Part I: Why?
The primary mode for kids is play. Whenever your kid is not working, they are in some form of play. In fact, often even work is not an impediment to play. Play is the rule, not the exception. Play is where they do most of their development in becoming who they are. Think back to your positive memories as a kid. The games, mischief, and trips take up a much bigger space than rules of grammar and the little facts of science or history. Of course, for this reason, some play is better than others.
For example, if play just means "TV" to your kid, then you should not be surprised if they struggle with physical skills and relationships with real people. TV not is inherently bad, but it should not be the only means of play. Different play ingrains different skills and traits. Reading for fun, playing an organized sport, and playing with a friend in a sandbox each stretch different muscles. Children need a balance of different kinds of play, and a big factor of what they play is what they have access to. This mostly takes the form of toys.
Toys are the tools kids use to have fun. A book can be just as much a toy as a car. If we want to maximize a child’s development, we need a range of different types of toys. For now, I will use these broad categories: physical, imaginative, explorational, aesthetic, moral, and relational.
Let’s look at some quick examples. Physical toys are things like skates which make kids more comfortable in their bodies and help the proper development of the body through movement. Imaginative toys are things like books or dolls that make your kid work through ideas through storytelling. Explorational toys are like science kits that let a kid learn about the world through experimentation. Aesthetic toys are like an art set that develops what C. S. Lewis calls sentiments. Moral toys are things like fairy tales that help a child work through a sense of right and wrong. Relational toys are things like board games that let a kid wade though the harsh waters of dealing with other people.
Now if you can still remember the title of the article, you may guess my first suggestion for the type of toy your child may be missing. Yes! Swords!
Swords are toys that easily teach their main purpose, while also sneaking in many of the other skills. Swords should be seen as a physical toy just like a basketball or a jump rope. This also means swords should be used mostly outside unless you are trying to get a new TV. Swords teach hand-eye coordination better than most other toys, as getting clunked on the head is a good incentive to improve. Swords, while seemingly focused on the arms, also provide a full-body workout. Good foot-work and running make up a large part of any decent sword fight. It is also always active, even when not moving. You cannot let your focus lapse or welcome to Clunk Town.
Swords are also easy to get fun out of, even at low skill levels. On our campus, for example, I find people who want to fight me from PreK to high school.
An additional benefit of this type of play is that, in a largely low-hazard way, it builds pain resistance. While I am not saying we go back to the days of being told to "walk off" a broken arm, I am saying that adults should be able to take some level of pain and keep going. That is life. If we never let kids have little pains that they must push past, we should not be surprised if they give up when things get hard as adults.
Recall that I said that swords sneak in other skills. Just as a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, so does the sword help the imagination expand. When a kid fights, they are not fighting dad or mom, they are fighting dark lords and dragons. This should be encouraged! Let all the ridiculous powers and ideas allow your kid to see past what is and into what could be.
I would also argue that swords count as moral toys. Kids want to be heroes and they want to see evil fail.
Swords are also relational. You mostly want to fight other people. Swords teach skills in dealing with other people like most sports do, with the added benefit of having them learn how to hit a person not to hurt them, but to play. Again, swords should be compared to a soccer ball, not a book. A soccer ball will also improve your physical skills, but I would argue that the level of skill needed to play is higher. It does not teach pain resistance as well. It also does not lead to imaginative play as easily. Almost all sword play exists in imaginative space.
Part II: What?
Now that you are persuaded that you should get a sword, it is time to talk about what sword you should get. Not all swords are forged equally. The fact of the matter is your kid will hit things and or people with their new blade, and if you get the wrong one, you will risk buying a new sword or a new child.
There are a couple of pitfalls many first time buyers make. The first is: small kids need small swords. Wrong. To fight you, they need to get their stubby arms close to you. If you give them a small sword, then that gets even closer. Welcome to the world of knife fighting where defense is nearly impossible. You will get hit, and due to little kids having no restraint, and their prime targets being your face and legs, you will get a painful reminder that you should have gotten a longer sword. The longer the sword, the easier it is to use it defensively. It also will incentivize your kid to fight at a better range for you. Avoiding that pitfall can also cause you to fall into another: more sword is always better. As a thing gets longer, it gains the ability to have a higher tip rotation, and it gets heavier. This can make swords hit too hard and it can cause them to break at the hilt. Toy swords should be below 30 inches.
The next pitfall is buying swords that light up or make sound. This always comes at the cost of durability. While sometimes it cannot be avoided, it should always be seen as a negative. Sound generally costs less in durability than lights.
Our final pitfall is more of an answer to a common question. Should I buy a non-sword toy for fighting? Spears, axes, clubs, and other medieval weapons are not good toys for fighting with others. Spears are only good for thrusts which tend to hurt and are much riskier for major injuries. Axes and clubs are built where all the weight is on the end. This makes them have less flexibility defense, but also causes them to hit a lot harder. Clean hits to the head will hurt a lot more than a sword of the same weight. So, no, I do not recommend other weapon types.
So, let's talk about material.
Before we get fully in the weeds, swords should only be used against weapons of the same material. There are lots of reasons for this, like breakage and safety. So just trust me on this one. But with that said, we have a few choices: metal, wood, hollow plastic, hard plastic, foam, and foam composite.
While by far the coolest (and definitely the one to make you be seen as a cool parent), metal is the worst material for a toy sword. It is no longer the 1950’s and best practices say that you should not let your kid break other kids’ arms in regular play. All metal swords are weapons, regardless of whether they are sharp or not. Without heavy investment in HEMA armor, metal swords should be left on the walls.
Many of the same problems follow with wood swords. Wood, while scoring high in durability, still easily causes injuries. Wood has very low flex if built right and this is what causes force to be multiplied. Thus, a light swing is still going to hurt. Another problem with wood is that as it hits stuff, it first compacts, getting harder, then it starts to splinter or create an edge. So, while fine for light play and costumes, I would not recommend wood swords for general play.
The next one is the most common and it is a trap. Hollow plastic is the cheapest, but you will pay more in the end. You can tell how sturdy these type of swords are by how easy it is to pinch the middle of the blade together. The harder it is to do this, the better the blade. Hollow plastic swords are always in the process of breaking. Regardless of the quality, it will break if you play with it. The problem is that the part of the blade that connects to the guard starts to rip. That is, if the blade does not just fall out because the hilt just falls apart. Rember how we pushed on the middle of the blade to test it? If you can do that, the blade can bend inward and create recesses that will cause the blade to fail when blocking and then flop around or simply break. Stabbing will break these swords. So, what about safety? Hollow swords, while not as bad as other options, still sting more than I would prefer. They either whip around painfully which hurts quite a bit, or they hit just a tad harder than what I am looking for.
The next material is hard plastic. Hard plastic is a completely or nearly solid plastic sword. While better than its hollow brethren, it still has some flaws. First, since it cannot bend much, it will snap. Next, as durability increases as the blade gets thicker, so does the pain of the strike. Thrusts will hurt almost as much as wooden swords. Soft plastics can also sharpen themselves from repeated blocking. So, while a good plastic sword will perform well when just attacking the air, it will hurt more than is recommended.
Next is the foam sword. Foam is our first sword that does not hurt that much on strike because it flexes on hit. This is really their only good trait. Foam swords have almost no rigidity so they will flop around and have almost no ability to block or parry. This makes fights all attack with almost no defense. While high quality foam blades can avoid that fault, they are hard to find and only work for edge to edge blocking. The real problem is that while foam swords can take some force from the edge, they can take almost no force from the side of the blade. They will simply bend, and this can be frustrating to fight with. I will also note that while edge strikes don’t hurt much, using the sword’s side as a whip can sting. This will happen during play so this is just the cost of doing business.
Our final material is a composite foam sword. This is a foam blade with a flexible plastic rod inside it. The heavens open up and the angels sing. This is what you are looking for. While sometimes hard to find, it is worth the extra googling to find one of these. While these can have a range of quality, they almost always outperform other materials. What you want to look for is foam thickness. The thicker the foam, the less it will hurt. Next, you want it to be ridged but still have a little flex. You should be able to bend it but not very far or easily. Look for weak points as well. A sword with a thin guard or handle will be more prone to breaking. Also, feel the point. Wherever you feel no plastic is where the tip will break off in time. The closer to the tip the plastic is, the longer it will last. While the durability of these swords is quite high, the parts of the sword without the rod will break. This generally is the guard and the tip. They also can rip out of the handle though I have only had this happen once in years of hard play. If the tip becomes exposed this can make stabs more painful and can cause tip shots that can hurt just a little less than a hard plastic sword. You can file down the tip as it becomes exposed to minimize this.
Part III: How?
Okay. You got your composite foam swords, and your kid has fire in their eyes. You start to wonder what this article got you into. Fortunately, I am not going to leave you out in the cold.
The first thing you want to do is get in the proper stance. Turn sideways with your right leg forward and your left back with your left foot sideways. (Reverse this if left-handed). Your side should be facing your opponent. By having your leg forward, you are more likely to get hit in the leg instead of a much more painful spot. Next, hold your sword in your right hand facing forward with the tip a bit above your head. By keeping your sword forward, you maximize your range which allows you to have the “fight” happen far from your body as they swing at your sword. Next, by keeping your tip above their head, you will not accidentally stab them hard when they run onto your sword.
