Monday, February 8, 2016

Sticks for Kids: Observations on Teaching Kids Arnis

Some folks out there have the perception that Arnis, especially Arnis taught with rattan sticks, is an inappropriate style to teach to children.

My teacher's school, Hidden Sword Martial Arts has kids classes in Modern Arnis.  When we had our rec center program, we taught kids, too.  And I know of kids programs at Datu Tim Hartman's school, Horizon Martial Arts, Brian Johns' school Bamboo Spirit Martial Arts Centre, and many others who are teaching children.

Kids working on sinawali at Mid-Cities Arnis

My personal experience as well as the experience of people I trust says that the belief that kids can't or shouldn't learn Arnis is just plain wrong.

I mean, Arnis is the national martial sport of the Philippines and is taught in elementary schools there, y'all.

Here are some of the things we've observed teaching young kids Arnis:

Use Smaller Sticks

Our kid students use "kid sticks", which are only 3/8" diameter.  Most kids don't have the upper body strength to manage normal sized sticks.  Cutting them down to 24" or so that they are easier for them to handle is a good idea.  Some people teach kids arnis with padded sticks; I really don't think this is necessary, as Arnis is way safer than outsiders believe it to be.

Don't Expect Powerful Blocking Early

This is not because of technique, but because of the upper body strength problem.  With kids, you have to go a little lighter with strikes as they build up the strength.  I've noticed that they also have good judgement in NOT striking hard with partners, so don't worry too much on that score.  Work on the technique; the power of blocking will come with time.

An unsupported block is very difficult for kids.

Maintain "Stick Discipline"

When we are not actively working with our sticks, our kids are taught to hold the sticks at "rest" - tucked under their arms.  This is something you really have to stay on top of with the kids.  Their minds sometimes wander when you're teaching a concept, and it's very easy for them to start fooling around with the sticks and get someone hit. 

Good Technique Takes Longer

Getting the kids to do good technique - proper blocking, stepping, range, targeting, etc. - takes a lot of work, more than I typically see in adults (unless, of course, you get one of those naturals which is really rare).  This means you really need to get a lot of reps in, even if they aren't perfect reps.  Focus on one thing at a time - have them work on proper targeting for a series of sessions, then when they have that down, then work on another aspect.  They can't handle too much at one time, so don't overload them with too much information too quickly.

Kids Love Hitting the Bags

Nothing perks up a kids class more than getting to hit the bags.  I think this is because they get to not work so hard on their control, and just build up other aspects of their game without worrying about not hitting their partner.  So make sure you include a class of bag work relatively often, where they can work on their power.

Working on striking technique versus VERSYS VS.  Bob (aka Bob 2.0)

Kids Struggle With the Grip

Getting kids to grip a stick properly - a closed grip - is hard. Why?  Because the sticks are longer, proportionally (even when you cut them down) than they are for adults.  They feel like they have to have an open grip in order to control the stick.  Keep an close eye on this, as an open grip is a very bad habit and incredibly difficult to break.

Kids Need Games

The most popular thing in our classes for our kids are the games we play.  As right now we have a mixed-ages class, so it's pretty much relegated to two games - "Guro Says" (like "Simon Says") and a game we call "ninjas", where we have kids avoid getting hit by stuffed "ninjas" or pool-noodle "swords" (adults act as the "attackers").  We are splitting our adults class in May, so we plan to incorporate more skill building games in our classes for the kids.

Kids Tend to Strike "Light"

Most kids - not all, but most - are very weapon-aware and thus, they don't put as much power and energy into striking that they could (or should, even).  This comes from a student being afraid of hurting their partner, but it teaches bad habits early, so you really have to coach them to deliver solid strikes. This problem is not only associated with kid students - adults do it too.  That's why the blocking I mentioned above becomes a key issue. Getting good blocks helps students gain the confidence to deliver stronger strikes in drills.

So if you're considering adding on a weapons program for kids in your martial arts school, Arnis (kali/escrima/eskrima) are actually a pretty good choice. Kids seem to have lots of fun with it!

Did I miss any good tips for teaching kids Arnis?  Are you worried about letting kids learn Filipino Martial Arts?  Let us know in the comments!