Introducing Historical Fencing to Children

La Leçon d'escrime - Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (1850-1928)
“La Leçon d’escrime,” by Alcide-Théophile Robaudi (d.1928)

Children are one of many populations yet to make much appearance in historical fencing. There are a lot of reasons. Lacking decades of tradition few programs have developed specific versions suitable for kids. In a similar way there are fewer resources, from age-appropriate translations to gear that is child-sized; this makes it all the more difficult. In fairness, many clubs aren’t interested in working with kids and of course that’s okay.

Some avenues into the community are arguably safer and more approachable for children than others—sabre and smallsword for example, have workable trainers in terms of size and weight in ways that longsword does not. This said there are options for other systems that are worth considering. [1] Young people are an untapped market, and generally far more curious and excited about fencing, of any kind, than most adults. Working with kids can be great fun too. Their curiosity, enthusiasm, and ability to learn so well through play can make them good students.

There’s much to consider, however, when working with children. Here, I will cover some big-picture considerations that generally follow any activity with kids, and a few suggestions for how to start a kids’ program.

It’s about more than Sport or Recreation—Remember, You’re a Role Model

In a previous post (Oct. 18th, 2019) I briefly discussed a few ways in which instructors are role models. This is particularly true with regard to children, and so everything we do, say, and how we say and do things, must be beyond reproach. We have to be sensitive to the dangers children face, not just in terms of physical danger or harm, but psychologically too. One bad coach can affect a child’s ability and interest in a sport or hobby for the rest of their lives.

Given the delicate nature of working with young people there are a lot of other factors to consider apart from gear. We must consider their safety, our transparency in working with them, and the short- and long-term goals we’re helping them reach. While I have mostly taught adults, I’ve also taught children off and on for years, and in the last two years I’m teaching more and more of them. A number of things have come up for me in the process that might assist others interested in sharing the Art with young people.

Various Aspects of Safety

Safety is one of the top priorities—it should be for adults too, but it is just as much if not more of a concern with children since they are less effective at self-regulation. First, parents tend to need reassurance that their kids aren’t going to be hurt. Second, children, being less focused and more prone to horseplay, sometimes take longer to acculturate to traditional safety protocols. Lastly, there are most often legal issues around working with children that you ignore to your peril.

Safety & Horseplay

450px-Tom_Brown_6th_ed-p35
Single-stick match from Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, 1857

  Keeping kids safe comes down to several things. As the instructor you set the tone, so with kids it’s important to hit safety hard day one and reinforce it each practice. This can be just simple reminders to carry weapons point down, but quizzing them periodically is a good idea too. All gear must be sized correctly, in good repair, and actually worn. While boring, spending time from the off on safety, on some basic rules, establishes how things will be each class and provides a baseline to return to as needed. I break my approach down into an easy to remember abbreviation/acronym PET:    

P protocols and awareness

E equipment

T technique

Many children have pets and help take care of them, so when I introduce this idea that is the analogy I use. Protocols include not fencing without gear, holding weapons point down, and being aware of one’s place in space as well as that of one’s neighbors, expensive mirrors, etc. With equipment, I teach them to inspect their masks, jackets, and weapons for basic issues, such as large dents in the mask mesh, bad zippers or Velcro on jackets that don’t work, and loose weapon parts or blade burrs. Technique is, after our protocols, the most important—good technique helps ensure safety. Masks, jackets, all that stuff, is there for when our technique fails, or, when we’re playing good partner and allowing our partners to strike us. Each of these elements we constantly apply, regulate, and reinforce.

Horseplay is natural with kids, but potentially hazardous, so it is vital to nip it in the bud, kindly, as it happens. I tend to adopt a light, if firm tone with my students. With horseplay, for example, I might say, with a conspiratorial smile, something like “hey, I don’t remember saying we could start you two…—I love that you’re ready to start the drill, but let me finish explaining it, okay? That will make it easier and I want to be sure you all get it right.” One can’t give children swords and expect them not to swing them about, make cool sounds, etc., so giving them plenty of drills where they can do that helps.

