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The next IAF Children and Youth Aikido Seminar will be held in the Netherlands in November. To share best practices, we thus kickstart a series of articles with this first feature on the running of an Aikido program for children by Filippin Renato shihan and his wife Amadea Thoma at their dojo in St. Gallen, tucked in the mountainous region of Switzerland.

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Renato Filippin shihan started Aikido in 1963. His first sensei were Masahiro Nakazono sensei and Nobuyoshi Tamura sensei. Between 1968 and 1971, he trained under T.K. Chiba sensei in England and was promoted to shodan by Tamura sensei in 1971. Renato shihan also has had affiliations with, and was a student of Hiroshi Tada sensei and Ikeda Masatomi sensei. He was present at the founding meeting of the Swiss Aikikai in 1969 and served as Swiss Aikikai’s Technical Secretary from 2001 to 2006. He established Aikikai St. Gallen in 1971, which is one of the most successful dojos whithin Aikikai Switzerland. Filippin shihan is also the official Aikido teacher of the University St. Gallen and holds regular seminars in several universities in Germany and in other parts of Europe.

Since 2007, with his wife Amadea Thoma sensei, he has been running an Aikido children’s group in St.Gallen, currently comprising 100 children. The children’s group was presented to Waka sensei during his visit to St. Gallen in September, 2014.

Vanessa Radd: Can you begin by sharing with us about your experience in launching children’s classes at your dojo? How did it come about?

Renato Filippin: I started the children’s class in 2007 with my wife, Amadea Thoma sensei. I had tried once to do it alone in 1984, but I was probably not ready to take on such a challenge in those days. With the woman-man combination as teachers, it proved to be a very successful partnership for us over the last 10 years.

In 2007, we started with just two children; at that time we decided to start the class for 7 year-olds. The group doubled almost every 4-6 months and due to the fact that our dojo has only 100m2 of tatami, it was a matter of time that we had to start a second group. Also, we very quickly found it very difficult to organize the training in a way that would suit children of different ages in one class. Therefore, after only 1 ½ years, we decided to split the class into different age groups.

Also, many parents kept on asking us if we could run a class for younger children of below 5 years of age. We never had the intention to do this because my wife and I never wanted to teach a “kindergarten”. But the interest from the parents was very high, so one day we said: “Okay, if you can organize 6 children for a class, we can start a class for this age group.” Two weeks later, we had 12 children from 4-7 years of age. This resulted in us having classes for three age groups: 4-7 years, 7-10 years, and above 10 years.

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As time passed and the children became older and more advanced, the creation of new classes was inevitable. The ages and the number of children force you to either form new groups or you move into a bigger dojo! But in a city like St. Gallen, the cost for rooms of over 100m2 is so high that it is better to fill a smaller room with several groups over the course of the week. After 10 years at our dojo this resulted in us running 7 groups of children and youth practicing Aikido. In our oldest group (that goes up to 17 years of age), there are already some who are preparing themselves for their shodan exam.

Well, this was how we started with the Aikido children’s classes!

Vanessa Radd: Can you share with the readers the principles that you impart in your teaching?

Renato Filippin: My teaching principles and philosophy are in line with what had been transmitted and communicated to me by my teachers from the Aikido teachings of O-Sensei. Second, the connection-unification-harmonious direction is an essential point in my teachings. Third, the transmission of technical skills and precision of the basic movements and spiritual awareness without losing the martial essence of Aikido as a Budo.

Vanessa Radd: What were the challenges when you first started teaching children and does it get better and easier over the years?

Renato Filippin: In the beginning, you have children who practice Aikido for the first time. You have to teach everything from the ground up -- there are no children who can serve as a model for teaching. Over time, the more advanced children can serve as a role model for the new students. For example, the traditional dojo etiquette of bowing when entering the dojo can be more easily accepted by the new students when they have seen the seniors doing it.

Another important aspect is that as an adult practitioner you have to understand that children need other motivations to continue with their practice. It is easier to teach in a group where there are more advanced students than beginners. Of course, it takes a longer time to get there -- by that, I mean to get to a stage where you have at least 20 to 30 children who have been practicing for about two years. After that, it gets easier.

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Vanessa Radd: What challenges in Aikido do you foresee in the future?

Renato Filippin: In the last ten years, we tried to cope with the stagnation we have today in Aikido. We wanted to prove that it is possible to have growth in the dojo by concentrating our efforts on children and youth programs. The increase in membership was not the most important thing for me and my wife but the transmission of ‘life’s principles’ through Aikido practice. When you teach Aikido to children, parents have high expectations of the benefits their children can get out of practicing Aikido. Therefore, it will be quite a challenge in the future as to how we can transmit the true value of Aikido for the benefit of society as well as the personal development of the practitioner over his or her life.

Vanessa Radd: What do you enjoy most about Aikido especially when it comes to teaching children?

