Aikido for Children - Chapter 2

Dynamic Ma'ai for Aikido for Children, Importance of Backleading

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 2 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: Ota Sensei, what is the major adjustment that we need to make to Aikido techniques for children to be effective, and for them to learn Aikido most quickly?

Ota Sensei:  After advanced ukemi, the next major essential element is to teach children proper ma'ai.

Aikido children need strong hopping, skipping, and movement skills so they can maintain ma'ai against much larger and stronger ukes.  We have specific drills to teach hopping and turning, in order that the children learn distance and ma'ai.   As their hopping skills grow they are able to maintain ma'ai naturally at all times, even at very dynamic, high speeds. The children then attain full effectiveness at realistic levels against adult ukes.  As you can imagine, this is a tremendous confidence boost and source of satisfaction.

Ma'ai removes the need for Aikido Children to have to fuss much with the technical aspects of Aikido locks until they are much older and bigger.  Small children especially benefit from our suggested emphasis on Aikido dynamic movement with the whole body:

  • Because of children's smaller size, in order to be effective, they must really be able to move large distances, fluidly and easily.
  • Use these ma'ai games or fun drills as the main teaching methodology, especially with young children less than 10

Bringing Adults down to Kid's Size

Because of kid's shorter height, whenever working with children, adults or older children should help young students learn ma'ai at their own level by coming down to the younger's ones height level by doing things on your knees (it will also improve your suwariwaza!):

  • Take ukemi on your knees
  • Attack or defend from your knees
  • To equalize: be on knees, one foot,  hand behind back, no hands, etc. to get you to kids level
  • Teach by backleading
  • Lead by example

Q:  Is it possible for young children to truly be effective against larger adult sized ukes?

Ota Sensei:  Absolutely!  We know it is fully possible for Kid's Aikido is to be effective in reality against large real life adult's size and weight because our children are able to do it.  The key is that the children have full ability to move large distances quickly with spontaneous, powerful Aikido movement. It is this ability to keep smoothly keep ma'ai at high speed against large adult ukes that generates off balance and allows children to actually perform effective powerful technique.

The added advantage of good ma'ai is there is no need (especially with young children) to be overly fussy about the technique, what is most important with children is teaching a DYNAMIC aikido movement in which fluid, powerful ma'ai generates the power at full realistic speeds.

Hopping basics:

  • Essential to draw the foot back to maintain best balance and one point
  • Lead with foot closest to where nage is moving to
  • Teach hopping as a primary tool to keep smoothly moving, constantly causing ukes to have to alter their course of attack. In this way the small child gains nearly complete control over the uke's direction, speed, and angle of attack - pretty cool!

Turning basics (ude-furi-choyaku-undo):

  • First step in choyaku is the essential one, to gain proper distance against large ukes and create centrifugal force
  • Teach choyaku is the primary element of iriminage for children

Q:  What are the specific child modifications to Aikido Techniques to bring out Full Effectiveness against adult sized ukes?

Ota Sensei:  Below are my specific suggested modifications to aikido techniques that allow children (or for that matter, small nages!) to do truly effective Aikido in every way against much bigger ukes.  As you can see, large distance hopping and turning  is the vital and essential modification and skill for most of the techniques for children:

  • Katedori Ikkyo, omote: Hopping to maintain ma'ai, using vertical uke hand 'bouncing' to off balance uke, hopping to gain enough forward movement
  • Katedori Ikkyo, ura (tenkan):  nage must cross step to gain needed distance to get behind uke
  • Katedori Nikyo, omote: uke forward and back, up and down, to allow nikyo to work
  • Katedori Nikyo, ura: nage must cross-step to gain needed distance to get behind uke, use bounce motion
  • Yokomenuchi Shihonage, irimi (with pin), and tenkan:  effective hopping to gain required initial distance and keep ma'ai
  • Shomenuchi Iriminage: very large distance ude-furi-choyaku-undo will make this truly effective.  This turning drill teaches the required deep distance that makes this work against large ukes
  • Munetski Kotaegaeshi, with pin: very large distance hopping tenkan, big bouncing of uke's hand.  Use the 'T pad 3x' drill, which teaches the timing and rhythm for this technique.
  • Ushiro (grab) Kokyunage
  • Ushiro (choke and hand) Sankyo: make sure the sankyo comes down low to touch floor, use the forward throw finish

At the level of Aikido for children,  remember that we must not be fussy with their techniques;  we must allow the children to be children.   Proper movement, hopping, turning, and ma'ai is much more important at their young level.

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 at they were doing it well at every stage of their young lives from the very beginning; and armed with natural quick Aikido movement and ma'ai, they refine their own technique very easily.

Q:  So, how do we teach these specific techniques and modifications to children?

Ota Sensei:   Here, we introduce one of our fundamental innovations:  use Backleading to Teach Aikido to Children

First, let me explain why is backleading is important before I even explain what it is.

Have you ever noticed how verbal explanations can never do the complete job in teaching Aikido?  Aikido is a visceral feeling in the body, and therefore, Ota Sensei suggests adopting the technique of backleading to show children (and adults) the movements that will be the foundation of their Aikido.

Why is backleading important?  Because young children, by their very nature, must learn first and foremost through their bodies (their minds have not matured yet).  (Adults basically learn through their bodies too, by the way).  Children of 6, 7, 8 years old (at the exact age that we most wish to mold them in a positive way) can't even be spoken to in  adult terms.   Yet at that young impressionable age, the attitudes that the children will carry for the rest of their lives are being created and imbedded in stone within their characters.

