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I would like to send my son to learn martial arts as soon as possible as I believe this would help him gain confidence in his early stages of life (it worked for me when I was an adult)

At what age should I send him? I suppose this question could apply to any sport though
Are some martial arts more appropriate than others for kids or is it just a matter of preference?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 25 down vote accepted

The appropriate age depends a great deal on the specific style/art in question, the type of dojo, and the particular child. Most Karate dojos I know take kids starting around age 4-6. Most Krav Maga dojos I know won't take anyone under 14-16; some won't take minors at all. My friend's Brazilian Jui-Jitsu dojo only takes kids from age 10, but I'm told that most are willing to start younger than that.

Assuming an appropriate level of kid-friendliness in the selected dojo, a child is generally ready for martial arts study when he or she:

  • can tell left from right.
  • has developed empathy (meaning specifically that the child groks that others have feelings, and that their behavior can effect others' well-being).
  • has developed age-appropriate manners (will wait his/her turn to speak, will listen quietly to an instructor, etc.)
  • has the attention span to give 100% for the length of a class period (typically 30 minutes for small children, to 60 minutes for older children and adults).
  • will (probably with some prompting from parents) reliably practice at least every other day (every day for older children).
  • can take polite criticism in stride, i.e. think "here's how I can do this better" instead of "I'm awful and everyone hates me, waaaahhh!"

What art/style you choose for your child is not nearly as important as what dojo and Sensei you choose. Some dojos just aren't set up to teach children well. Others are good with older kids, but lack the special awsomesauce that reaches young students.

Here are some traits that make a dojo great for children under 10:

  • Offers "family" classes where parents and children of varying ages may train together.
  • Has plenty of incremental rewards. Small children can't just look at the change in their body mechanics and know they've made progress -- they need to be told. While a dojo that uses no displays of ranks, or a simple white/black belt system can be wonderful for adults and mature teens, that is an inadequate level of reinforcement for primary school children.

    A program well-suited to the youngest students uses patches, colored belts, achievement stripes, a wall chart, a log book, or some other concrete indication to your child when progress has been made. For very young children, there should be some indication of achievement that they can earn at least every 1-2 weeks. This way they know when they have accomplished something, and they internalize that things like focus and practice are good strategies.

  • The sensei uses real (and not-so-real) world examples kids can relate to. "We use four fingers in a split-finger eye strike in case we miss slightly, or in the event of attack by a four-eyed monster!"

  • The sensei is patient and pays attention to the individual children.

  • The sensei teaches not only martial arts skills, but appropriate lessons on when they should or shouldn't be used.

  • The sensei incorporates games into classes that include small children. Karate dodge ball, jump the noodle, kickpad leapfrog, and so on make learning fun (and give kids a chance to watch the grown-ups in the class look ridiculous).

  • The sensei groups students primarily by rank/progress, so that everyone is challenged at their own level. (This isn't to say that there are no "adults only" classes, but that a 7th kyu student doesn't experience slowed progress due to being grouped predominantly with 9th kyu age peers.)

  • The dojo community shares values that mesh well with your family's values.

This, of course, is all in addition to the things that make a good dojo in general.

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While I agree with pretty much everything you said, my son, who is about to turn 8, started Karate at the age of 6. His sensei is Japanese and is pretty traditional in his teaching methods. He does not do a whole lot of "kiddie games" and my son loves him. –  Kevin May 13 '11 at 19:00
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As a lifelong practitioner of several martial arts, I strongly agree with the point that selection of a good instructor (and school) is vastly more important than which martial art style you choose. –  lgritz May 13 '11 at 19:09
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@Kevin That's good of you to point out. As always, kids are different, not all generalities apply to all of them... etc etc. :) –  HedgeMage May 13 '11 at 23:46
    
Do you know about aikido dojo ? at what age are take children ? –  Aristos May 16 '11 at 3:55
    
@Aristos -- Sorry, I'm not sure. I've never studied aikido, and don't know a ton about it. –  HedgeMage May 17 '11 at 4:13

Taekwondo assistant instructor here. I started studying it when I was 13. I prefer not to teach children under the age of 5 or 6 because most are not ready for it. Unless you have a very coordinated child with exceptional attention span and patience, it's just going to be an exercise in frustration for everyone. You have to know your child, however, and there are some 7- and 8-year-olds who have no business in a martial arts classroom because they just don't have the focus to participate in the class.

