This February will mark ten years that I have owned and operated United Sports Tae Kwon Do at the United Sports Training Center in Downingtown, PA. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job has been working with 5 & 6 year old children. We call them “Little Tigers.” Some of our first Little Tigers are Second Degree Black Belts today!

It didn’t take long to understand that working with children of this age is very different from teaching older kids. I watched fellow school owners try to teach their preschoolers the same movements that older children and adults do, with minimal success. There are children that age who can do poomsae (a series of movements using martial arts techniques), but they are by far the exception. Most children this age are still learning left from right, and the body control necessary to maintain stances and technique. In most cases (again there are exceptions), trying to teach poomsae to a preschooler is like building the second floor on a house when the foundation hasn’t fully cured.

Parents of preschoolers who come to us today have heard me say that our aim is not to create the next Bruce Lee or Ultimate Fighter. Our goal is to help to prepare them the children for success in kindergarten and 1st grade. We do that by focusing on eight basic skills: Focus, Teamwork, Control, Memory, Balance, Discipline, Fitness, & Coordination. In the process of advancing through the Little Tiger ranks, these skills become more challenging. Thus with each new belt, kids feel successful as they gain confidence and their skills improve. 

The method by which we build these skills is martial arts-based games. Now to be clear, the traditionalist in me as a new school owner would have balked at the idea. I would have thought, “Parents don’t want their kids to play games. They come here to train.” Then, I met Master Melody Shuman, founder of Skillz Worldwide, and I learned about her approach to age-based learning. She writes, “Game-based learning helps children to develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially, all at the same time. And better yet, when information is learned in a fun way, children retain it better and want to continue to participate in the activities.” Was I willing to face the criticism of my peers who are also traditionalists? I was hesitant. Yet I knew that the dumbest reason for doing something was because it is the way it has always been done. I accepted that we could make this change for our preschoolers and still teach a certified, globally recognized Kukkiwon World Taekwondo program. So we adopted Skillz. It is one of the greatest decisions I have made as a school owner. 

For example, children of this age are still developing a sense of core strength, which is a fundamental aspect of martial arts technique. They have a difficult time remembering a sequence of commands beyond two or three moves. They are still developing a sense of how to “behave” in a class setting as many have never been to school. Expect them to call out (at first).  Expect them to struggle with turn-taking. Many have not had those experiences yet. It is our job to lay that foundation. How do we best do that? Through play. 

For example, one of the drills called “Taking Turns” requires that the students pair up. The instructor gives a few simple instructions in order to complete the drill correctly. This helps this age group by giving them multiple steps to remember but in a fun way that will be easily retained. Socially, they are working with a partner and focused on good sportsmanship and teamwork. Physically, the drill requires the students to perform 20 basic kicks, which helps build their skill and strength. Emotionally, by doing these things correctly, they are receiving positive feedback from the instructors which builds their confidence. (You would be amazed how hard kids will work for a million made up points).   

Look at all that was accomplished through game-based learning! In this one game, students touched on all 8 of the basic skills. Parents want their children to be successful in these areas regardless of how long they remain in martial arts. We are “More Than Just Fitness.” We are more than just martial arts. in their second year of the program, these students are ready to learn their first basic poomsea! But you have to lay the foundation first! Those who graduate into the next level (Kukkiwon curriculum) have a higher level of readiness. We set the foundation for the skills that these kids will need to be successful in martial arts, in school, in sports, and in life. If that is not a good reason to get up and go to work each day, I don’t know what is. 

To learn more about United Sports Tae Kwon Do’s programs for kids, visit unitedsportstkd.net.