The “Mat Chat”: What to Talk About with the Kids

Rachel left a note on the “Suggest Future Topics” page, asking this:

I have just become a junior instructor and one thing that I am most unsure about is the ‘mat chat’ for the youngest kids class. What topics and themes should I use?

Great question. The easy answer would be, talk about the same things you discuss in the older kids’ classes: respect, etiquette, perseverance, all the martial arts values. But discussions with 4- and 5-year-olds can be a little different.

I remember, early in my experience with that age group, I asked, “Can someone give me an example of using good manners in the dojo?” One hand shot up, and I called on her, “Yes, Kayley?” She announced loudly, and with great pride, “My brother is seven!”

One thing I do with my youngest kids is begin class by choosing a “word of the day,” discussing it a bit, and revisiting it throughout class. These include things like teamwork, fitness, balance, safety, and of course my favorite, respect. Sometimes I talk about the Five A’s of Self Defense: Aware, Alert, Avoid, Anticipate (what?! that’s a really big word!), and Act. (I might not get through all five in a day.) I try to fish for what the kids know and can contribute, while sharing what I think, what I’d like them to remember, and what it would be great to talk about with their parents.

Instructors, what topics do you use with your youngest? And, maybe more importantly, how do you go about discussing them in an age-appropriate way?

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9 Comments on “The “Mat Chat”: What to Talk About with the Kids”

  1. Chris B Says:

    Great question! Sharing these ideas is always useful. (and I’ve already co-opted the phrase “mat chat” for my classes!)

    With younger students, it’s important to realize that learning must be more experiential and less abstract. In “talking” you must dramatize, involve them in playing out ideas, or link specifically to their own life experiences.

    Today – I did a “mat chat” 🙂 about discipline–a very abstract idea for 5-6 year-olds.

    First, we all had a “horse-race” around the edge of the gym and back to our seating place. While they were sitting and panting, I asked, “Why do horses run in circles?” Answer – They don’t. Horses naturally run in a straight line until they reach an obstacle, like the wall of the gym, which forces them to turn, and to keep turning until they eventually get to the “finish line” of a race. That’s why the race track has a fence around it. The fence, I say, is “discipline” a limit that forces us to follow the right path–just like the lines in the road.

    Then I challenge one student to a race around the gym. (hands fly up) Before we start, I emphasize that the object of the race is to get back to the starting point as quickly as possible. Go! While s/he runs off around the edge of the gym, I take a quick lap around the perimeter of the seated group, arriving back at the start long before the student can circle the whole gym.

    Before the student can complain that I cheated, I remind them of the object of the race, and then I ask. “Do horses run around the -outside- of a race track?” No. They follow the shortest, most direct path, along the -inner- fence.

    This, I explain, is self-discipline. First we are forced, (by parents, teachers, sensei) to follow the correct path, and eventually we learn the best way to accomplish our goals is to “stay on track” by ourselves. This is how I teach discipline to 5 year olds.

    Then we bow out, and they run like wild horses back to their waiting parents!! 🙂


  2. I think these talks are great! Like you say Didi, kids will come up with all kinds of comments not in any way related to the discussion. For that reason, I ask them to hold their comments until the end. Safety awareness and empathy are two of my favorites.

  3. Shawn McElroy Says:

    My favorite moment was during a pre-K class when were were discussing all 7 forms that influence Cuong Nhu. I guess one student got a little bored, so he decided to take off all his clothes. Within 30 seconds 4 of the 8 students were naked and running around the room. Sometimes kids go WAYYYYYY off topic! Sensei Doug and I just looked at each other and laughed!
    Keeping kids involved during a discussion is a real art. If you are only rehashing points your sensei said last week, you will loose the interest of your young students. To keep their focus, you need to be passionate about what you are saying. Keep the energy high, use your hands and face to emphasize points, bring your voice to a whisper as you build the suspense, then burst out with your power voice to shock them back into the discussion. If they drift call them by name, or sneak up on them and scare them! I have even given wet willies to students not paying attention. If they were watching me, they would have seen it coming! One of the most important points about talking to children is keep it SHORT. We all love to go on and on with a great story or topic, but kids drift fast. Keep your discussion down to 2 minutes. If you need more time you can talk about again after the exercise.
    I guess my point here is that “how to talk to kids” is more important than “what to talk to kids about.”
    I hope these thoughts are helpful.
    Sensei Smack

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Good points, Smack.
      Dare I ask what a “wet willie” is?? – never mind, I’ll go look it up!

  4. Mic Says:

    Yep, keeping kids interested is about staying animated and keeping the energy high but just watch the attention span. SHORT is right.


  5. I like to talk to them as we do something physical to keep them engaged. Otherwise if I am just talking they tend to get distracted and check out whats happening over yonder. I hit on the theme topic of the day (we always have a topic of the day to keep them centered). So if it is “Respect” day, I ask them to help identify which of the following 3 bows shows respect as they sit in a circle (criss cross applesauce or seiza). I take a partner and turn my back on her/him and bow. #2 I bow really sloppy and fall down on the floor afterwards acting silly. #3 I do a proper Cuong Nhu Bow. Now I have their attention and they see this chat can be fun, they are listneing to what I have to say next. I tell them how important it is to bow to each other to show respect and that we are so happy that we have partners that like to work out with us so we can do all our fun drills and activities. I then try to get their participation and ask for someone to come up and do blocks and punches with me. Do it first to show it correctly and then to show it with no respect. It jumps back to the idea of learning balance through imbalance that John Burns once told me about (which I use ALL the time now for everything) Opposites are great ways to teach. I also work in very short (age appropriate) books and then ask questions and ask the kids to tell me what part of the book was funny, which was sad etc. We also present some of our essays on philosophy during mat time.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      Thanks, Heidi, there are some great ideas here.
      I always mean to work in more books or stories – especially with the younger kids – but somehow never manage to do it. I will have to try harder!


  6. I just stumbled on another good book to use during kids class and mat chat called “Don’t Stop Now!” A Story about persistence by Kristen Behrens & Monique Peterson.


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