How do I find the right martial arts program for my 6 year old boy?
August 1, 2008 4:34 PM   Subscribe

What is the best entry level martial arts program for a quiet, kinda serious, very strong and flexible (can almost do the splits both ways) 6 year old boy? He LOVES anything that has to do with martial arts and Asia (movies, toys, cartoons etc) but I'm confused about the various schools and their strength and weaknesses. I don't want something like "Rex Kwon Do" but I also don't want something that is so watered down that it's just tumbling in a karate uniform. He has a couple of friends who are in Taekwondo but I'm not sold on those programs for him. HELP... Thanks!
posted by KTrujillo to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No offense, KT, but I think your priorities may be a bit misplaced. Don't focus so much on which MA you're going to enroll your kid in, focus more on finding an instructor that has experience and is really good with small children. You should be able to sit and watch a class pretty easily at any studio and see how the instructor interacts with children that young.

I say this as a guy that took Tae Kwon Do from age 8-ish to 14-ish or so. Did the fact that is was TKD make a difference? Nah. However, the fact that my instructor was very good at interacting with children (and youth, for that matter) made it stick for me. Kids that young are pretty fickle, and if I hadn't made a connection with him, I wouldn't have stuck around for as long as I did.
posted by Ufez Jones at 4:54 PM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

If he's strong and flexible and enjoys tumbling, he might enjoy capoeira training. Ufez is probably right, tho - find a school nearby that has a good teacher & youth program, then the specific MA will be irrelevant. Don't be afraid to visit multiple places and check out classes to find the best fit.
posted by gnutron at 5:03 PM on August 1, 2008

I did Tang Soo Do in middle school and high school and loved it; the instructor was great and there were plenty of people there who'd been going since they were young 'uns. I've also done a little aikido, which I might not recommend for an active young kid, and some kung fu, which might be good, actually.

I think really what I'd recommend, though, would be to go watch classes at some different places (any place worth going will let you observe before you go to class) and see how the teachers teach and what the kids do in class; see what looks good and try it, but don't worry so much about which particular martial art it is.

On preview, I pretty much just mean I agree with Ufez and gnutron
posted by Vibrissa at 5:09 PM on August 1, 2008

Are you not sold on taekwondo, or just the particular schools/programs that your son's friends are in? There is a huge variety in martial arts schools, from the style of martial art they teach to their quality.

I can only speak to taekwondo (my daughter earned a black belt). I would look for a school affiliated with the American Taekwondo Association. I can't speak highly enough of this organization.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:20 PM on August 1, 2008

At six years old, style is going to be nearly irrelevant. What will be most important is the instructor's capacity to organize and educate the class. In other words, shop for a good teacher, not a good style.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on August 1, 2008

None taken Ufez....I really don't know what I'm talking about which is why I asked for help. : )

The suggestions on visiting are very good. I only visited two and maybe the reason I didn't like the TKDs had to do more with the instructor than any kind of philosophical or other differences (since I have no knowledge in this area) but it can be hard to tease out how much is the instructor and how much is the program (or his/her interpretation of the philosophy?) My son has been talking about this for a year and I kept thinking he was too young plus we're not big into organized classes at this age but he is insistent at this point and so I was trying to find a place he'd be happy. When I opened up the phone book I just didn't know where to start since I am completely unfamiliar with this subject and there seem to be so many options. Thanks for the replies so far!
posted by KTrujillo at 5:26 PM on August 1, 2008

I did shotokan when I was a kid, and it was sometimes very good. But when it was bad, it was due to bad, power-tripping, unreasonable instructors, which given my experience, may be unfortunately common. I highly recommend that whatever martial art you choose, keep a close eye on what exactly he's doing in the class; for instance, I had one instructor who required all students above a certain level to work on breaking boards -- something that is just not necessary (or IMO a good idea) for anyone, let alone the 12 year old piano-playing kid that I was. (My parents were paying attention, luckily.) Also, sometimes the kids themselves have power trips and do some bullying of students of lesser skill levels, so keep an eye out for this as well.

Btw, with respect to "something that is so watered down that it's just tumbling in a karate uniform" -- you may mean aikido (I'm not sure what else it would be). If so this is really a misperception; I've only taken a little bit of it, but I don't think that a practitioner of equivalent level in one of the more combat oriented martial arts could have placed a finger on my instructor for that class. It may be a little boring for a kid depending on temperament, though.
posted by advil at 5:28 PM on August 1, 2008

Btw, with respect to "something that is so watered down that it's just tumbling in a karate uniform"

One of the places I visited had all these kids in uniforms running around like crazy and doing what looked like tumbling. I understand they're just kids, but this was more like open gym than an organized class. Again, probably the instructor.