Now on to hitting your kid with a sword. First, you want to mostly attack their sword. This is what actors do in plays and movies so that there is no chance for injury. Sorry to ruin some movie magic. You want to subtly train your kid to also attack the blade so that you can control the fight without having to learn fencing. Most kids will copy what you do, so if you try and sweep the legs, it’s your fault if they are smacking your knees every three seconds.
Second, almost never stab. Stabs hurt more than slashes because the less surface area a blow hits the more force is transferred to a single area.
Third, most swords are not built to bend with a thrust. When attacking, stick to mostly slashes to the upper torso. This will train your kid to stick to attacks that you can easily handle and will do the least damage. Slashes should be more like flicking your wrist, not giant axe swings. If your tip ever goes behind your head during a swing, you are leaving yourself open to attack and you are training your kid to hit full force. If you need an advanced technique, use a disengage. A disengage is when you move your sword from one side of their blade to the other. An effective attack is to attack one side and then switch to the other when they try to block.
On to defense. As you will likely be the loser of the fight, defense is far more important to master than offense. Whenever possible, keep your sword in front of you. To block side cuts, move your hand about six inches to the left or right. For head shots, lift your blade up and turn it to the left. Extend your arm as you do this to keep the blade as far from you as possible. When fighting, keep your sword in the way of the middle of theirs and most attacks won’t hit. Remember if you can keep your kid far enough away, then only the first three to five inches of their sword can hit yours, so they can’t hit you even if they think they can. This lets you control the fight so you can die spectacularly at the end. Blocking is not your only defensive tool. A quick step back will cause them to miss. Back steps should be left foot first then right for fastest movement. Your next defensive option is to simply attack. If you attack too little, they will get more aggressive, while if you keep up the threat of an attack, they will keep up some defense which will make their attacks more predictable.
Your final and greatest option is the almighty pause. If you are getting overwhelmed or if they are attacking too hard, just pause the game. Don’t let them cheat the pause, just grab their blade if they won’t stop. If they can’t pause, you should not let them fight.
This may be obvious, but you should not fight a PreK student the same way you fight a fourth grader. Let’s start with age two. This is generally the first age where a child can lift a sword and, in most cases, can’t even attack. Just hit their sword a bit and let them kill you when you get bored.
For PreK 3 - 4, it’s a real fight. They will attack and block. PreK kids heavily focus on attack, and I have received more wounds from them than almost any other grade. First, don’t fight more than one or two at a time and don’t let them get too close if you can help it. Due to their short stature, hold your sword out with the tip pointing just above their feet. Most attacks will go low, so be ready to save your poor legs. For higher attacks just lift your arm up a little and move left or right. Your attacks will be diagonal cuts that start low.
Our final young fighter is the kindergartener. Kindergarteners will start having a lot more variance in skill level so keep your guard up. Often literally. Since a kinder kid is a bit bigger, their blows will start to hurt a little. You may notice wide berserk axe swings. In fencing we call this windshield wiping. These back and forth swings can feel hard to deal with, as you will often get hit hard just as you hit them. This style should not be encouraged. Either tell them that those attacks are too hard or if you’re the subtle type, use it as a teaching method. Whenever they start to pull back, hit them at your maximum range. Keep beating them in the fight until they start to fight more defensively. Remember: fights should be “elegant fencer”, not “blood soaked barbarian.”
As your child gets older, you will notice that they will start to beat you. By first and second grade, while you still can use your range to keep them out of hitting you, a kid who really gets into sword play can beat you if you're careless. To keep control, fight at a long range and feel free to use disengage attacks. First and second graders are still very inexperienced, so even a little bit of trickery can really mess up their fighting style.
For third and fourth graders, you have a high chance that they can beat you. Their range is getting closer to yours. They will learn your tricks and habits. They also care much more about winning than you, so they will use a lot more energy to win. You should win without hitting harder, just try your best and let them improve. At this grade the “hero” winning is less important to the game so you can beat them as much as you like. For higher grades this will hold true until they start beating you.
At about seventh and higher you should not expect to win every fight. For these fights, focus on the joy of just hitting each other's swords and doing cool stuff. Don’t worry about winning and just have a good time. I like to talk while I fight older students, so we don’t get too serious.
I hope this guide to sword play helps you out!
Foam Medieval Sword - Spirithalloween.com
Royal Knight Sword - Spirithalloween.com
Lion Sword - Spirithalloween.com