Karate Child’s Play

How do we teach children authentic Okinawan karate without feeling like we’re selling out?

Many sensei battle with this dilemma, and in an age where the parents are customers and expect certain things for their money, I say follow your heart and let your passion be the guiding force. If you can’t be honest to yourself then how can you be happy in life?

When I began teaching karate in schools I was adamant that I wanted to teach authentic Okinawan karate the way I learnt it. No frills and gimmicks, just consistent training in a health conscious way. And I keep to this.

The truth is there’s plenty of content to keep children engaged in karate without needing to introduce ‘games’ to pass the time. What’s more, parents are enrolling their children for something far more than a nannying service because karate has a certain set of ideals in the common psyche that are attractive to them.

As an aside, I detest ‘games’ in any martial art class because I feel it weakens what we’re trying to achieve. From the parents that have switched their children to me from other groups this is also one of the first reasons they give for leaving their former dojos.

Original teaching

I suspect Hanashiro Chomo probably contemplated a similar dilemma as I did when he was introducing karate to Okinawan Schools in the early 1900’s. What to teach? The whole system or just the basics?

Hanashiro’s karate is largely drawn from his training with Matsumura but the school program comprised of less content delivered with a specific set of aims.

My way around this has been to focus the school classes only on Naihanchi kata. Within these three forms there’s ample content to achieve the stated aims of my school program which are: 

  1. To elevate the fitness (strength, stamina and suppleness) of pupils
  2. To educate about health and wellbeing via balanced training of body, mind and spirit
  3. To promote positive life values
  4. To nurture self-esteem and confidence
  5. To encourage a sense of group cohesion among peers

This last point is incredibly important. I want the dojo (the collective) to feel their place of belonging in the group. Later this year a few will be going on to secondary schools in the area and with this will come new challenges. It’s important for them to understand that karate can become a ‘3rd place’ to feel at peace, reconnect with their self and explore the limitations of imposed and perceived boundaries in a supportive environment. In this way, karate has purpose and karate has meaning.

Outside of the school program the external classes have one extra stated goal:

  1. To faithfully preserve the teachings of Hanashiro Chomo as a distinct martial tradition of Okinawan culture.

Members of this group are introduced to kata and techniques beyond Naihanchi. 

Naihanchi based karate training

Naihanchi was the basic training model adopted within Shuri circles at the time the art was being more openly taught. The kata evolves upon a single line embusen making it easy for trainees to learn and also an effective way for instructors to monitor progress of a larger group. It also develops a robust muscular framework suited to karate training.

There are three levels of Naihanchi (shodan, nidan, sandan) in the karate passed down by Hanashiro (I personally practise a further two versions of the form from both the Tachimura and Higa family.)

The three naihanchi I teach in schools were modelled and introduced by Itosu Anko.

My reason for limiting the school program to a Naihanchi base was fourfold:

  1. The average member will stick with the training for approximately three years – members that leave will have acquired a full calisthenic and martial system
  2. There are three terms a year (comprising 10 weeks each)
    – each term can focus on one of the three level forms in a rolling syllabus
  3. Training proceeds along a single line embusen and easier to monitor group progress – there are no turns or complex movements in Naihanchi
  4. Naihanchi contains a complete rudimentary boxing and grappling system – members can practise a full range of martial techniques

With just these three kata, framed with a simple calisthenic workout and meditative period, alongside a rudimentary boxing system of jabs, cross punches, hooks, stepping punches and kicks then the school system is complete.

Introducing bunkai

Once the general shape of a kata is acquired and its movements become more natural I introduce bunkai. Today, being the last session before half term I wanted to play with an elaboration of techniques and so came up with this very simple (4 movement) kata practised first in solo form and then with a partner.

This was a perfect way to introduce some of the lower grades into the ‘concept’ of how kata and bunkai practise unfolds.

This is how it blossomed: