Words: Phil Wright
My name is Phil Wright and I started Tai Chi (pronounced tie jee) in 1987 with teachers from the John Kells and Dr Chi Chiang lineage. This is the ‘super soft’ or internal school of Tai Chi. In 2013, I was teaching adults Tai Chi in Cornwall and received a message on my new Facebook page asking if I would like to come and teach Tai Chi to a whole Primary school one day a week. Although this was a new venture, I have since then, taught Tai Chi in schools for many years, earning my title ‘Mr Tai Chi Man’ from the children.
The original school I started teaching in was large and requested classes for the entire school. Each year group had two classes, so I spent every Monday all day for nearly a year, teaching children of all ages from Reception to KS2. I started off in a formal Tai Chi suit and taught in a fairly structured way, with lots of rote teaching of form but it occurred to me early on that that wasn’t really working for all children, despite children being very good physical mimics.
In that sense I was teaching the form or the external look of Tai Chi, not the internal principles on which it was based and which formed my own practice. So, I decided to get more creative! A turning point was reading Stuart Alve Olson’s book, Tai Chi for kids. He was a student of T.T.Liang and had also tried teaching children moving form but decided that individual moves with animal names worked best, such as White Crane Spreads Wings or Golden Cockrel stands on one leg.
This was really helpful. There were hardly any books on teaching Tai Chi to children, so any clues were useful. I was lucky too, as my wife was an experienced Early Years teacher and was able to offer good advice. I adapted how I taught adults to accommodate children, became less formal and started to engage with them. Traditionally, in martial arts in China, children started off in ‘hard’ kung fu styles and then in later life moved into the ‘soft styles’ such as Tai Chi. However, I did know that Tai Chi had been passed down in families and therefore presumably had been taught to children. Even with my rote teaching of form I had found some good success with engaging children, who seemed intrigued with the moves. So, I evolved some different strategies and realised a few things early on; the major one being that Tai Chi needed to be fun! It also needed to be very much ‘in the moment’ and allow for creativity and spontaneity. It also needed to appeal to children’s imagination and so I started to use visual images to engage their interest and create Tai Chi ‘games’ based on the classic principles that underpin Tai Chi. I have since developed a flexible approach to teaching Tai Chi to children.
This differentiates between Early Years (Reception age) and KS1 and KS2. With younger children, I quickly realised that basing games that taught Tai Chi principles with animal moves worked well. Children found this fun and could relate to the moves better, such as practising ‘empty stepping’, a Tai Chi principle, by emulating walking like a tiger or playing games that taught the benefits of softness or looseness in the limbs, such as being an octopus.
With older children, working over time, I realised that the Chi or the energy fascinated them the most and this became my teaching focus. Most children were readily able to ‘feel the chi’ while practising and were motivated to learn more Tai Chi and Qi Gong,to engage and develop the sensations. Another important aspect with older children that evolved was partner work, a key part of learning Tai Chi.
They seem to really enjoy working with each other and the energy. I evolved what I did over a long time, developing many games and much freestyle fun. I learnt what worked and what didn’t and found myself more spontaneous in my teaching, although a good lesson plan always helped too.
It was a privilege and joy to teach children, though also hard work. Teaching children the principles of Tai Chi practice became the most useful elements and made the classes distinct from other exercise. A child who was physically weaker than others might have the most Chi and this was a revelation, a different way of thinking for some children about themselves. Children learn through Tai Chi to be soft and relaxed, to yield and collaborate with each other. This can bring many benefits, improving vitality. Yoga has rightly become popular to teach children in schools and it’s my firm belief that Tai Chi should also sit alongside this. Qi Gong (energy work) and Yoga are very similar fundamentally. Tai Chi is a martial art at heart based on the ancient principles of Yin and Yang, apposing and related forces. It has something slightly different to offer and the opportunity of partner work. When Tai Chi is taught without competition, promoting cooperation, partner work and games appeals to older children.
I have adapted Tai Chi’s ‘pushing hands’ to make games that develop softness NUTRITION yogamagazine.com 49 facebook.com/official.yogamag and sensitivity, two key Tai Chi principles. With younger children circle and group games work very well and sometimes have been created on the spot by the children themselves.
I have found children to be very receptive to Tai Chi; relaxed in their bodies generally, more open minded to the concepts of energy and more readily able to feel it. They do not have years of chronic tension to undo, which adults have built up from life experiences. Lack of bodily tension equates to more Chi flow.
Children can be open hearted generally and, in my experience, it is important to teach from the heart too; to listen to children and to respond to what interests them and engages them. They have an innate sense when someone is genuine.
I used a lot of feedback forms early on in my practice and most stated that a high percentage of the children really enjoyed and engaged with Tai Chi. Many of the children’s class Teachers gave feedback that children improved in their ability to listen and engage with their school work following Tai Chi sessions, which seemed a strong motivation to continue as concentration seemed to be improved. Overall, there was often a marked improvement in children’s ability to remain calm which was a key benefit of the ‘relaxation and letting go’ activities, in that children’s ability to focus was also improved. I surmised that school was often very cerebral and that practising the embodiment principles of Tai Chi had a positive impact on children’s health and wellbeing.
Over the years, I have had many enquiries asking me about how to teach Tai Chi to children and I have trained Teachers in schools and at workshops in conferences around the country. I think when it works well, class Teachers need to have an understanding of what Tai Chi is and what principles it is built on. Then they can add their expertise. For Tai Chi practitioners, they should have that foundation already and use it in order to consider how they might work with children to convey what they know and what they have to teach. Due to all the enquiries, I have written a book to cover these two aspects, the philosophical and the practical aspects for educationalists and wellbeing practitioner’s as well as Tai Chi players. I hope the book will help schools to bring Tai Chi and other wellbeing practices into the curriculum and support Tai Chi practitioners and parents who want to teach children this wonderful art.
Phil Wright is a principal, Tai Chi Coach and founder. He has been practising Tai Chi for 30 years and he is an advanced Tai Chi Instructor with the Tai Chi union of Great Britain. The discount code for ‘Tai Chi for Schools’ is TA20 and offers 20% off and is valid until the end of February 2023.
The book is available at