There are classes at a lot of larger park districts called things like "Tot Kwon Do" or toddler martial arts. I've taught graduates of these programs and often find them ready to start formal Taekwondo at 5 or 6. The difference between the tot programs and what we teach is that the tot programs are designed for younger kids--simpler, shorter, less about rigorous training and more about getting to know the body and how it works. Many contain techniques or talks about "stranger danger." It's a bit of a misnomer to call them martial arts in a way, but they can be very useful for kids who want to get into martial arts/self defense but are a bit too little to get much out of a formal class.

Bear in mind that children learn martial arts differently than adults. The vast majority of kids do not have the skills to understand the underlying physics of martial arts. Most don't even know the parts of the body all that well, and most kids are shaky on right and left well into pre-teen mode. I started studying at 13 and did well--for a kid. When I got back into it after college in my twenties, I realized just how little I really knew. It's the difference between rote learning and true understanding.

I get a lot of parents who, after 4 weeks of study, are really concerned that little Johnny hasn't "mastered" the front-snap kick. I get a lot of kids and parents who don't understand that martial arts training is cumulative, that you don't learn one thing and then move on to the next, so you forget the first thing you learned--like Western education. Given that you have some martial arts experience, you might already know this. But do try to keep good expectations--martial arts are GREAT for teaching kids confidence, coordination, balance, discipline, focus, self-control, respect for themselves and others. I've seen kids go from being complete train wrecks of coordination with no patience for themselves or anyone else to beautiful martial artists. But typically that's because the parents didn't push for them to have an adult understanding of what they were doing; they accept their kids at the developmental level they are at.

That said, I am enthusiastically a proponent of teaching martial arts to kids who are ready for it. Kids who have some semblance of an attention span and can last the hour or 1.5 hours the class lasts. Kids who have either good coordination or the patience and drive to learn to have good coordination. Kids who have some idea how to act in a classroom and can stay quiet when I'm teaching so they don't distract the other kids. Kids who can work well with a partner, practicing strikes and kicks without actually touching/hurting the other kid.

I think the best thing to do to pick a school is to keep an open mind and not stay too attached to one school or discipline. There are many martial arts out there, and there's no one art that is right for everyone. Some kids may love the complexity of Aikido or Hapkido and the idea of turning someone's force against them. Some kids may love the big movements and vigorous exercise of Taekwondo or Karate. Some kids may love to get thrown all over the place and prefer Judo. Some kids may not have much love of bare-handed fighting, but put a sword in their hands (Kendo, Koryo Gumdo, etc.) and they're like poetry. If your kid isn't taking to one martial art, try another.

If he doesn't work well with one instructor, find another school of the same art and try another teacher. A mature instructor will realize that s/he is not going to be all things to all people. A mature parent of a child in martial arts will realize the same.

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+1. We started out with a 5 year old doing Aikido and had to stop because she was simply not yet well coordinated enough to even remotely be able to proceed with 6-9 year olds (the Sensei agreed with us) –  user3143 May 23 at 17:21

Most martial arts schools don't take kids until they are 4 or 5, depending on the class and the school. I started my son about the time he turned 5, he's been doing it about a year and hasn't gotten fully into it yet but we have noticed an improvement in his balance. I also attend the same school, and did for a year before I signed him up, I believe its important to check out the community in the school. Many martial arts schools tend to also have a parents community to help out for public events, getting to know some of them is important as it will reflect on the other students in the school.

One additional item I want to note, in the younger classes in our school the older kids (mostly teens with brown or black ranking) teach younger kids. Many times the young kids respond better as its someone closer to them teaching rather than an adult. It also gives older kids some practice in coaching and teaching, as well as giving back to the school, which is an important part of a community.

