As The Karate Kid movies taught us all, martial arts is a great way to get exercise while learning important lessons in discipline and self-control. In other words, it seems like the perfect activity for the average energetic preschooler. But at what age can kids start karate lessons? Can you enroll them virtually out of the womb, or do they have to be closer to middle-school age to get best results?
"It really depends on the child," martial arts master Keith Bennett, founder of Keith Bennett's Karate Academy in Ulster County, NY, tells Romper. "My classes start at 3 years old, but it's a maturity issue. Some 3-year-olds are more mature than others, and girls tend to be more mature than boys."
"We have students who come in to try a class and never make it on the mats. Then we have students who can't wait to come on the mat because they see their older sibling having fun, or they're just super excited about doing karate moves," Yessenia Torres, facility manager for Cesar-Kai Karate in Cranford, NJ, tells Romper. "It's all about the willingness of the child."
As Torres notes, most martial arts schools will offer a trial class for children. This allows the child to get a taste of what the activity is all about, and lets the instructor see whether the child is able to stand still and follow simple directions. Bennett says that children who attend preschool tend to do well in martial arts, perhaps because they're used to the structure of a class and the need to pay attention to the teacher.
"We look for students who are willing to try," says Torres. "When they're willing to do their best — whether it is to follow directions or try to do their highest kick — then they're ready to go. It takes a few classes for the students to get into the routine, which is why we encourage them to come at least two times a week."
Karate and other martial arts academies typically divide children by age group, with preschoolers and early elementary students studying separately from older kids. The emphasis for younger students is on skills such as focus, balance, coordination, and controlled moves. "We put emphasis on student performance by disciplining their body to perform the moves correctly," says Torres. "We teach students that technique is always first, followed by speed and strength." Adds Bennett, "Between ages 3 and 6, they learn so quickly; it's an amazing age."
Older children, usually ages 7 and up, are ready for more advanced skills, such as one-on-one sparring or kickboxing moves. "By age 10, they can be a black belt," says Bennett. "Once students get to the one-year level, they'll be with me five years." For all age levels, belt testing frequency and requirements vary by school. For advanced belts, the requirements are more difficult, and testing may only be done once or twice a year.
But our experts agree that the benefits of martial arts for children go far beyond belt colors. "What traditional martial arts can do for a child is amazing," says Bennett. "It combines visual, audio and kinesthetic learning all at the same time." Torres agrees: "The benefits that martial arts classes offer include — but aren't limited to — fitness, discipline, respect, control, and confidence."
How do you choose a good karate (or other martial arts) program for your child? Bennett recommends doing research on schools to see how long they've been in operation and whether they're registered with the local chamber of commerce or Better Business Bureau. Check the instructor's background to see where they've trained and if they've been certified by a legitimate professional organization, such as the American Sports and Fitness Association or the World Karate Federation.
"I believe it is important for parents to observe the instructor-to child connection," says Torres. "If the child feels comfortable, then you'll see how well they perform. I would also suggest looking for a school that has a Character Development program. There is so much value in martial arts schools that teach different traits that a child will be able to use throughout their life."
The takeaway: If you're looking for an activity for your preschooler that will both burn off all that excess energy and teach them focus and patience, think about enrolling in a trial karate or other martial arts class. They won't learn the "wax on, wax off" technique, but they could come away with equally valuable lessons.