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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Bringing education to the dojo

Teaching [Young] Children: Part One: Introduction to using games as a teaching tool

Understanding Children (Modern teaching)

If you have ever stated that ‘it’s not like when we were kids’, then it would not be unfair to say that you may have lost touch with the children you are faced with. If the children have changed and times have changed, let me ask you a question, are you still teaching in the same manner as your instructor? Can you see the flaw in this: Was your instructor ahead of the times, or are you behind them?

We are well into the information age; children are surrounded by knowledge so there is little need for memorizing. When I arrived at university ready to learn, the professor quite clearly told me I had enough nonsense in my head – I was hear to learn how to write scholastically and how to use library. And I suppose to a degree this is the mentally of the modern teacher: What is better, to memorize a book or where the library is?

I find games not only fully engage the learner but increase motivation; allowing for deeper learning. If you teach children (or are thinking about teaching children) aged 4 – 6 years of age, then using games will become your key tool for not only delivering information but making that information stick. What I always try to do with younger children is stick knowledge into their head and then I will manipulate that knowledge at a later point.

If this is new to you then please do not panic, as pretty much any technique can be turned into a game and the possibilities are endless.

The brain will give first priority basic needs – If a student is hungry, thirsty, cold or dying to go to the loo they are not going to pay attention no matter how important you tell them it is.

Here are my five rules when teaching 4 – 6 year olds

1.     Talk less, do more

2.     Disguise repetition (but still do it!)

3.     Demonstrate motivation by joining in

4.     Do not give them time to lose focus

5.     Everyone enjoy yourself

Also I would try and teach the lessons for 45 minutes – 1 hour (no longer).

For those ‘hard core’ instructors who are not convinced by using games to teach, then, I would first like to clarify what I think a game is. For me kumite has a game element – it can be fun, has challenges, it involves skill, objectives and strategy. Kumite has a winner whilst the ‘loser’ can also celebrate achievement for the journey. So to begin here is what I suggest, bring the game elements of kumite into all aspects of karate-do.  

If you still want to teach by talking and repeating technique after technique one thing to bear in mind, according to Ekwall and Shanker, (1988) people generally recall about:

20% of what they hear

30% of what they hear

50% of what they see and hear

And those percentages are the total amount of what they are listening to. So if you talk for 10 minutes and a child listens for 5 of those minutes then they will recall maybe 30 seconds.

Example one: Kihon

“Ok, first we are going to start with.......”

After your warm-up line up your students and choose any technique (or part of technique) to practice as a class. Fire out 10 quickly and select one student who performed that technique well. Give praise and invite this student to stand to your left and demonstrate to the class – Say to the students:

“I’m looking for another good example to show the class.”

Fire out 10 more (watch how suddenly they become much better) and choose another student to perform on your right. More praise followed by 10 more as a class. Make the class choose the better technique (between the two) and then finish off with 10 more. Now hopefully, for the 3 minutes this whole exercise took to complete you may have achieved the following:

ü     Highlighted good practice from your students (not from you!).

ü     Shown that you reward good technique.

ü     Shown that you take notice of students, thus pushing them to work harder.

ü     Provided a small element of competition between the class and individuals.

ü     Had students perform on their own (good for gradings and competitions).

ü     Repeated 50 techniques (70 for performers).

ü     Fun which helps the technique to stick.

If you told your students to do a technique 50 times, obviously you run the risk them losing focus.  Apply this two, maybe three techniques in a lesson and no more.

Quick tip: Get them to talk!

According to Ekwall and Shaker, people can recall

70% of what they say

90% of what they say and do

Whilst students are performing techniques try and get them to say out loud what they are doing or even count aloud this will help them to better remember what you are trying to achieve.

Example 2: Kata

I suppose teaching a very young student their first Kata is a daunting prospect. You want the student to retain the moves so you repeat them over and over again, hoping they will eventually stick. The only problem is that this obvious repetition can be boring to young children. I think most of us have used the ‘Capital I’ to draw attention to the embusen of the Kata – it’s a great way to visualise the correct direction:

One thing that I have found that works quite well is ‘running the embusen’. Use a stop watch (it works better if you use cones to mark out the embusen) and start at the X. Run to 1 then to 2, back to the X, run to 3, then 4, then 5, then back to 3, etc. So, the student is running the Kata before they are introduced to the complex movement whilst trying to beat their time (or others).

The next step is to add the correct spinning turns. So I introduce these when the students run:



Between 3 and 4 I like to use the analogy “a dog chasing its tail” to reinforce the direction of the spin/turn and to a 4 or 5 year old I find this works very well. Once the students have tried running the embusen then I would introduce the Kata into manageable chunks.


I have little to conclude as I think this article only scratches the surface of how games can be used in the dojo to provide motivation. Young learners need to be kept fully engaged to take on board more information, because if you can keep them they will become your experienced junior grades.


1.     Talk less do more

2.     Disguise repetition (but still do it!)

3.     Demonstrate motivation by joining in

4.     Do not give them time to lose focus

5.     Everyone enjoy yourself


Do not change what you are teaching, instead change the way you present it to make it more appealing for your audience.

Good luck

James Martin