Is Your Taekwondo Curriculum Suitable for Children?

Traditional martial arts training like Taekwondo is typically looked upon as being very disciplined, so instructors tend to be strict, with a focus on skill development. There is a high element of hierarchy and therefore you would never speak unless spoken to or be allowed to question. The style of teaching is purely didactic, children are expected to obey in silence.  Generally, children ended up being treated as ‘Miniature adults’  so that the same curriculum material was expected to be learnt by children as by adults and there was very little element of ‘fun’.

On the other side of the coin is the innovative instructor, who manages to maintain a level of discipline but has much more focus on ensuring that the children have fun in their class. Alternative methods of teaching may be used such as using media for example, video clips of demo pieces, music, or theatre and role-play to stimulate ideas, creativity and make the elements of the class more interesting. The only way you will retain children in your classes more long term is through promotion of fun and enjoyment within the martial arts class.


  • The definition of ‘fun’ for children. 

The definition of ‘fun’ can vary depending on the individual. Within physical education, there has actually been research done in this area. Some theories say that ‘Success’ and ‘Fun’ are closely interrelated, therefore having fun means having the ability to do the activity. This supports the fact that the innovative curriculum design for a beginner is pretty much ‘failure proof’ as ‘lack of success’ means ‘lack of fun’. The innovative Taekwondo instructor would create and incorporate easy and interesting games that require simple skills. There would be little emphasis on skill perfection at this stage. There may be an element of competition but with a reduced emphasis on winning, as scores may not be kept or dwelled upon. The emphasis would be on ‘Healthy competition’, co-operation and competing against oneself. At an intermediate level, the concept of fun may change or be additional to, what was previously considered fun. At this stage fun may be perceived as ‘…challenge, and the intrinsic satisfaction of personal experiences of physical competency ‘E. O’Reilly et al.(p. 220). Therefore, more emphasis is placed on skill development.


  • Review the layout and structure of the curriculum

In relation to structure of the Taekwondo curriculum, the traditional is highly structured with many set exercises and sequences of moves that require much memory. Children are able to learn the moves but struggle with remembering all the material. Once again this can become such an anxiety that it leads to dropout. The innovative curriculum would continue to have structure but in a more basic, less complicated format. There are theories that say  ‘too much structure creates gridlock, while too little structure creates chaos.’ The basic structure  would allow for freedom of creativity on behalf of the instructor. It will allow for continuous change, be dynamic. In contrast, the sensation of ‘gridlock’ seems to be quite prominent when you reach the higher ranks within a traditional martial art as you seem to do more and more of the same thing without any real learning outcomes.


  • Emphasize Character Development

One of the benefits that have always been emphasized in martial arts is character development, which forms part of in most traditional curriculums, for example, the tenets of Teakwondo are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit. This vocabulary may be implemented into the lessons, but often some of these words are too complex and mean little to young children. The emphasis has always been that hard training develops the mind, body and spirit. In contrast the innovative curriculum keeps this theory but expands on the ‘character development’ vocabulary used in the class by using words that are more meaningful to the young students. Examples of these words are:  respect, courtesy, honesty, perseverance, concentration, self-control, discipline, commitment, gratitude, motivated, dedicated. They encompass what is considered ‘ Black Belt excellence’, the goal of any student training in martial arts. These concepts would encourage lifelong learning as they would be connected not only to the rituals and practices of the martial arts in the training hall, but also to the behaviour of the martial artist at school, at home and elsewhere. For teaching children, the words may be used as underlying themes for the whole class. If we take for example the word ‘Respect’, the instructor could base the class around this word as a theme by explaining how the different rituals or behaviour of the children characterize this word. Tom Callos (2001, p.40) details how this can be done in the lesson, from defining the word clearly, to having a physiology of respect. Examples of this could be:  bowing as you enter and leave the training hall, trying to look your best (even if you forget your uniform), bowing, shaking hands, showing positive body language when you face classmates, giving other children a chance to talk in group exercises, listening to, and interacting positively with teachers, parents, instructors, friends and family. Callos also emphasizes the importance of defining respect by being a role model. It can be taken further by connecting it with the world outside the martial arts school for example, respect for other people’s property is shown by tidying the training hall, your own bedroom, looking after the training equipment or possessions. Respect for yourself is shown by eating properly, looking after your personal hygiene, standing up for yourself in the face of a bully shows respect for yourself. This could expand further by learning how to show respect to the environment, to pets and wildlife. The ideas are simple and endless, but the vocabulary promoted and the exercises that are carried out in class are very important to emphasis the theme of the class. Exercise log books, sheets could be used to enforce some of this learning through literary or artistic skills which could be done as follow-up work at home. Much of what has been mentioned so far is ideal for younger children (primary school ages, 5 – 11).


  • Curricula for the intermediate/advanced junior student

As children get older and develop into intermediate students, typically sparring or the combat side of the martial art is introduced. Within traditional Taekwondo the skill and performance as a fighter or competitor is often over-emphasized during this period of development. This no doubt appeals to the elite, athletic children, but the end result is that many children stop training at this stage. Statistically, there are more children who are less athletic and unfortunately, are the population group that martial arts instructors may have the tendency to ignore.