Transparency

Allied to safety, when teaching children it’s best for all concerned if everything you do is transparent and public. It’s sad to have to say this, but because of the problems with crimes against children, even in places where they should be safe, it’s imperative to do all one can to make it clear that you’re not a creep. The first step is to make allies of parents, not in word only, but in action. I encourage and remind parents each practice that they are welcome to stay and watch. To be honest, I want them there, for while I know I’m safe, they don’t and if they’re present there is never any question. Think about it—even if you don’t have kids of your own, how comfortable would you be dropping them off with some strange man who plays with swords? Transparency keeps kids safe and removes any remaining suspicions parents might have. I’m a parent myself and no way would I leave my kids in any situation I wasn’t 110% sure about.

Free Fencing Lessons
NOT a good way to advertise…

I teach children either in public venues, such as parks and covered play-grounds, or, in classrooms where there are other adults present. Teaching in back rooms solo is the fencing equivalent of a beat-up old van with “free candy” painted on the side (forgive my hastily produced creepster-van memethis demanded a visual 😉 ). Don’t do that. There is no reason to. Public lessons are free advertising too, and if kids and parents see other kids doing this fun stuff, more than one will approach and ask you about what you’re doing. This can lead to additional work, new people to share the Art with, so it’s an important consideration.

Having parents there and clearly welcome says a lot. There are other benefits too. If children need help getting suited up or down, parents are the perfect choice. Also, parents listen, and more than once I’ve had parents help reinforce basics—one mother told me after practice that she had been on her child to keep his front foot oriented correctly. If you’re really lucky, parents may become interested too, and then you may have an entire family training with you.

Depending on how you’re teaching there are additional steps you’ll either need to take or should to be on the up and up. Many organizations require, rightly, background checks. There are also oversight bodies like Safe Sport and Sport Safety International that have great resources. [2] If you’re male, then I encourage you to check out and get certified with Safe Sport. It’s good information for you to have and being certified with them will only lend more legitimacy to you. It’s not a guarantee of appropriate behavior, I know, but if you work with kids, especially young women, your job as role model not to perpetuate the toxic crap young women face from men is important. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Goals—They Vary

FUN!

With kids, I make the number one priority fun. Fencing is fun. However, it’s a lot more fun if you know what you’re doing, so finding the right balance, the appropriate amount of what to teach them is vital. Some kids want to put on all the gear and just start wailing, but naturally that is not what we want them to do, so, making lessons fun will make the work seem less like work. Distance and footwork drills, for example, are ideal ways to have them expel all that excited energy, work on fundamentals, and play games. “Glove Tag” and “Foil/Mask Push” tend to be favorites. With group classes turning footwork up and down the floor into “Red Light/Green Light” with various types of footwork, e.g. advances up on green, retreats on red, or, lunges on green, recovery on red, tends to be a crowd pleaser too.

Most children you teach may take a class or two and then move onto something else. You should expect that and not take it personally. This stuff is hard, it’s not for everyone, but even exposure to fencing is valuable. Maybe they tell their friends about the “cool sword” class they took and some other kid signs up, or, maybe they just have a better appreciation for what they see in the next pirate movie. Making it fun is a worthy goal on its own—play is a vital part of being human.

Sharing the Art

One goal, obviously, is to impart some amount of the Art to them. With children start small, focus on fundamentals, not the fancy stuff. When they ask, and they will, remind them that we have to do the basics to do anything advanced. One analogy I use that normally works are building things with Legos—no one builds a giant castle, race car, or space ship right away: they start with a few pieces, follow the instructions, and in time build the super cool creation they want. It’s the same with fencing.

Looking Ahead
Some students will get hooked. This always makes me super happy, but I also realize that it’s important to check in with them periodically about their goals, about what they want out of it. One of my current students only wants to focus on the historical material, so that is what we do. Another, however, is interested in competition and so we’re talking about how that might work. There are fewer historical/classical tournaments than Olympic, so it may be that I introduce him to colleagues on that side. It really comes down to where his interest takes him. I don’t teach the modern game and am smart enough not to try, but I know people who do and my goal as instructor is to guide students as far as I can.

