The Importance of Stories

Those of you who are familiar with our club will know that we run a summer camp for the kids every year when the summer holidays start (this year we have some kids coming all the way from Hong Kong…how AMAZING is that?!). When I first started working for Cambridge Kung Fu we ran the summer camp to work on our kung fu values, but not at the expense of having fun.  We taught a form created specially for the summer camp, played games for much longer than we normally got a chance to in the lessons and did some crafting activities that sometimes involved challenges and sometimes just because they were silly. It was loads of fun and the kids and instructors got a chance to bust out some truly spectacular moves that normally would never see the light of day in our regular classes. So, this is what we’d do every year….until one day (almost a year ago actually) I saw this video:

Now the title alone appealed to me, I’m a bit of a nerd and yes I like to play games (Munchkin anyone?). Being told how my sitting around playing games with my mates could help me improve the world was instantly going to grab my attention. So I grabbed my earphones and settled down to watch her at work. What I heard completely changed how I viewed our classes and eventually led to us approaching the Summercamp in a new and exciting way!

What Jane tells us is that rather than viewing online roleplaying games as something negative, they can actually inspire positive, world altering values and attitudes in the people who play them. People who play online multiplayer games (such as World of Warcraft) are used to cooperating with a massive number of people in order to achieve their goals, they receive constant feedback about how they are doing in regards to achieiving their goals and (now pay attention here’s the REALLY important part) they are constantly challenged to the edge of their ability, and no further. They are never given a world saving quest that is completely impossible for them to do, tantrum inducingly difficult (ahem), but not impossible. It is simply not possible for them to be given a quest that is beyond their characters level to complete. This constant feedback/validation of their progress and always being appropriately challenged, as well as being able to see the changes that occur in their environment due to their actions engage the player in the game and they experience “flow“. Being so engaged in the game makes its reality much more appealing than actual reality, the world they create with their character belongs to them in a more real sense than the life they create outside of the game.

It was this concept of engagement that completely changed how I looked at our kids classes. It was so OBVIOUS! Yes we have lots of fun playing the games and making the form practice funny and interesting, but we didn’t really have anything that meant the kids could claim the classes as their own. Nothing to completely engage them and allow them to experience flow on a regular basis. We needed stories, we needed a quest, what we needed, was an underlying purpose for everything that we were doing. Enter the summercamp and our willing guinea pigs students.

Together my fellow instructors and I created Zhe-Xian (pronounced chuh-zien) a former Cambridge Kung Fu student who had been thrown out of the summercamp many years ago for being lazy, dishonest and generally not a nice person. He had stolen all of the certificates and badges that the children would receive at the end of the week because he felt that if he (the most talented, amazing and disciplined student of all din’tchaknow) didn’t deserve a reward for his hard work then no one did. Via an angry SiJi Rin (SiJi is the title for a female instructor meaning older kung fu sister and teacher) demanding to know who had played this extremely unfunny joke on everyone, downloaded “security footage” a written ransom note and an e-mailed video we set the scene for the children.

Zhe-Xian had taken the certificates and badges and the children would only have three days to prove that they actually deserved to receive them at the end of the Summercamp. The children were provided with two chests (one for the older class, one for the younger class) made by Kung-Fu masters in the neutral dimension, these chests would judge each day whether the children had put in enough effort and focus and shown the Cambridge Kung Fu work ethic worthy of certificates and badges. If the children had demonstrated this then the chests would form a portal and give them a clue as to where Zhe-Xian had hidden the certificates and badges.

Throughout the week we did certain activities related to this storyline such as creating guardians for their badge and certificate once we found them and designing our own bracers to protect ourselves from Zhe-Xian’s mind control gauntlets (fat lot of good it did our instructors though!)

At the end of the week we put together all of the clues and had a treasure hunt around the school we were using. The children had to logically work out what the clues (little riddles about locations around the school) were telling us and help the instructors find whatever was hidden in that location. What we all found were not the expected certificates and bages, but a map! A map that finally showed the children where the prize was, but alas! Our instructors had been brainwashed and it was up to the children not only to recover the stolen goods and rescue the instructors, but also to reclaim their bracers that Zhe-Xian had sneakily stolen.

Needless to say the Cambridge Kung Fu children were victorious! The badges and certificates were recovered in time for the ceremony the next day, the instructors were saved and Zhe-Xian was shipped off to China to get some proper instruction.

The children got so involved with this story! From the start during their breaks they were hunting for Zhe-Xian to see if he was still hanging around, they were giving us ideas on what we could do to catch Zhe-Xian, every day when we got a clue they were talking to each other and the instructors about what it could mean, parents were coming in asking about who it was that had stolen from us (one of our instructors in particular had to console his daughter for the whole of the first night….I was not very popular with him), and to this day nearly a year later we have children asking us about Zhe-Xian.

They were engaged in the summercamp, they worked together. The older kids helped the younger kids, all the kids helped the instructors, they came up with their own versions of why Zhe-Xian was doing this and (most telling of all) I managed to hold 40 children enthralled in an activity for nearly half an hour without them noticing the other instructors sneaking off one by one because they had been “kidnapped”. But my point is this, none of this would have been possible without the underlying quest for them to complete. The “bad guy” to unite them together in achieving one purpose. At no point did they believe they couldn’t do it, we gave them a challenge and they smashed it beyond our wildest dreams!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the importance of stories. How else are you going to convince children that they can defeat an ego maniacal bad guy? How else are you going to encourage them to willingly use their logic and puzzle solving skills to achieve an outcome? How else are you going to encourage them to stand by a fellow child and help them unbrainwash a teacher? Without the story all of the activities the children did had no purpose other than giving them something to do, with a story they had a purpose, they had a goal and with that they were truly unstoppable.

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Exercise can be fun…..no, really!

It never fails to amaze me watching the children I teach just how much energy they have! They run around like maniacs before we start our classes then they do an hour with us where we run around warming up, doing our forms and playing games. Afterwards some even head to more activities; tennis lessons, dance classes, football the list goes on and on!

I vaguely remember being able to maintain that high level of energy. Now my exercise consists of weight lifting (carrying Beth around counts right?), kung fu classes, yoga, pilates and Tai Chi (not really known for their high cardiovascular effect) and my (almost non-existent) marathon training. Until I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu I never really analysed my attitude to exercise, I proudly viewed myself as one of the ‘sane’ people. 6am for a run? No thank you! Killing yourself on gym machines and continuous cardio and strength classes? Well I’ll dabble every now and then but heaven forbid it should interfere with…well, let’s be honest, anything else that didn’t involve getting sweaty, disgusting and tired in a room full of 20 people with an endlessly energetic perky instructor!

With this job has come the realisation that the most important factor for me when it comes to exercise, is fun. It seems like such an obvious factor yet it is one that is constantly  overlooked in people’s efforts to combat the indulgent coffees (guilty), cakes (also guilty), chocolate bars (yup) and the desire to get our children into the best habits possible to avoid becoming part of the obesity epidemic (I’m pretty sure my future self is guilty).

So where has this attitude of mine come from? Funnily enough, childhood. I am a forces brat and having opted out of going to boarding school ended up changing schools every 3-4 years. I suffered quite badly from being bullied and so withdrew from anything that would draw quite a lot of attention to myself, this included getting involved in school sports besides the required P.E lessons. The only exercise I truly enjoyed was (and still is along with my Tai Chi) dancing, the great thing being it didn’t feel like exercise. It was fun, it was something I could laugh at while I was doing it and it constantly changed. The advantage being the better I got the less time I had for other sports at school. It’s now gotten to the point that if I can’t laugh while I’m doing the exercise, or if I’m out of breath cackle maniacally in my head, then I can’t stick with it long-term.

The commonly accepted explanation for why exercise makes people feel good is “endorphins”.  Research has shown that endogenous opioids (“peptides that have biochemical properties similar to exogenous opiates such as heroin and morphine”*, otherwise known as endorphins) are increased by exercising, this increase also coincided with an improvement in mood after acute exercise. However studies that then blocked the opioid receptors showed that this did not stop the mood improvement after exercise from occurring. So endorphins on their own can not fully account for the “feel good” factor when we exercise, what else can? There is also a psychological aspect to exercise, who hasn’t vowed that this year will be different and started a whole new exercise regime only to slowly drop it over the next few months (I know I have!)? It takes dedication and determination to stick with something new to the point of it becoming a habit, especially when it’s not always pleasureable (helloooooo red puffy face, breathlessness, sweat and aches and pains). The level of intensity at which you exercise can have an effect on your mood levels, low intensity can improve mood and high intensity can actually increase negative mood states**. However it has also been shown to have no effect at all, this could be attributed to the fact that we all have our own comfort zones when it comes to exercise. Some people take pleasure from high intensity levels of exercise (like my nutter of a Spartan neighbour!), and others find this highly uncomfortable and prefer lower levels of intensity (like yours truly). It seems that people experience more pleasure from exercise when they are allowed to choose the intensity each time, some days you feel capable of tackling a 5 mile run, other days you can barely get down the road.

In order to achieve a “pleasureable state of consciousness” (Yeung) during exercise you need to enter into the flow. This is achieved by challenging yourself at “the very edge of your skill level”***, too hard and you become frustrated and angry, too easy and you become bored. The effects are the same however, you soon stop. Jane McGonigal tells us that being in a state of flow is so engaging that even if we do stumble while attempting the challenge we immediately want to get up and try again. We are “optimistically engaged” (McGonigall) within the task and so are more inclined to think positively about our abilities within it rather than negatively.

So combining a state of flow and the release of endorphins can then create a state of mind which helps us to maintain a new exercise regime and to stick with something we find challenging because it is fun for us. This is the type of environment we try to create within our classes every week, if it’s not fun what’s the point? But combining this state of mind with laughter makes the effect even more powerful, did you know that the act of laughing releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into our brains? Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward, by laughing while attempting and succeeding at a task you are setting yourself up to be more prepared for any increased effort required to succeed in the future (however should you stumble remember kung fu means success achieved through hard work and that this can apply to anything, not just martial arts).

This need for laughter and fun is what drives us here at Cambridge Kung Fu when we teach or talk about developing the children’s’ classes. The classes were already amazing when I got hired at Cambridge Kung Fu, my job (and my desire) is to support our Programme Coordinators to take them from amazing to spectacular! You may have noticed, if your child does classes with us, that we play quite a few games in the classes, even with the older children. Well why not? Yes they are games rather than kung fu drills designed to discipline and strengthen, but guess what. Our games help to encourage the same values as these drills. If you watch closely all of the games we play require some level of teamwork (dragon’s lair, stealth, Eskimo island), body control and awareness (skyscraper, terracotta warriors), a degree of physical fitness(Indiana Jones and the temple of cones, ladder legs, pad tag, circle of doom) and some self-defence (defend the base, el presidente, shaolin crossing). The best thing about these is that the children are having too much fun to realise they are actually being taught these things.

Our main motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters.” Children are still discovering who they are, why should we control and dominate how they see themselves by making them do endless drills and exercises? Why not give them an opportunity to shine in the ever-changing environment that is a game? Some of the best suggestions I have had for game alterations and class activities have come from the children I teach. Our main motto may be focussing on our own integral resources, but the one I always try to keep in mind is that children are not little adults, so why should we make them train like one?

* Lessons in Exercise Neurobiology: The Case of Endorphins Rod K. Dishman, Patrick J. O’Connor

** The Acute Effects of Exercise on Mood State Robert R. Yeung

***Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World Jane McGonigall