The innovative Taekwondo curriculum introduces sparring slowly and carefully and ties in many learning points about co-operation, collaboration, teamwork, fair-play and ‘healthy competition’. Competitions and being competitive are not a priority and other areas of the curriculum are expanded upon for example, the development of creativity. The goal would be to encourage children to develop into creators, not merely receivers of knowledge, skills. This can be done by getting the children to work in pairs to build on a basic sequence of moves or create their own sequence of moves, based on skills that they have learnt to date. They can expand the piece by adding music, using props such as weapons (nunchakus, bo-staff, Escrima sticks) or pieces of equipment, theatre or role-play. The piece could possibly be based on themes such as ‘Energy, fire, the bully, happiness, good versus evil’ . It can be taken further by getting the children to create costumes and make-up so that the final piece, which has been worked on over the term, can be staged at a celebratory event such as an extravaganza. The emphasis would be on all students participating rather than traditionally, just the usual few highly talented individuals demonstrating their skills.

At the advanced stage (after 3-4 years of training)  of a traditional Taekwondo curriculum, the common occurrence is boredom and drop-out because there is not much more to learn apart from more sequences of moves which require memory and a severe dose of motivation. An innovative curriculum would now take the opportunity to encourage the children to develop leadership skills. At this stage students may start to learn the role of the instructor, coach, referee, timekeeper, judge, competitor and any other figure in the martial arts world. They would build on the various skills required to carry out these roles. These could then be connected to the outside world, for example, the same communication skills used by an instructor (clear speech and voice projection, good eye contact and body language) are useful for presentations in school or work or during job interviews. All of these are valuable learning experiences.

  • Marking progression in Taekwondo

At all of the stages of training within most of the martial arts, the wearing of different colour belts mark the progression towards the black belt. Within the traditional curriculum, generally an examination is taken where you are required to show competency and memory sequences of skills. It is a one off event and you either pass or fail. Young children tend to stay on the same belt for long periods of time because of their inability to meet the criteria at that stage of their development. The consequence is that they do not feel any form of progression and this leads to dropout. A more progressive approach, which is implemented in the innovative curriculum, is a process of continuous assessment. This can be marked with a simple piece of tape on the belt (tags) and each tag, which may be different colours,  can represent a number of different things achieved. A simple example could be: one tag could be given for attendance, one for achieving a certain level of skill for particular piece of curriculum, one for demonstrating creativity/teamwork, one for showing an understanding of some of the themes related to character development. Once the tags are achieved, rather than having a daunting examination, the students can perform at a graduation involving friends and family and the belts could be presented as a form of celebration at that stage.

With very young children, ages 4 –6 you may wish to implement a completely different belt system altogether. Or simply, you may just add additional belts at the lower end of your belt system.


  • How can you implement such a model into your martial arts school?

From personal experience, this is not an easy task. In the past, we regularly underwent such changes and change  was generally met with anxiety and struggle. Originally the club we operated was solely with the provision of traditional Taekwondo, but it became more and more clear that statistically the numbers of individuals joining was decreasing and was not keeping up with the rate of those dropping off. We started to make curriculum changes under the banner of Teakwondo only to find that it was not embraced passionately by our adult students. The conclusion that we came to was that people do enjoy the traditional martial arts and that this should not be disregarded. So we kept the Taekwondo ‘Traditional’ and created a completely separate, alternative curriculum, ‘Kaizendo’ (a modified Taekwondo), to suit the population of students who would prefer a less traditional approach. With regards to the children, the introduction to change was not so much of an issue, and the curriculum was adjusted to meet their needs, by not demanding so much memory work and starting to focus on creativity.

The hardest part of this process, was to persuade the instructors of the value of the change, how it was going to help them as well as the students. This involved changing their beliefs and assumptions about teaching. Not only did we have to change the mindsets and values of the instructors, but to the mindsets of some parents, changes in timetables, uniforms, documents etc. The change had to be done in small increments.

But that was over 10 years ago, and the martial arts world has changed considerably. It would be easier to implement a modified Taekwondo syllabus now, especially if you operate independently (not part of a large traditional association).

In conclusion, I believe that children have many valuable lessons to learn in life through the medium of martial arts.  Martial arts instructors should take the responsibility to reflect on their practices for children and carefully consider either restructuring their traditional Taekwondo curriculum or modifying it. There are many benefits and values from a traditional curriculum, but the layout and the teaching methods should be altered to suit their needs and stage of development. An innovative martial arts curriculum for children will develop a black belt with the confidence and communication skills required throughout life and a positive approach towards the goal of lifelong activity, health and well-being.

This article is dedicated to Tommy Sinnott, a past instructor at our Academy who taught and laughed with all the children and recently passed away after battling with cancer. God Bless you Tommy.

Catarina Murphy has a Masters Degree in Physical Education and qualified to  3rd Degree Black Belt in ITF style Tae Kwon-Do. 


Callos, T.(2001): Building a Better School and Building a Better World. Martial Arts Professional, October 2001, p.40

 Murphy, F (2002). Notes from the Kaizendo Syllabus.

 O’Reilly, E., Tompkins,  J., Gallant M, (2001): They Ought to Enjoy Physical Activity, You Know?’:Struggling with Fun in Physical Education. Sport, Education & Society, Vol6, No.2 pp.211-221.

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