You put these together the same way you would when structuring any other kind of lesson. You have a skill set that you want a child to learn, but you need to give them a reason to want to learn it. This is why the idea of “my character is forced to learn X” is rather ridiculous, you can’t actually force someone to learn anything and even if you try to, you’ll turn out a substandard product. You need to get them interested and you do that by making it interesting.
The games are both a system of rewards and a teaching method. The games are there to hone the skills that you’ve taught them, while simultaneously being fun enough that the child will want to practice it on their own with their friends. For example, the kids who play catch all day during recess are going to be better at baseball than the ones who don’t. Replace the ball with a stick and suddenly you have the Vikings.
So, what does playing catch teach you?
Hand to eye coordination. Accuracy. It combines the different motions in your body such as arms and hips so that you can throw harder and faster. As you throw, you build up strength in your arms and exercise your body. The more you learn how your body behaves. You then are better able to take control of your body under those specific circumstances (which are the technique you’ve practiced, instead of a universal rule) and modify it to better serve you. Also, trust and teamwork.
More importantly, you learn it all without having to think about it and you’ll practice without me having to make you.
The mistake is assuming the game or even the repetitious exercise is there just to teach one aspect. They act as a means for getting the student to put all their training together, on their own, while focusing on some other task. It’s about using the skills they’ve learned in the context of some real world exercise similar to what they’ll be doing later in life. This puts them in the habit of using their skills and using them creatively outside the limited range of what they were taught.
The games are there to get you excited and to build confidence. What you need to start doing is not thinking of “games” first. Take the exercise, make it a game. Anything can become one. Set up a system of rewards, the game itself can be reward, and hop to.
Start by picking a skill you want your characters to practice as adults. It could be hunting, it could be tracking, all as a means to train them to become an assassin.
How would you encourage someone to do it? How would you frame it so that it feels safe and okay? How do you make it fun? How do you ensure they’ll want to do it again?
Here’s one way. You pick one of the more skilled children from the pack, or the best in the class, tap them to be the “rabbit”. The other children are the “hounds”. The hounds must track and attempt to “kill” them. It will be the rabbit’s job to evade and outrun them. They will be given a head start and pointed toward a specific destination. Depending on their age, this could be a game which takes place over the course of several hours or days and obviously there are adults on hand to keep things civil.
If the rabbit can reach safety before the hounds can catch them then they will be rewarded, (the rabbit’s reward will always be the best as their task is the most difficult, thus ensuring that other kids will work harder to unseat the top of the class so they can next become the rabbit while simultaneously giving those slackers who loathe the best a free for all target worth chasing), if the hounds can catch the rabbit then they will be rewarded. As they get older, the rewards will be diminished from the full group of hounds to only those hounds who actually manage to catch the rabbit to continue to give those slackers more reason to compete.
Why a human and not an animal? You choose a human because you want them to get used to hunting humans, a child because they may one day have to kill other children, and one of their own for the exact same reason.
The games are all about instilling and incentivizing behavior. It doesn’t really matter what tools you use to incentive that behavior so long as you do. You want them to want it, so that they’ll do it, try hard and become good. These games will still work on adults too, they’re not just for children.
Children are much harder to work with, they ask more questions. They want to know more and they’ll challenge authority. It’s about figuring out how to keep them on task and focused without curbing those aspects they’ll need later. Obedience is all well and good, but in many cases you want to train someone who is resourceful, who is clever, who uses their intelligence, who does want to understand their surroundings, to understand why, and asks questions. These are aspects that they will need in the larger world. Satisfying those questions is more difficult on the trainer’s level, but a teacher’s role is to build and not break.
Teaching in general is incredibly difficult and training children is even harder. It’s also important to remember that you can do all of this without caring about the student. The historical precedent is that it’s worth it though. A person who begins training as a child will develop a technical level of skill and a hardwired nervous system that is unreachable by adults. It’s not that they’re unbeatable, it’s just that they’re better and always will be. Their brains will also process information differently. If the training is their whole life, then they’re even better than that. There’s a reason why Eagle Scouts start as PFCs (Private First Class) instead of general enlisted when they join the military.
Most of the field games you may have played as a kid like the capture the flag have an actual application. To use it in your story, though, you as the writer need to know what that application is so you can translate it into your character’s skills. The goal is to get in an obtain a resource and extract yourself with that resource intact. What does that mean in regards to your characters and their skill sets?
Orienteering. Scavenger hunts. Camping. Frisbee. Celestial navigation. Dodgeball. Jump rope. All this stuff teaches you things and has actual combat applications. The question is did you realize what you were learning in the process? In a slightly more messed up world, you might have been studying in order to eventually kill someone or many someones. Let that sink in.
What’s missing is that you were never taught how to apply those skills or the reflexes you developed in a combat environment. You use the games to teach the skills, then when they’re older you teach them to apply those skills in a proper environment.
Star Wars does an excellent job of operationalizing this concept and not in the way you think. “It’s not impossible. I used to bulls-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home and they’re not much bigger than two meters.” Take skills developed as child, blow up the Empire’s superweapon. In the first movie, Luke is a great example of a character who is applying the skills they’ve learned to new ways. Obi-wan using the remote to teach him how to use a lightsaber and the necessary concentration to “let go your conscious self and act on instinct” comes back in that same scene.
What your missing is that the stuff you perceive as normal behavior is actually not normal at all. It’s just the state or culture you were raised in. Change that, you change everything about yourself as a person. You want to raise a child to fight, then you raise them in a culture where killing is normal and accepted behavior. You orient everything around that. In most cases, the people who are doing this may not even know what they’re doing because they were raised the exact same way and it’s normal for them too. For them, it’s the way the world is and it’s how it should be.
Consider all the kids who go hunting with their parents, consider all the kids who were raised with guns, consider all the kids whose parents put them in martial arts, consider all the kids whose parents put them in Scouts, and that’s just the United States. There’s also nothing wrong with any of these children or them as people. It’s just that, like you, they were raised in a different environment and were exposed to different things and may have come to see the world differently.
How does the game of tag change when you have to fight the one you catch in order for your opponent to become “It”? For you, it may change a whole lot and it may even be horrifying. For a character who comes from a society where this is how the game works? That’s normal.
You incentivize behavior, you normalize the behavior, and you pass it on.