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Ukemi (break falling) is a vital skill when doing Aikido. Soon, my club is starting a children class (anyone between 8 to 17) and as instructors, we must teach the children how to break fall. Ideally, we would like to make a game of this as Aikido at that age should be fun. Well, it should always be fun but kids learn best when playing.

How can we amend teaching ukemi drills so children learn them safely and fast?

Note that while focused on Aikido, this is equally applicable to Judo or any other arts that do ukemi.

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Oh man...

I help teach (and teach if the head instructor is gone) a small group of kids every week and this has always been major question for me. Not specifically this, but just how to get the kids to want to learn Aikido at all!

Also, I just want to mention that to me (I could absolutely be wrong, but it's the way I learned it), 'ukemi' means all rolling, breakfalling, body-manouvering, etc. That is, 'ukemi' is the 'art of blending...with the mat'; haha.

The best way I've found for teaching kids ukemi (or techniques in general) is by getting the kids to want to learn. If they don't want to learn, nothing you do, games or otherwise, will force them to learn (sad but true). The best way - I've found - to do this is to have the instructors or other class members doing the same ukemi enthusiastically. Kids love a challenge (or rather, kids love completing a challenge; I suppose this goes for most people, but kids more easily accept meaningless challenges), and often it's as simple as saying, "Look! I'm having fun doing this - and you can too! Want to learn to do this with me?"

Basically, if you're having fun, the kids will want to have fun too. Show them how to have fun with ukemi, and most will follow suit.

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I agree, I remember my starts in judo ... and all we learn was to roll forward. we start at 1 end of the dojo, roll forward till the end ... run back and start over. was dull ... but well ... I enjoy it. – Thierry Savard Saucier Aug 6 '14 at 11:41

Teaching children in Judo for 13 years now and having made an instructor's license, I will try to pin it down to some principles (as concrete lessons may be established, but are dependent on the group).

General principles (all techniques/ages)

These principles do not only apply to children (or ukemi), but are more essential to be held in mind and used in smaller steps:

  • Simple to difficult: Think of an ukemi (and any other technique, basically) as a bundle of different actions. Divide into steps and put them together later. For example, just sitting on your buns, rolling backwards (heads up!), slapping for the backfall (1st step).

  • Low to high: Starting out of a sitting position, then a low squatting, somewhat higher and so on.

  • Soft to hard: I found it very useful to use soft-ground-mats and gymnastics mats on the tatami for losing the fear of falling in the first place. It is great fun inventing sequences of different exercises getting ever harder, doing them on different grounds, on each ground up to the point the single child wants to go. Brave ones will lead to others trying it as well eventually. The top was not only letting go, but jumping as far as possible from a box, for example. It is fun, too.

  • Making it a partner exercise with different emphasis: Basic throws like o-soto-otoshi and o-goshi/uki-goshi, done slowly, involve ukemi to some extend, aquaint with the feel of it. Using partners as stumbling blocks may be useful as well. I do not know of specific aikido techniques, but you will possibly find some.

  • Know your group: Homogeneous groups are easier to be trained, generally. Heterogeneous groups have group dynamics that have to be adressed and can be used. Older/more advanced ones could get bored, but involving them into the training process by helping the 'younglings' is both challenging and educative regarding the technique, for example.

Special requirements of children

  • Make it fun to fall: As you yourself already mentioned, they are kids after all. This should be instrumentalised e.g. the fun of being loud (or, even better, the loudest) may be used for introducing repetetive slapping. 'Make it sound like thunder', for example. Negative/explanatory statements like 'Slapping is to prevent injury' are not very helpful here. The main point here is letting them forget that it is falling - it is everything but falling!

  • The younger they are, the more show: This is basically the point of @BenCole, but a bit more as well - Being an entertainer/clown can help very much for younger children. This includes transporting the feeling that doing what you do has to be great fun, e.g. by showing great amounts of enthusiasm. It also includes using funny vocabulary and figurative language (side fall not 'like a tree/stick', but smooth etc.) and always being in movement if you have to overcome the first aversion towards doing something at all. Playing the dumbass when pointing out mistakes. Totally overdo. All this stuff that helps creating the lesson as a special experience for kids.

  • Include the exact moves into games: Playing e.g. tag games helps a lot. We have invented a game named "Wizard": Having the spells "tree" and "stone", the wizard may put a charm on the others by tagging them and saying out loud what they are supposed to be, only to be released with the proper action (standing trees are thrown, crouching stones fallen over). May be used for both back- as well as forward falls. Being inventive is the key here, as it is in general. Playing for half of the time is no problem this way.

  • Short explaining, straight to the point: The attentiveness of children is way shorter, one has to concentrate on the essentials.

