Some Reflections On teaching HEMA to Kids

I have been running a Kids sword class at an independent High School for the last 12 years. We called it “Smite Club”. Due to reasons, it has now come to an end – at least temporarily – but I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned from the experience.


1) Teaching Kids is a Good Thing to do.

I know a lot of HEMA instructors who refuse to teach kids. Partly concerns over safety, having them mixed in with adults, but a lot of the time because they feel it is somehow beneath them as Serious Martial Arts Instructors.

There are 3 reasons I think this attitude is misguided.

a) Historically, people started being trained in swordsmanship at a much younger age than any of us manage. Most of our recruits are 30 to 40 year old IT guys, or maybe 20 year old uni students if you’re lucky. That means they have a decade, if not more, of learning to catch up on someone of their age historically. We are never going to reach the level of mastery that the period sources assume until we start training people at the age they were trained historically.

b) For anyone with ambitions to teach HEMA professionally, consider the simple fact that the vast majority of traditional Martial Arts teachers, and Fencing teachers, only manage to make a living by doing kids classes. It is their bread and butter. It’s where the easy money is. As a matter of mere practicality, kids classes can be a lucrative source of income to supplement your meagre earning from grown ups.

c) You learn a great deal from teaching kids that you never get from adult classes. Apart from forcing you, as a teacher, to really boil the important parts of a system down to the essentials, and constantly having to think about the best way to convey that information in the most efficient way, bouting kids is really good for your own reflexes!

2) Broadsword is better than Longsword

I have tried teaching the kids a variety of weapons and systems over the years, and my clear conclusion is it is better to teach them a single handed sword system – any kind of broadsword or military sabre style would do – than Longsword.

First, in terms of practicality, Broadsword requires less gear. The system works fine with a boffer, or a singlestick, or anything really, and the hilt removes one of the biggest safety issues, that is breaking small hands. Kids can transition from boffers to shinai or steel (I used Hutton Sabres) without any issue at all. Longsword, on the other hand, requires a great deal more safety gear and more dangerous training weapons to be done anything like properly. The weapons hits faster and harder and the potential for injury is greater.

Second, Broadsword is natural and simple and easy to pick up, and they can start bouting with boffers virtually from their first lesson. Longsword is infinitely more complex, kids find it much harder to learn, and it requires a great deal more training before they get anywhere close to freeplay. Kids don’t like that – they want to hit each other.

Thirdly, Broadsword can expand into companion weapons easily – at Smite Club the rule was if they build a Target, they could bring it and use it. Many of them did, so we could expand into sword and shield, and then dirk/dagger, and associated weapons. It keeps things fresh and fun.

3) Don’t Dumb it Down

I think a lot of instructors assume you have to simplify things to teach kids, and this would be boring. For them as instructors. This is absolutely wrong.

High School age kids are well capable of understanding the most sophisticated of fencing theory. There is no need to dumb things down for them. Even if they find certain things physically difficult to actually perform, they will invent their own simpler approximations by themselves, and slowly, as their bodies mature, improve and get closer to the ideal.

4) Discipline is Vital

We all, I think, have a tendency to pooh pooh the strict formality found in traditional Asian martial arts schools, in our typically individualistic Western fashion. And for most Adult HEMA schools, which mostly start as a bunch-of-guys trying to learn together, such formality is unnecessary.

However, let me tell you, it is absolutely vital for teaching kids. They are an unruly, irreverent bunch, and can run dangerously wild unless you keep a tight lid on them. And, frankly, they appreciate it, and however much they push the boundaries, they get upset if you let them get away with too much, or let the unruly kids ruin their chance to learn.

So don’t get too friendly with them, demand respect and good behaviour, or risk losing control. Honestly, I strongly suspect the formal discipline of Asian martial arts schools and Classical Fencing academies is there, not because the grown ups need it, but because the kids classes do.

5) Balance the Lessons

I structured my classes into 3rds, spending the first 1/3rd on formal technique training, the middle 1/3rd on individual combat, varying the rules and conditions to reinforce whatever they needed to be concentrating on, and the last 1/3rd on Melee Games.

You don’t get to do much Melee Games in most Adult HEMA classes, which is a pity. They are great for your fitness, timing and distance, reactions, and since most of the weapons we practice are really military battlefield weapons, it gives some important insights into how they were used outside of the setting of a formal duel.

In the context of Kids classes, they are also important method of control. They are the most fun bits. They are the reward for hard work. And not being allowed to join in is the threat you must sometimes use to keep control of the class.

Sword Melee Games

These are a series of Games I’ve developed over many years now. These are really designed to be played with boffers, as this kind of group combat can get pretty wild!

1 Kill the King

Each side nominates one player to be the King. The side that kills the opposing King first wins. Kings may carry weapons and defend themselves.

2 Kill the Princess

Each side nominates one player to be the Princess. The side that kills the opposing Princess first wins. Princess’s may NOT carry weapons or defend themselves.

3 Necromancer

Each side nominates one player to be the Necromancer. When a player is killed, they may be revived by being tapped by the Necromancer. Necromancers may carry weapons and defend themselves, but can be killed in the usual way. The side that kills all the enemy wins,

4 Bridge Battle

Divide the hall in two, and mark a “bridge” in the middle between them, a few meters wide and a few meters long. The two sides can only enter each other’s territory through the Bridge, and anyone who steps off the bridge into the “water” is instantly killed.

5 Fire Wizard

Each side nominates one player to be the Wizard. The Wizard does not have a sword, but can throw Fire Balls (e.g. tennis balls), which kill anyone who touches them – except another Wizard. Whacking the Fireball at the enemy with your weapon, however, is allowed.

Only have a limited number of Fireballs in play at any one time – 2 or 3 per Wizard is plenty. In an enclosed space, it is best to invoke a rule that says the Wizards cannot throw directly at another player, but must bounce it off a wall first.

6 Trolls

One or two experienced players are Trolls. Trolls are indestructible, but are limited in movement – on a gym floor, for example, you may decide that the Trolls can only walk on the lines marked on the floor.

The two sides fight for victory as normal, but Trolls may kill anybody who stumbles into their reach.

7 Knights and Squires

This game is good when you have a small number of experienced players and a large number of beginners. The experienced players are Knights, and the Squires are divided among them, forming a small team. Anyone can kill anyone, but if a Knight is killed, the surviving Squires (if any) join the side that killed the Knight. The side that ends up with all the Squires wins.

8 Infinite Hordes

This game is good when you have a small number of experienced players and a large number of beginners. The experienced players are on one side, and have one life each. The beginners form the other side, but have an infinite number of resurrections. They keep attacking, dying and resurrecting until they finally grind the experienced players down.

9 Swordrush

One person is in the middle (“In Team”). Everybody else is on one side of the field (“Out Team”). When the person who is In yells “Swordrush”, the Out Team must try to get to the other side. Anyone struck by the In Team joins the In Team for the next round. Anyone from the Out Team who strikes a member of the In Team gets a “free pass” to the other side, and cannot be struck. Continue until there is only one person in the Out Team – they are In for the next game.

10 Red vs. Blue

For this game you need some kind of double-sided marker – such as an armband that is Red on one side and Blue on the other. Players divide into two teams, Red and Blue. Each Team has a Base at one end of the field.

When they fight, anyone struck by the opposing Team must go the that Team’s base and then join that Team. Continue until there is only one Team!

11 Nemesis

Everyone finds their own space, and secretly picks one person to kill. On “Go!” they must kill their chosen target, and defend themselves from any assassins. After the fighting subsides, the survivors retreat to the edges again and choose a new target.