Reflections on Children’s Testing by Kim Gold

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Congratulations to all of the kids who recently passed their belt tests! And parents: thank you for your commitment in supporting your children’s training. They couldn’t do it without you.

I had the opportunity to help some of the children prepare, as well as watch some of the tests. This is the sixth year that I have been involved in the children’s testing process, and I thought I’d share some of my observations. I’ve been meaning to put some of them down on paper for quite awhile. Now that I have a knee injury, I have finally found the time!

When an adult watches a typical Scarsdale Aikido children’s class, they may wonder if the kids are learning anything resembling Aikido at all (be honest, you’ve had this thought!) There is a playful, relaxed spirit. There are games. There is socializing. And there is often a lot of noise. The techniques that the children perform often do not look like the detailed, complex, and precise movements that the adults perform. Even when the tests come around, the children are often coached through their techniques to jog their memories. So…what exactly are they learning anyway?

As someone who has observed many tests in the children’s program, I can answer that they are learning a great deal First, I’d like to clarify what a test is. At Scarsdale Aikido, the testing process is another variant of the learning process. It is not an indication of mastery, on any level. We don’t give black belts to children, as the primary emphasis for children is to learn. From a technical perspective, young kids are not able to emulate adult proficiency and are not held up to adult standards. But if looked at from the standpoint of their developmental levels as children, they are indeed learning the art at a profound
level.

It helps to look beneath the literal movements of the technique and look to principle. In doing this, you begin to see increased mind- body awareness, timing, spatial awareness, evasive movements, balance (or base), extension, and the all-important ability to maintain the center. This can be observed with children as young as 5 years old who have been training consistently. On a non-physical level, you can observe improvements in concentration, relaxation, and confidence. The children are also gaining a preliminary knowledge of martial strategy (i.e. inviting the attack/counterattack, invading the space,
etc.) that matures as they mature.

Most importantly, the children are absorbing the core philosophy of Aikido. This can be observed during the part of the testing process known as “the questions.” To the consternation of the parents trying to prepare their children for the tests, there is no magic right answer to “the questions.” These questions are designed to bring forth what the kids have learned, help them to take their lessons off the mat and into life, as well as to open up a dialogue about philosophical and ethical issues. (Parents: if you want to do anything to help your kids prepare for this portion, encourage them to listen to the responses of
their peers’ tests and to think of their own answers.)

Personally, I find the questions to be the most interesting part of the tests. Here are a few:

“What is Aikido?” “Will being angry help you in a self-defense situation?” “During class, what should you be paying attention to/not paying attention to?””When someone wants to hurt us what attitude should we have and why?” “When someone wants to hurt you should you be afraid, confident, or tense and why?” “Is Aikdio purely defensive?” “Can a weaker opponent defeat a stronger opponent?” “How do you react when have something very difficult to do?” “What are the benefits of receiving pain when someone does a technique on you?”

The thoughtful, sincere, and often profound answers that I have heard over the years could fill a book. But I’ll give one recent example to illustrate how the testing process shows what the children have learned, and provides an opportunity to expand upon that learning.

The question was “When you are in class, what should you be paying attention to/ not paying attention to?” Several kids chimed in with different answers: “The teacher” “Your partner” “The teacher and your partner” Sensei then had the kids act out their answers. The child who was paying attention to the teacher, got attacked by his partner. The child who was paying attention to the partner, got attacked by the teacher. The child who was paying attention to both, got attacked by another attacker. You get the idea. It was concluded that you need to pay attention to everything in your environment. What you
overly focus on becomes your weakness.

One child did point out that we did not need to pay attention to the noise from the Irish dancers upstairs. We jokingly admitted that the Irish dancers are probably not a threat, but you never know. I think that groups of people who practice kicking in a line could be a force to be reckoned with. But on a serious note, practicing amidst noise is an opportunity to learn how to not be distracted or disturbed by the unpredictability of your environment.

For some of the children who have been with the program for several years, it becomes even more apparent how much they are learning. And as they grow older, their training begins to take root and branch out into all areas of their lives. My older daughter, Chloe (12), has been training for five years. I recently had a conference with her math teacher in which he described to me a child who was happy to meet challenges, relaxed and confident, and comfortable taking risks (i.e. not afraid to be wrong). I attribute that in part to her training in Aikido, as those are subtle principles that we seek to impart in every class. Along with, of course, the games.

If there are any parents who have similar stories of how their child’s Aikdio training has become part of their lives, feel free to share in the comments!

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