  • Keep developmental psychology in mind: This includes the beforementioned point, (explanatory) vocabulary, exactness of movements, speed, balance and coordination as well as other factors. Excessive demands are the main reasons for children losing motivation. If a kid does not want to continue with an exercise or training in general, this is most certainly the reason and offering help here often helps.

  • If talking to a child, get on its height: It is important to kneel down when talking/showing/explaining to single pairs or children in order to talk eye-to-eye. Have them look you in the eye. It helps with attentiveness and shows them that you take them seriously as well.

  • Take them seriously in general: In a first approximation, you have to take every word they say to you, every injury (no matter wether you already know that it wasn't that bad or not) or whim, and every change in behaviour seriously. There are what I call 'mere actors' that only invent something in order to get your attention, but you will know them quite soon. For the others: Take your time, let them sit on you knee, listen to them and they will simply love you. Of course, this sometimes has to wait until the next game or after the training, simply because your first responsibility is for the whole group. But as a side effect, you get a chance to discover them as the little individual miracles they are.

  • (Be empathetic:) Listening to them, allowing bodily nearness, attentiveness etc. is much more essential for children until adolescence. Therefore large groups forbid themselves. But this is to some extend up to personal preference. I personally hold this to be an important part of training with children, not to be confused with a loss of professional distance.

While you may be disappointed that this answer does not propose very much concrete things, but that is one of my points: five year-olds have to be treated very different from eight year-olds. On the other hand, I think the points that have to be kept in mind for children in particular and are often forgotten by only training adults are included.

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Limbo

Haven't gotten really deep into ukemi, but it seems like if you made it a game like limbo, that would be pretty fun for kids. Hold a broom-stick pretty high at first, have them forward roll underneath it. Then lower it as they progress. Then start with it low and have them roll over it. Raise the bar as they progress. This could probably be done with other falls, but would work best with forward roll because you need a bit of momentum to clear the bar.

Leap Frog

Another thing you could do is leap-frog, but that requires a certain amount of skill with a forward roll. In case you don't know, leap frog is where kids take turns getting on all fours and jumping over each other's backs. Just have the kids on all fours line up laterally relative to the kid behind them and change the jump to a forward roll. How To Play Leap Frog

Pick Up Sticks

This is for kids who are quite comfortable with forward roll. Place an escrima stick or bokken or whatever on the ground. Kids have to roll, pick it up while rolling, and come out of the roll to a standing position. Once they're comfortable with this, divide into teams and do a relay race. Kids have to roll, grab stick, hand it off. Kid who gets it has to toss it (gently) on the ground, roll and get it. I'm actually not familiar with how well kids can grasp the body mechanics of ukemi, so this may not be for your younger kids, but for teens who have been doing it for a while.

Learning to Fall

For kids to learn to fall in the first place, you might start with using an exercise ball. You guys might already be doing this. The idea is to roll over the ball. It might help with kids who are afraid of losing control when going to the ground (ease the transition from standing to rolling). I couldn't find video of a forward roll with an ukemi ball, but here's one showing how to sprawl on one

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+1 if only for mentioning the companion ball (Portal reference) as it's an awesome way to learn forward rolls. – Sardathrion Jul 25 '14 at 6:45
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As long as it's not a companion cube. That may... complicate matters. – The Wudang Kid Jul 25 '14 at 12:00
    
Your idea in learning to fall was how we did it at start. we also played a challenge game like this : put 1 ball (or yourself, or 1 small kid on his knees, head on the ground, hand over his head ), have kids roll over it/him. if they touch the ball/kid, they are out. when everyone is done, put a 2nd ball/kid next to it. have the surviver roll over, etc. – Thierry Savard Saucier Aug 6 '14 at 11:44

Suggest you review Patrick Parker's blog (I've linked to a post that is specific to teaching children; it references exercises & games to teach kids).

Specifically he mentions How to get kids to slap when they fall and Children's falling exercises, but there is a lot there, and Parker-Shihan is probably the best aikido blogger out there.

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At my taijutsu dojo, the instructors teach basic ukemi to kids as young as seven. The way they approach it is to start by showing it in action with an advanced technique -- like, they'll do a rear sweep on a guy, then point out how that would have hurt if he didn't fall on his back properly, then teach the rear hard fall.

So, just like teaching anything: start with an attention-getter, show how it's relevant to the class, then dive on in. Our kids enjoy the flips and rolls probably more than anything else we do in class except maybe breaking boards.

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In my Judo class, we do what we call "Ukemi competion": we assign every Ukemi a number and whenever the insctructor shouts that number, everybody has to excecute the fall. The last one to execute it and anyone who either performs the wrong fall or doesn't execute it correctly, gets eliminated. As fewer kids remain, you can increase the speed at which you shout the numbers. This really gives everyone the motivation not only to rember the Japanese names of the falls, but also to execute them perfectly.

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