Ultimately, we have to accept that some students may stick around, some may move on, and that this is okay. Even if we are one stop on a much longer journey that’s important. We do our part. Some take this personally, but unless there is a good reason to I don’t see why that should be. The experience we have not only provides them with the tools of the Art, but also with ways to approach, understand, and pursue that Art as they grow. Discussions about their goals from time to time helps both instructor and student—it helps us design training, and, it helps the student develop because they set way-points to reach.

Historical Fencing for Kids—a Primer

In future posts I plan to share more detailed course ideas for kids—sabre, foil, some Armizare, backsword, etc. In addition to foil and sabre, I’ve helped teach some of Fiore’s Armizare to kids before and it’s great fun, but here I’ll provide a few general ideas to aid a seminar or series of short classes. Even if all you have is an hour—the two places I teach now only have that much time for us—you can do a lot. Keep the kids moving, change things up, and focus on fundamentals.

Safety Gear: this is one of the hardest parts. Naturally most people don’t own fencing gear, and it’s not like local sports stores carry it either. To run a decent class you need at the very least masks. Ebay, Craigslist, Fb Marketplace sometimes have gear, but you must be careful. Do your best to discover what shape the masks are in. Jackets are nice, but a stout jacket or sweatshirt can work too provided you emphasize control and not hard-hitting. Smaller work gloves, available in most garden shops, will work too and are relatively inexpensive.

Trainers: Olympic weight weapons, especially sizes 0-4 will work fine for smallsword (foils) and sabre. They can be had for about $30 or so each, so it adds up. The plastic Aramis brand foils and sabres are not bad, but can be harder to find now and will cost about as much.

In a pinch, two to three foot staves of rattan or dowels can work. For point work you’ll need to add a little padding—pool noodles and duct-tape work well. Boffers are another option, and can be made with a little pvc pipe, foam or pool noodles, and tape. My kids have played with these and even when they get rough there is less danger with boffers. They’re not ideal for edge-alignment, but with a little work you can shape a boffer to produce a suitable if not ideal edge.

Classes: Keep it simple, keep it fun. Depending on where you teach you will have to adjust. For parks and rec at present I teach a six week class that meets twice a week; at one area middle school I’m teaching a four week class that meets once a week. In each case I have one hour, which makes it hard to do much more than introduce some fundamentals.

Age is another consideration—younger kids, say 7-10, may not grasp concepts as fast as teenagers, so you may need to adjust your pace up or down. Attention spans are likewise variable, so with kids classes much longer than an hour are not a good idea. Most individual lessons are much shorter.

Drills: Drills as games are your bread and butter. Varying the drills per practice, introducing or removing time constraints, and providing short breaks all help. I rotate distance drills, for example, and switch from called footwork to timed footwork. Here are a few examples:

Distance Drills:

Glove Tag—  each fencer, armed with a glove, tries to attack the wrist or chest with the glove; each is also trying to stay just out of distance to avoid being hit, but not so far that they can’t strike in their turn; in systems using passing steps, which better allow for exploring space, the entire class can take turns: one or two students are “it” and must use proper footwork to “tag” others who then are “it” and chase still other students. [4]

Foil/Mask Push—   suspending a mask or weapon between two fencers, they change the distance between them and can’t drop the mask or weapon

Rope Drill— holding a rope approximately 5ft in length, the fencers hold it with their weapon hands with about 3ft between them; one fencer leads the footwork back and forth, the other must only use their feet to maintain the same bit of slack in the rope (they shouldn’t be using their arms to do this)

Footwork Drills:

Red Light/Green Light—   as mentioned above, on “green” they advance or lunge; on “red” they retreat or recover; or however you want to do it; it can work for forward passing steps, retreating passing steps, side to side movement, etc.