Renato Filippin: The enthusiasm of children is much higher, more authentic and genuine compared to adults. The spontaneous ideas from children enabled us to create new avenues for the meditative art of Aikido. This makes training with children a very nice and pleasant experience. When there are 20-30 children in the dojo, a charged atmosphere of indescribable energy arises. The stagnation in our art over the past 20 years had resulted in a high-average age of practitioners. The physical training, intensity of a movement, endurance and acrobatic performance of the ukemi is then often adapted for this age group. With children and adolescents it is just the opposite - it is much more energetic than for the adults. It is up to us teachers to create an atmosphere of joy for any level and it is a great opportunity for development.

Vanessa Radd: What were the best methods for conducting children’s classes you had discovered and would recommend to other dojos?

Renato Filippin: Before we started with the Aikido children’s classes, we checked worldwide if there was any such system specifically created for this purpose. Many dojos, including Hombu Dojo, were offering Aikido children’s training. In 2004, I decided to visit Hombu Dojo and asked for permission to assist in a few of their children’s classes. This gave me a good reference to start with. During all my time researching, I found many game-teaching methods to introduce Aikido in children’s classes as well as ideas on how to deal with children. However, I need to admit that what I had came across during my research I am not able to classify as an actual system or method. If, for example, I look at the methodical structure of the various national Judo organizations, a parallel comparison with Aikido is not yet feasible. Nevertheless, today, there are many dojos and associations worldwide who are working on developing new ways to teach Aikido to children. Therefore, one challenge in the future would be to learn from each other by organizing national and international exchange seminars with different teachers, organizations, and nations. The International Aikido Federation (IAF) is giving great support in all this. I am pleased to share with anyone who is interested in learning how to develop Aikido programs for children at their dojo with our method. That said, this is without claiming that our method is better than others. I believe that any single contribution anyone can give will lead in the end to a pool of suggestions that will help to develop a best practice method for everyone.

Vanessa Radd: What differences do you encounter, if any, in teaching children classes from one country, with another?

Renato Filippin: When I lead children classes, I adapt not only to the country's specificities, mentality, but also the history of the country or dojo. Therefore, it is more of an adaptation instead of a difference that you deal with in another country or dojo.

Differences between the east and west are of course present. Depending on the country’s level of prosperity, the motivations of why the children want to learn Aikido are different. And these differences are immediately recognizable -- the physical intensity of the training is just one of many. For example, in more prosperous countries, children with Attention Deficit- Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHS) seem to be more common than in less-prosperous countries. Also, ‘couch potato’ children are more likely to be found on the tatamis in the former countries compared to the latter. Therefore, an Aikido teacher should study as deeply as possible these phenomena of society.

Vanessa Radd: What was the biggest leadership lesson you've learned from all the senseis in the past?

Renato Filippin: It is nearly impossible to say when or which lesson from my past senseis was the key and which influence formed my Aikido. I think that it was a process during many years that put all the puzzles together. Certainly, one important aspect that I got was from Nakazono sensei which made me see things a bit more differently -- this was around 1970! -- in one lesson he simply said “you have to achieve power without effort”. I believe that these words were the key to the principle of Aikido, in that it has an immense treasure for leaders from all walks of life. For example, in Aikido practice, we need to understand the principle of “Kuzushi” before we can apply a throwing technique. You simply manage the “change” with little effort. This and other established principles make Aikido a unique tool for leaders.

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Vanessa Radd: What is the biggest lesson you'd like the children to get from Aikido?

Renato Filippin: To help introduce to the children a better way of life through Aikido. Magnifying and extending this further, there are considerations that are more appropriate for some children. Taking into account their past, social environment, migration background, health status and other factors, the biggest lesson a child can get from Aikido is how he or she can adapt and blend properly with his/her life’s environment. They are also able to develop a willpower that enables them to progress in their work day by day. To become an advanced Aikidoka, one must be the same on the tatami. Through this, Aikido then becomes truly valuable to the child and serves as a pathway for his or her life.

Following the success of the 1st Children and Youth Aikido Seminar held in St. Gallen, Switzerland, Mr Kei Izawa, the Chairman of the IAF, set the basis for its vision for the promotion of Aikido towards children.

"We at IAF feel that the children and youth program is vital for the healthy growth of Aikido as well as for children’s development. We acknowledge that different cultures have different social backgrounds and expectations, so our role will not consist in establishing a common curriculum per se. However, we feel however that it is vital to share best practices so that each country can learn from each other and raise the overall level of Aikido in the world. What the IAF would like to achieve is to provide a platform for idea exchange and opportunities for children and youth to train on the tatami with other practitioners from other countries. We are studying the possibility of having a demonstration event in Japan in the near future, and it is nice to start locally and regionally so that people get used to these exciting get-togethers. I was delighted to observe the joy of the children who had come together in St. Gallen for the Swiss Aikikai event last June.”

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