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As somebody who has studied several martial arts on and off my whole life (starting at age 10) and also taught adults and kids, here's my opinion.

If you just want an activity for them to do, I would say that the minimum is age 6 or 7 -- prior to that, I don't think they have the coordination, attention span, self-discipline, and understanding of the safety issues for themselves and others.

However, in my experience, kids who start this young typically do it for a couple years and then lose interest. I know very few adult practitioners who started that young. Most of the best adults I know started as mid-to-late teens or in college. Anecdotal, but I've seen this trend across several martial arts I've studied, in various schools.

IMHO, starting as a teenager is much more likely to provide them the basis to pursue it for life. That is an extraordinary gift.

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This is a great article on age and when to starts kids on martial arts. Every style is different, every association is also different.

I have found it to be dojo specific. The instructors needs to gear the class for the different age groups as each stage of life has developed certain aspects of one's body and mind. The head instructor in Japan, who teaches goju ryu karate, instructs to kids and adults, however, he doesn't change much, except for fine details, among the two grUops.

I am trying to work a kids karate class from 4+ with adults for the beginning portion of the Saturday adult karate class; it is tough. I want to use traditional karate conditioning and warmups, but the average young child less than 9 or so won't find it engaging.

If a dojo breaks up the class in 3 or 4 age groups they are more than likely to get a great class for each group then trying to mix them together. Usually from ages below 5 or 6, it is pre-karate; many drills and exercises are just jumping, rolling, kicking, punching, dodging, running...these will help once they begin karate as whatever age.

They key with any age is trying different schools and arts, I know some places do not have many, and that makes it challenging.

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Sanjit, I have upvoted your answer, because it contains some good information and advice. However, I have also edited it to remove the self-promotion. We are a Q&A site, not an advertising platform. Please refer to our faq entry on self-promotion. We'd love to have you participate, but if your intent is to get word of your business out, you're here for the wrong reason. –  Beofett Jun 4 '13 at 12:37

Start them as early as possible. I managed to get my daughter into a taekwon do class at age 3 (as she was happily sparring with her brother when he joined at 5) and she has loved every minute. 3 years later and she is a green belt and winning gold in competitions against boys much bigger than her.

Totally agree with @HedgeMage on finding one that does offer incremental rewards to the young ones, and attendance medals at competitions etc., and a sensei/instructor who knows how to instill discipline in young children while keeping it fun for them.

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We started Tae-Kwon-Do for our son when he was 5. He's 9 now and still loving it. The Master told us that he teaches kids as young as 4.

I would say that since the kid has to be in class with other kids, he/she should be at the age where he/she can understand and follow instructions without being distracted.

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As others here have said, it depends on the child, but it also depends on the dojo/dojang. Look for an instructor who is responsible in what they teach children. For example I wouldn't teach preteens to do eye strikes or many joint locks due to the damage they can do if they try it out in the playground.

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-1: Martial arts are just that -- martial. Responsible training includes learning when to use one's martial skills and when and how not to. There's no point in training if you take the position that your child cannot be trusted with martial skill. –  HedgeMage Jun 24 '11 at 8:10
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+1: Disagree with you HM. I think P.Turpie is suggesting a parent should select a teacher/school that knows when to trust children. Not one that doesn't trust them. –  Paul Cline Jun 24 '11 at 15:44

I say as soon as possible! My sister put her son in a martial arts class and was nervous because he is really shy. It has helped a lot with coordination skills, people skills, and self confidence. All these skills are good to have growing up so might as well get them as early as possible.

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I'm downvoting this because the anecdotal evidence you present (your sister's son) doesn't provide any actual support to the question, because you don't include the age of your nephew. Since the question is "what age is appropriate", that's a vital piece of information missing to make your answer relevant; without it, essentially your answer is an unqualified "as soon as possible!", which is questionable, at best. Is 1 year possible? 6 months? –  Beofett May 23 at 16:52

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