I am learning a lot....your part about power trips and bullying is sobering...thanks

Thank you for the link supersquirrel.
posted by KTrujillo at 5:36 PM on August 1, 2008

My son has been talking about this for a year and I kept thinking he was too young plus we're not big into organized classes at this age but he is insistent at this point and so I was trying to find a place he'd be happy. When I opened up the phone book I just didn't know where to start since I am completely unfamiliar with this subject and there seem to be so many options.

Well, honestly, six does seem a bit young to me. The TKD studio I attended for so many years had 4 classes per weekday: 1:30 for toddlers, 4:00 for just out of school kids, 5:30 for a mix of school-aged kids and adults, and 7:00 for folks that were able to drive themselves.

If I were in your shoes, I'd seek out a toddler style program (sorry, I don't have kids, I don't know if 6 is considered toddler or not). If your kiddo wants to switch styles in a year or three, it won't be a big deal.

What kept me in for so many years (other than my instructor) was the fact that there were several local tournaments, as well as State ones and Nationals (we went from Oklahoma to Orlando, FL for the only National tourney I went to). However, it took me several years in the school to get comfortable with competing in them. Yes, I was quiet too. But gawky and awkward. If that's something important to you, it's a good question to ask said instructor.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:40 PM on August 1, 2008

I am learning a lot....your part about power trips and bullying is sobering...thanks

Well, don't take it as representative necessarily; it's just my experience. I wanted to mention it because it's something I'm not sure my parents were completely aware of at the time, and it also isn't something that kids will bring up themselves. On the whole I think karate was an extremely positive experience for me when I was young, and it gave me a lot of self-confidence.
posted by advil at 5:44 PM on August 1, 2008

With regard to 'tumbling' etc., I did judo from a young age, and the teacher would intersperse games with the more technical (and at our age, monotonous) learning. For example, we'd be shown a move, practice it in pairs whilst a teacher came around critiquing, then have to use it in an actual 'fight' situation (i.e. now instead of letting your partner do the move as you stand there, each of you try and do it against the other, see who wins).

However, a whole lesson of that would've been insanely boring, so after every few times we'd done this, the teacher would get us to do various none-judo exercises - from the sounds of it, similar to tumbling (although I'm not entirely sure what that is). Just a lot of physical exertion, without huge amounts of technique. Other stuff like tag was common.

We also had a few more games (bulldog being the main one) which would be an incentive for us to behave during class. If we performed well, we got the game at the end, if we didn't, we didn't.

And, as others have said, couldn't agree more with the fact that it's the teacher that's important.
posted by djgh at 5:46 PM on August 1, 2008

... all these kids in uniforms running around like crazy and doing what looked like tumbling.

I don't know about the "running around like crazy" part, but what you took to be tumbling could have been part of the "when you're tossed, fall like this so you don't break a bone every single time" class.
posted by CKmtl at 5:51 PM on August 1, 2008

I started studying Karate at age six, and continued studying martial arts until I was 18. Like other have said, focus on finding a good class with other kids his age rather than focusing on the discipline. He will grow up and choose which discipline he would like to study anyway, and a lot of the fundamentals are shared across different styles as well.

See if instructors will let your son 'audit' a class for a day. That way he can tell you if he likes it or not. You might be able to try a few different ones this way as well.

Good luck!
posted by rooftop secrets at 5:53 PM on August 1, 2008

I don't disagree that the instructor is important, however choosing a good semi-practical martial art with a passable instructor would be better than choosing a useless martial art with a fantastic instructor. That said, almost any martial art can teach the essentials of proper punching and kicking. However, having personally invested a year or so my life into Tae Kwon Do when I was younger, I wouldn't recommend it. Tae Kwon Do is more of a sport than a martial art. I'd recommend some form of jiujutsu or kung fu.
posted by paradoxflow at 6:13 PM on August 1, 2008

Visiting is definitely the most important thing. But can I put in a plug for aikido? It's definitely lots more than tumbling around in a uniform -- good aikidoka are very serious martial artists -- (although there's a lot of tumbling around that necessarily goes along!) and it incorporates an attitude of nonconfrontation and peacefulness that's doubtless good for kids.
posted by paultopia at 6:25 PM on August 1, 2008

Aikido is what your want I think. It's big on philosophy in that you try to not hurt the other guy. There's a lot of 'tumbling' but it's so you don't get hurt (went back after years away and broke my collarbone the first night). It gets better when you learn that it is based on old samurai sword fighting, it gets better when you have 4 guys swinging wooden swords at you and you don't have any padding. It gets better when you watch Steven Segal movies. It gets better when you learn that you did things certain ways in class to make them not hurt people and break bones or dislocate joints. And it's something that starts you out with the "don't hurt the guy" thinking instead of "punch and kick him".

