Our national association, Zenshinkai Aikido Association (ZAA), provides significant guidance, training, and curriculum for adults and youth Aikido programs. Our Aiki Kids program for 4-6 year olds; however, is designed by us and has been a unique and exciting experiment. Recently we drafted a more traditional curriculum modeled off of that provided for older youth and adults by the ZAA. It consists of multiple Kyu (level) ranks. After some careful planning we rolled out the curriculum and conducted our first series of tests. Overall, the initial results have been excellent.
Testing is a core part of our adult and youth programs. Kyu tests provide a milestone for students. They offer a snapshot in time to showcase what that have learned. Each test consists of a series of foundational movements/excercises along with a collection of Aikido techniques. Tests offer instructors a chance to provide feedback to test candidates. Students gain confidence as they validate their learning. At the same time, tests provide a chance for instructors to also assess themselves and their programming.
We started our program with a loose curriculum. We defined goals and identified some techniques, excercises, and fun activities to craft a program to achieve them. After running our Aiki Kids program over multiple sessions we had a core group of students who have taken each session. Their skills and learning had grown notably over that time. To help them continue to progress alongside new participants we needed to challenge them. For example in practicing their forward rolls they were ready to do so from standing while beginners start from a seated position. This created a challenge in class. Youth at this age are notably motivated by their peers. If one student is practicing rolls from standing then often all want to. Of course we can explain why one student is doing something different than another; however, the message we were trying to share whether by our delivery or other reason was just not effective. This amongh other things inspired our thinking about adding rank and tests to our program.
We wanted to elevate those students who have been training longer — to allow them to be seen as Sempai or senior students. Sempai should strive and serve to be models to newer students as well as their training level should be understandably a little different. One of the nice things about a ranking system and the use of colored belts and stripes is that it creates something visual to illustrate the amount of time and level of achievement a student has made in his/her training. For the 4-6 age group, multi-sensory cues including visuals help tremendously in communicating concepts. We felt that offering colored stripes on belts would allow us the opportunity to make it clearer who the more senior students are and to explore what that senior/junior relationship can mean.
We crafted a series of ranks that help guide students towards a meaningful progression of learning and to prepare them for the traditional youth program that starts at age 7. Each rank is tested and a colored stripe is added to a white belt to note passing and achieving a new rank. Students are given ample time to prepare for their test and our philosophy is that students will already have been seen to have the skills needed to pass the test before they are asked to take the test.
The notable risk we were concerned about is creating a testing culture with such young youth. We do not want youth to feel left out when they don’t test and we don’t want to inspire anxiety around tests. As with many things there are pros and cons. We discussed with some parents to get their feedback and ultimately decided to put the program in place.
Our first tests have been fantastic. There is something about the test experience that inspires focus and allows the student to show just how much s/he has learned. We continue to be impressed by these young people and the learning they have demonstrated. We have seen some of the cons with some students feeling left out when their friends test and we continue to explore ways to lessen this and/or transform it into a teachable moment.
Our Aiki Kids curriculum is young and a work in progress. We are excited by what adding testing and rank has brought to our program and look forward to a process of continuous improvement.
Brooklyn Aikido Center provides training of both body and mind through the traditional Japanese martial art of Aikido and Zazen meditation. If you have any questions about our programs please email us or call us at 347-735-6744.
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