Kids in SystemaMarch 08, 2014 by Konstantin Komarov
Kids in Systema
by Konstantin Komarov
translated by Dmitry Trufanov
I spent a good part of my childhood playing with my friends in our apartment building’s courtyard. The courtyard was very spacious, and my friends from neighboring buildings would come play with us. There used to be a courtyard in every building, but ours was the biggest—about the size of two soccer fields. We also had many other places to play: basements and attics, construction sites and gardens, the grounds of nearby factories and warehouses, and all kinds of nooks and crannies hidden from the eyes of adults.
We had a variety of games to play. We’d often play war – all my friends had various war toys: wooden machine guns, swords, bows, and pistols. We reenacted different wars because we’d read and heard a lot about them, because we lived among living veterans and witnesses of this horrible war and that horrible war… our battle swept across the courtyard, basements, attics, construction sites, and gardens. Sometimes we’d put together shooting/exploding devices of all kinds, using matches, aluminum shavings, permanganate, saltpeter, and gunpowder from old bullets and shells (my home city had seen some very intense battles, so we found these old war relics often).
We spent more time playing courtyard games than we did organized sport games (like soccer, hockey, or tennis). Not only did we invent our own courtyard games, we also “inherited” them from older kids. Practically all of our games involved lots of moving around. It was boring to sit in one place without moving, even for a short time. Since those times in my courtyard, I have held a firm belief that kids absolutely must play physically. There are too many serious things for kids to do these days, and vastly lacking play time. And it only gets worse with time.
I was still “playing” in my courtyard when I turned 16; it was just that the games changed as we grew. Bicycles were replaced by motorcycles; we competed on the horizontal bar instead of playing tag; did boxing and weightlifting in the school’s basement instead of going down the slides. The crux of the games has not changed though. Playing means high-energy interaction with peers and we frequently did just that.
When kids start practicing Systema, there’s a fundamental difference between how one should approach working with kids vs. adults. Systema for an adult is typically a question of personal safety and a confidence builder. These are not yet important for the young kids. They don’t care about the end result as much as they enjoy the training process itself. Of course, that changes with teenagers, and goal-setting starts to play an important role.
If we were to divide kids and youth groups by age, we would do it roughly like this:
- Up to 7 years old – start training in small groups including parents, using games that require a lot of movement, or work individually.
- 7-13 years old (the core kids class) – active, mobile, developmental games, specialized exercises, and a lot of wrestling. Traditionally, for the Russian youths at this age, games, running, and wrestling were the main types of exercise.
- 14-16 years old – introduce the basics of Systema, using specialized exercises, wrestling, and strikes. At this age you can already put the kids in some of the adult classes, but until then it’s better to keep the groups separated.
- 16+ year-olds can participate in adult classes with no differentiation.
A few points on the core kid’s group aged 7 to 13. Playing games is very important for this age. Only through games and by considering the unique traits of this age group can we balance class productivity and the kids’ precious attention.
The goal of your classes for this age group should be the discovery and development of important physical and psychological traits and the cultivation of basic skills. For example:
- Harmonious body development, correct body form;
- Natural movement, ability to control the body, and overall coordination;
- Correct breathing;
- Moving without unnecessary tension, ability to relax as needed;
- Control of emotions and psyche;
- Ability to fall smoothly and safely, overcoming pain;
- Sensing and understanding distance;
- Interacting productively with a partner;
- And the list goes on and on...
All of these things can be taught through simple games and exercises, both individual and with a partner / group. A large part of this work should hinge on interaction rather than competition, sensing rather than understanding. It is difficult for kids to grasp abstract concepts, but they are good at feeling things. Take advantage of this trait.
It’s helpful to do much falling, working on the floor, crawling, especially from under a partner, pushing, wrestling, and, in general, work with a lot of physical interaction. This teaches sensitivity to your partner, providing the right amount of effort and general body awareness. Don’t be afraid of these types of work: it’s not injury-prone. Kids fall more softly and more naturally than adults. The goal is not to teach kids classical acrobatics or prescribed ways of falling, but to achieve free, easy, and safe transitions from the ground and back up again, removing fear of falls from the body and psyche. Prescribed moves or structures will make kids stiffer. Give them freedom, let them do exercises to the best of their ability, and eventually, with small suggestions and corrections, they will be doing it right.
You shouldn’t focus too much on stationary work. It’s much better to encourage constant movement; crawling, rolls, walking, or running. It’s not worth relying on strength; rather work through relaxation and mobility.
Classes should also include practice with your eyes closed – training for sensitivity, hearing, a sense of direction, memory, the ability to make decisions in complex situations, etc. Kids love working with their eyes closed and do it easily – think of the popular Russian game “zhmurki” (“blind man's buff”), in which one blindfolded person is “it” and tries to catch 3 to 10 other participants in a limited space.
It’s always helpful to provide as much physical contact as possible using a variety of games.
The beginning of the class should focus on physically challenging activities involving a lot of movement, followed by work to slow and calm the class, such as slow push-ups or squats, in a game format. All of this is intended to shed surplus energy, allowing you to spend a productive 30-40 minutes working on your chosen topic for the class. At the very end, you should conclude with an entertaining activity or game to leave off on a high note. The most important thing is to avoid formalizing the classes or using rigid constraints. Improvise more. Let the kids release the tensions and fly free – they have more than enough constraints already at school and at home.
As an example, here is helpful game I often use when working with kids 9 years or older at the conclusion of classes called “the elephant.” The game is played in groups of eight kids or more.
Divide the group into two equal teams. In the middle of the room, draw or mark a circle about four meters (12’) in diameter. You can mark it by drawing on the floor with chalk, or by laying out a rope. One of the teams designates one or two “guards,” and the rest are “elephants.” The elephants stand in the middle of the circle, put their arms around each other’s shoulders, and lean their heads in. The goal for the team outside the circle is to jump onto any of their opponents’ backs (including the guard’s). If a guard has someone on his back and leaves the circle, the person on his back has to get off. The guard’s goal is to tag the opposing team on their leg below the knee before they can climb onto the “elephants”. All the while, at least one of the guard’s feet must be in the circle at all times. There’s no limit to how long you can stay on top of someone, but the fun part of this game is trying to get on top of the opposing team as many times as possible. As soon as one team member gets tagged, the teams switch.
This game is very fun and involves a lot of movement. After 2-3 rotations I pause the game, point out players’ mistakes and give some advice, then let the game continue. 10 minutes is usually more than enough for the group to cheer up while getting a fairly intensive workout.
Working with kids is fascinating but at the same time requires pretty intense control. To grab and keep the kids’ attention, it’s necessary to maintain a fast pace of the class and a positive attitude. Still, you forget the taxing nature of the work when you see the sparkling eyes and the happiness of the children! Then you realize that you have made a contribution, however small, to a proper childhood and upbringing for them.
At Systema HQ school in Toronto, Youth classes are held regularly for ages 8 to 16. Some Systema schools around the world offer instruction for younger age groups as well.