The challenge (and the opportunity) for us all becomes to teach them Aikido at this early age, and through Aikido, all of fundamental  philosophies of life.  All without any ability to do much talking to them.   So how do we accomplish this?

The solution is Backleading.  We can teach them everything they need to know through their bodies.

By using Backleading, children as young as 7 and 8 years old have been able to learn eight basic Aikido techniques, and to be able to apply them at realistic speeds.

Q:  OK, you've got me very interested.  What exactly is Backleading?

Ota Sensei:  Adopted from ballroom dancing, backleading involves moving the student through the positions without talking, with the 'uke' doing the leading.  Uke (who already knows the technique well) moves the nage through the various positions.   Especially for young children who are not even yet capable of much conversation, this method teaches them Aikido techniques magically!

  • Backleading is where the uke, acting in the role of teacher, leads the student nage's body through the body movement motions for any particular technique
  • Backleading leads to participation even by "unwilling" first time students
  • Backleading eliminates the need for very much talking at all (very useful for children of all ages, but especially the youngest ones).

To see what backleading looks like, watch carefully the following photographs and especially the hands.  In these photos, the uke is actually leading the nage through the throw by moving nage's body through the proper positions!:


Backleading is our primary teaching methodology, especially with young children.  The effect that backleading has on the overall class is magical.  Using the backleading teaching and helping ability of the more experienced students in place, dramatic increases the learning pace of the entire class organically occur.  Backleading skills in place gives you  at least ½ a class worth of instructor assistants.

We further make backleading teaching skill a requirement for belt advancement.  Students become excellent teachers of lower belts in this way, and they also learn their own techniques in powerful ways that they wouldn't otherwise.   More experienced students quickly learn that if they can't teach and backlead a technique to someone else, they themselves don't understand the technique that well.  It is also a very interesting mental exercise to figure out how each backlead could be done, communicating by placing nage's body, arms, legs, and hands in proper places, without talking.

Objectives of Backleading are:

  • We do not confuse the mind but teach the body (which learns quickly)
  • Backleading directly addresses the subconscious mind (which is fast), conscious mind is too slow - if you have to think about it, it's already too late.  By backleading, we teach through the body, and the mind catches up in plenty of time later
  • Backleading gives student feel for rhythm and timing of the technique
  • After the young student becomes familiar with the movement, then more precision can be added as they get older (they then understand and are motivated to learn the precision because they already understand the 'why' and the overall feeling of the technique)

I suggest that the older children students learn to backlead and teach the younger students as part of daily training.  From their very first yellow belt test, every child student in Ken Ota's school is testing not only on their Aikido but also on their backleading ability.   This translates into all students being able to help each other progress at very very fast rates, which dramatically raises the skill level of the children's class as a whole.

After Backleading is established in the older students, when introducing a new technique, the older student then simply tells the younger student:

"Let's learn this without talking, I lead you through it and you'll learn it very quickly!  Let's just do it"

Q:  How would I go about incorporating backleading into my children's teaching?

Ota Sensei:  First, we must set up a systematic set of children's techniques so that we can successfully train uke backleaders in a known set of proper backleads.  Therefore, below you can see what that we have created three Basic Sets of Aikido Children techniques, depending on the level of student. They build on one another, yet they are straightforward enough that in a short period of time it is possible to train the older students as skilled backleaders.

3 different sets of techniques:

  • The Basic 3
  • The Basic 6
  • The Basic 8

The Basic 3:

The Basic 6:

The Basic 8:

Q:  Can you describe the backleads in detail?

Ota Sensei:  Describing backlead in print is somewhat difficult to do well, I will do my best below.  If you have access to the Goleta Aikido with Ki Web Site, you can then watch the Quicktime movies and observe how uke is leading nage through the backlead.  In a future edition of this web page we'll have much more detailed movies of each backlead.

  • Katedori Ikkyo, omote, with pin: hold ryote-dori, hop nage forward, hop nage back, place nage's hand properly on your wrist, hop nage forward to 'take uke down'
  • Katedori Nikyo, omote and ura, with pin: same as Ikkyo, but backlead the nikyo
  • Yokomenuchi Shihonage, irimi, tenkan - hold ryote-dori, hop nage forward, hop nage back circular back, place nage's hand properly in shihonage grip, spin nage in proper direction, take the fall.
  • Shomenuchi Iriminage: cross the hands in front of you.  Whichever hand is on top, that is the side you pull nage into choyaku (turning drill) on that side.  Using choyaku movement, move them behind you, and place their hand behind your own neck.  Rotate yourself around nage in the proper direction.  Show nage how to raise arm for the iriminage.
  • Munetski Kotaegaeshi: cross the hands in front of you.  Whichever hand is on top, that is the side you pull nage into tenkan on that side.  Move them deep behind you with their tenkan.  Place their hand on your wrist for kotaegeshi.  Show them how to turn and move as you fall.
  • Ushiro (grab) Kokyunage
  • Ushiro (choke and hand) Sankyo

Following is a sampling of what backleading iriminage looks like, watch carefully the following pictures and especially the hands.  In these photos, the uke is actually leading the nage through the throw!



By backleading, young children in Ota's school learn basic 8 techniques before they are barely old enough to hold an adult conversation (a real feat!).

We recommend to really use teaching by Backleading.  It is useful, effective, and you'd be amazed at what children can learn THRU THEIR BODIES without talking at a young age!

Summary: Aikido for Children Part 2

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 like what you learned here in Chapter 2 about Ma'ai and Backleading, and hope you'll return with us for Chapter 3:  Fun Aikido Children Drilling and Motivational Ideas .

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.