Israeli self-defence method teaches youngsters how to fend off attackers
At first glance, the workshop seems just like any other playgroup as parents and children are sitting in pairs, taking instructions from the trainer, sharing lots of laughter as they tumble on the floor. Only that it is equipping children to handle situations much tougher than what they would encounter in their usual school and play: how to scream, shout, bite, kick and scratch their way out of trouble in case of kidnapping attempts or attacks.
They are learning Krav Maga, a self-defence system developed for the military in Israel. It consists of a variety of techniques sourced from different streams of martial arts. Emphasising real-life application, it has been adapted to teach women and children how to escape attackers who are bigger and stronger.
"We live in a dangerous world, and children have to learn about it. Somehow they already intuitively sense that there are violence and danger in this world," says Shlomi Moyal, head of the women and children's training division of the International Krav Maga Federation. He has been teaching the course across the world for about 20 years, including in Hong Kong.
"It is just a matter of acknowledging them and teaching them the right skills to handle them. Think of it as one of those life skills, like reading and writing, and swimming. There is no excuse to skip over such an important life skill like protecting yourself in a dangerous situation."
A typical Krav Maga workshop comprises lecture, play and practice with different scenarios. At first, children are taught about techniques to block attacks and push, and practise them with their parents.
As the workshop proceeds, they are introduced to different scenarios: for example, when a stranger tries to drag you to his car, to lift you up, or to grab you from behind. The children then work on techniques of how to scream for help, biting the adult's hand as hard as they can, and how to kick backward high enough to hit the attacker hard in the groin. Then there is the most important part: once you have freed yourself, run away.
"It is not about overpowering your attacker, but getting away from your attacker as soon as possible," Moyal says. "We are teaching children practical skills that they can pick up in a matter of a few hours, unlike judo or karate where you have to spend years perfecting the skills. It does not matter that I am a Krav Maga trainer and you are a small kid - as long as you can kick me in the right place, I will be in pain and have to let you go. That's the beauty of the course."
As a children's trainer, Moyal finds that it is important for children to learn to overcome the mental block of "being nice".
At school and at home, children are taught to be polite and gentle, and discouraged from getting into physical confrontation. It is easy for them to lose touch with their instinct to fight and flee, and instead become paralysed in the face of danger.
That's why it is important to carefully walk them through scenarios where it is OK to scream and shout, and to fight when people approach you in certain ways, Moyal says. And it is also important that the instructor and parents use some extent of force to make it realistic, so the children can get in touch with their natural fighting instincts. Certain exercises are also included in the workshop to help children to get in touch with what they are able to do physically in terms of shoving, kicking, and pushing.
The participation of parents also helps children relax and enjoy the playful aspect of the training, before they try techniques with the other adults in the room who are strangers.
At the end of the workshop, for example, each of the children was asked to complete an obstacle course where they would be ambushed by adults other than their parents. They had to use the fighting skills they had learnt to get away from the attackers.
Most of the children found the obstacle course worthwhile.
"It was quite scary because these were people I didn't know," says Serena Duncan, a nine-year-old attending the workshop. "But then I knew that if I just bite, and kick and run away like the way I was told, I would be OK. I feel braver afterwards."
Her mother, Katherine Duncan, says the workshop teaches children how to deal with different levels of aggression. In one of the scenarios, children pushed from behind when going to their lockers were taught to steady themselves with both arms out straight, and then turn to tell the aggressor to go away. If within reach, they would also have to shove him out of the way.
"The children have learnt how to tell people what they do and do not want, and how to defend themselves and walk away from confrontations," she says. "This is useful in school where there could be bullying."
Bethan Dunnet, who is from Britain, says she appreciated the chance for her children to practise in realistic scenarios where they could exercise their fighting instincts. She took both her daughter and son to the workshop.
She also believed that parents should not shy away from telling their children about the dangers of the real world. "I would look my children in the eyes and tell them bluntly: 'Some people may take you away and you may never see mummy and daddy again'. It is scary, but then it does not give them nightmares."
While Hong Kong is a comparatively safe place, she believes it is essential for children to learn such techniques because they might travel where there is potential danger, including within Asia.
"In Hong Kong, children do not really have to go to places on their own because they may be accompanied by their helpers," Dunnet says.
"However, back in their home countries, not many families would have a helper. It will then become necessary for children to learn these life skills to defend themselves.
"You can't have this 'it won't happen to me' attitude and do nothing until something bad happens. It would be too late," she says.