Shuttle Run—   like the old elementary school exercise, fencers line up on one side of the room and “race” to the other side and back; I sometimes have the kids on the waiting side hold a glove for the active fencers to grab and return with; then the other side goes. Rather than timed, this can also work with using particular types of footwork in turn

Timed Footwork—  I normally set the stop-watch for about 30 sec. to 1 min.; in that time, they go up and back with advances and retreats, or lunges and reverse lunges, or advance lunges and jump backs, etc.

Variable Footwork Drill— I use inexpensive sports cones, like one uses for soccer, and set up several lines; at each line students switch footwork. They might start with advances, then lunges when they reach the first cone, then advance lunges when they reach the second; on the way back do the opposite of each one

All of these can be adapted for whatever footwork your system uses.

Other Resources:

One of the best resources you have are your fellow instructors. If they work with kids and you haven’t, ask them for tips, for what they’ve found to work, for any advice they have. Visit an Olympic fencing class for kids—sport clubs are one of the best places you can go as they have a long tradition of working with kids. Moreover, many popular works on fencing include sections on drills that you can adapt.

Vintage-Art-Postcard-Children-Sword-Fight-Fencing-Battle


Working with children demands a lot of preparation as well as flexibility, but it can be very rewarding. There is growing interest in historical fencing among younger people thanks to the usual sources like movies, but as renaissance faires, living history groups, the SCA, and organizations like LARP become more popular,  more children are bumping into historical fencing if only obliquely. If you’re interested in sharing the Art with kids, don’t wait for the need—create it. A seminar, a visit to your local parks & recreation organization, to schools, the scouts, anyone who might have potential interest, could turn into an opportunity to share the Art with enthusiastic people normally left out. It can be great fun too.

———-

Notes:

[1]

There are some decent foam longswords out there with edge enough to make true and false edge made sense. My friend Mike Cherba and I used one version of these to teach some plays from Fiore to kids a few summers ago at the Oregon Renaissance Faire and they worked super well. The Armory Replicas Training Medieval Rampant Lion Practice sword is one example: https://www.amazon.com/Training-Medieval-Rampant-Practice-Longsword/dp/B015YN4LU2/ref=sr_1_12?dchild=1&keywords=toy+foam+longsword&qid=1571431225&sr=8-12

Mike is also the key researcher outside the Republic of Georgia for Lashkroba, a highland folk martial art out of the Khevsureti and neighboring regions, one aspect of which is sword and buckler. We’ve used wooden bucklers and rattan sticks with success. They require a mask, but are still cost effective. Mike is launching a new website for all things Lashkroba and Parikaoba (the more sportive version of the system)–soon as that is up I’ll share the link!

[2]       

Safe Sport https://usagym.org/pages/education/safesport/
Sport Safety International https://sportsafety.com/

[3]       

I must credit and thank my friend and Radaellian sabre mentor Chris Holzman, Sword School Wichita, for his suggestion to try starting with the glide in third for foil rather than the more typical direct thrust. In brief, while a slightly more difficult technique, the glide has a few benefits that in the long run are worth the extra effort. It is easier to thrust with a guide, so in sliding along the opposing steel to target students are less likely to try to “aim” the point to target—gliding along the opposing steel they extend rather than aim. They are introduced to and experience the idea of engagement better, ditto sentiment du fer, and from the glide it’s a little easier to understand the cavazione/disengage. Moreover, I’ve found that students make smaller disengages from the glide than they do fencing in absence. The traditional way still works—it’s how I was taught—but I’ve tried this and find it really useful, so much so that I’ve revamped my beginning foil curriculum.

For the molinelli, I focus on proper structure, and introduce first the descending molinello from the engagement in prima to the head, the rising molinello from fourth to flank, and the descending molinello from fifth to the left cheek. These are easier to do than the molinelli say form third or second, each of which I introduce later with initial preparatory actions.

[4] Mike Cherba’s Armizare classes, which are mostly adults, enjoy this too. Least I do 😉 Mike’s school is one of several here in Oregon that band together during faire season as “The Hawkwood Troope.” They do demos, answer questions, and put several hundred adults and kids through classes over two weekends. Some of my students first discovered historical fencing through this very process.

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