear.  Rather, we lovingly coax them into having fun on the pads (safely), and the children discover they can do it dynamically.

The key point about teaching ukemi is always SAFETY, both on and later off the mat.  Safety is mostly in the attitude of the class and teachers, supplemented by proven safety high technology training methods adapted from gymnastics.

To achieve advanced ukemi for children:

  • Constant supervision by adults
  • High technology soft landing pads and barriers using proper drilling
  • Use soft barriers to teach high rolling skills.  Soft barriers provide motivation
  • Use various kokyunage timing throws to teach leading, blending
  • Always insure proper weaning of children onto the regular mat, no child does fall before he/she is ready

Using the methods touched on below, we have been able to teach our children to do the following SEVEN different types of ukemi:

  • Forward and Backward rolls
  •  Forward Rolls (high)
  • Roll and slap
  • Airfalls
  • Side Slap
  • Kickout
  • Full-body

The instructors are constantly saying, "when you reach the right level, then you can go do that fall".    Go step by step, we must never let the children get ahead of their own ukemi skill level!

In addition to the adult instructors teaching the ukemi, young children watch the advanced older children and learn by imitation.  The speed and skill of older children's ukemi determines the pace of the ukemi and of the class. When good ukemi skills are present, the pace is good and sufficiently fast;  then, the younger children never have a chance to pause too much.  This is important, because when children stop, they develop fear of injury they never had before).  By seeing what other older children can do in ukemi, this reverses the situation; young children don't know they "can't" do it, and instead they do learn to do it by watching and imitating.

The following sections give suggestions of ukemi drilling and teaching:

Step 1: Teaching Basic Ukemi

caitlin helping lela roll.jpg

 We start by rolling on pads, assisted at every step by older children and adult instructors.

As necessary, the very new beginners are segmented to their own pad with their own instructor to learn the basics.  Safety is always first and never compromised in the search for energetic pace.

Step 2: Teaching High Roll Ukemi

We then proceed to build high falls, one step at a time: 

  • Start by low barrier, to get child to go over straight and gain height.
  • Once they are going over properly, we introduce 'roll and slap' without a lot of barrier height.
  • After that, we slowly start to raise the barrier in gradual steps (we have several increments of barriers).
  • IMPORTANT: any time that we raise the barrier , we raise the landing pad (i.e. doubling the landing pads).  This is critical to assure we remove fear as the young student knows that there is no 'drop' to the pad.  If the student never develops fear (and we watch and wean them like a hawk every step of the way), they will learn to do advanced ukemi in a matter of months.  Most of our orange belt children can do most of the advanced ukemi, and certainly by the green belt level they all can.  We have found all children of all body types are wonderfully flexible and acrobatic, given the right safety training and encouragement.
caitlin high fall over barrier.jpg
  • Only the advanced upper belts get to go over the very high barrier, the white belts need to "go around".  This is a very motivational goal for the lower belts, as we tell them, "when you earn your higher belt you'll get to do this too!"

In this way students get used to being in the air; they get the expertise to start combining 'roll and slap' with height.

Step 3: Teaching Advanced Ukemi

After basic ukemi, we specifically have drills to teach children airfalls (breakfalls), side slaps, full body, and kick-outs.

Only when the student has proven expertise in going over high barriers straight and true, only then do we slowing allow them to start doing airfalls on the pads

Instructors very specifically monitor the progress of the students - no student is allowed to go past his or her skill level in ukemi before their time.

Learning the other six falls follows the same progression:

With those drills in place, we slowly work up to the following higher speed advanced ukemi drills, only as the children are ready.  You'll like what you see:

Essential Importance of Ukemi to Aikido Children's classes

Q:  At what age can we start airfalls (breakfalls)?

Ota Sensei:

  • Anytime after the basic rolls and roll and slap
  • As long as the child is taught properly and safely, their young bodies and young minds will quickly take to doing these fall

Q:  Why teach breakfalls (and other advanced ukemi)?

Ota Sensei:

  •  To save their lives!

Q:  Why do we advocate the teaching of these advanced ukemi?

Ota Sensei:

  • With the landing pads, barriers and other teaching tools, everyone can learn advanced ukemi very safely
  • Advanced ukemi will greatly boost the class's progress and what is possible to be done 
  • It instills great confidence in the children when done properly and safely
  • Most importantly, advanced ukemi may save their life someday!

The methodology and reasoning behind Advanced Ukemi is discussed in more detail in the Ken Ota interview "Ukemi, Rhythm,  and Timing in Aikido", Aikido Today Magazine,  March/April 2000.  We believe advanced ukemi to be a real requirement to create advanced Aikido rhythm and timing for effortless power.  Advanced Ukemi is the essential element to allow safely teaching Aikido skills at realistic speeds, movement, and pace;  and allows our children to experience realistic drills.

We owe it to our children to give them with an ability to perform Aikido at realistic speeds on the playground.  Otherwise, at some point the child will self-discover that his Aikido activity hasn't given him real life skills.  More importantly, at realistic speeds, children also learn realistic wisdom and maturity to use Aikido wisely, including not using it at all if necessary.   We very strongly feel we have responsibility to the children and parents to instill this level of skill.  Ukemi is the essential foundation element to achieving this.

Start class by teaching the children Excellent Ukemi.  They will just love it and keep coming back for more..

In the next chapter in this series we will examine the topic of teaching Dynamic Ma'ai to Children and Backleading.

Summary: Aikido for Children Part 1

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 enjoyed Chapter 1 and are looking forward to "Chapter 2: Dynamic Ma'ai for Children and Backleading"

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.