It's halfway inbetween the soft stuff like tai-chi that may take you 10 years to learn and the hard stuff that teaches you to punch the guy in the face and kick him in the balls.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:42 PM on August 1, 2008

having personally invested a year or so my life into Tae Kwon Do when I was younger, I wouldn't recommend it. Tae Kwon Do is more of a sport than a martial art.

Sorry - a year is completely insufficient time to develop an accurate picture of what a martial art is or isn't.

KTrujillo, check with your local park district. They may have an arrangement with a local studio where your son can take classes for 6-8 weeks at a lower price. Of course, the studio looks on this as a recruitment tool, and will try to get you to sign up for an extended run of classes after the park district class is over. But an arrangement like this is a great way to test the waters without a huge financial or contractual commitment.

And it is important to remember that good teachers have to use a variety of techniques to keep the really young ones interested, including, at times, games and activities that don't seem very martial-artsy. But a 6-year-old's attention span is only so long. It would be good to check out several classes and/or instructors at the same school, rather than relying on one or two visits, in order to get a good impression of how they do things.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:52 PM on August 1, 2008

What are the goals for training? Fun? Self Defense? Discipline?

I usually recommend Judo for kids. Most Judo schools have kids programs, and the kids program are typically fairly polished. There is some formality, so the kids often become a bit more respectful. At the same time, it's rough and tumble enough that it tires them out, and most have a lot of fun. It also has the benefit of being pretty realistic. One of the centerpieces of training is 'randori' or free training, where the kids wrestle each other to a throw or pin (or a submission hold, when they get older-13-16). So one learns, early on, to deal with a resisting opponent. If they stick with Judo into their teens, they will learn more dangerous (but not very dangerous) techniques, like chokes and joint locks.

You can find a list of judo schools near you at the judo info website.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 6:53 PM on August 1, 2008

This is coming from someone who knows very little about martial arts, but I thought I'd mention wushu as a possibility for your son. Looks awesome, involves lots of gymnastic skills, plus Jet Li does it. It's possible to get involved at a very young age.
posted by Rora at 7:23 PM on August 1, 2008

Any place which does not offer a free intro class is not worth considering.
Different schools of the same style will vary. I would base it more on instructor interaction and control.
Our daughter started TKD 9 months ago at 5 1/2. It has been great for her confidence, goal setting, motor skill dev (balance improved greatly), wonderful exercise, and many more things. Her school puts emphasis on manners/respect and good grades.
If a class is complete chaos not too good.
If a class is all Cobra Kai not good.
Good luck in your search, it will be worth it.
posted by sailormouth at 7:53 PM on August 1, 2008

Go watch a few classes. See what kind of "vibe" both you and your son get from it. And the comments about paying attention to the instructor are on the money. The instructor makes or breaks the class. And don't worry too much about the style being watered down. At his age most schools aren't going to be pushing self-defense too much anyway. The empahsis should be more about moving, stretching, balance, listening, having fun, etc. If the children stick with it until they're older, they then begin to realize that all the fun they've been having actually has a use. . . Of course, it also goes back to getting a "vibe" about the classes. Even if you don't have a martial arts background, if you get the feeling the school is nothing but fluff, it probably is.
posted by Quip at 8:51 PM on August 1, 2008

I'd go with jiu jitsu, its practical and being flexible is hugely helpful. Not quite as sexy as some of the standup/striking styles but extremely good cardio (think wrestlers over gymnasts) if done right.

Nth'ing find the right instructor over the martial art.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:50 PM on August 1, 2008

I practiced Aikido from 9 to 18 and loved it. A lot of stuff in the beginning was basic running around and tumbling, but it built a lot of strength and stamina for the actual martial art aspect. Lots of work for awareness; we did work with small padded wooden "knives", jumprope, exercise balls, etc. I would agree that it's highly dependent on instructors, I generally had one sensei who was assisted by a teenager. Having someone closer to our age was reassuring, and let our teacher pretend to be a hardass.

Good luck, my training got me through jr high and high school as being a big ol' geek and not taking crap from anyone.
posted by Orrorin at 2:10 AM on August 2, 2008

I have one son doing martial arts. He's quite a bit older than your son but like him he is very interested in Asian culture. When he said he wanted to take classes, I told him to do his research and figure out what he wanted to study. He came up with Aikido and is loving it so far.
posted by maurice at 4:37 AM on August 2, 2008

You mention that he is interested in martial arts movies, cartoons, etc. Something kung-fu (also called gung-fu) based would match his preexisting inclination.

Also, I don't know if learning actual self-defense is a priority, but either way you should be aware that TKD (seems to be the most popular) is a sport, not a martial art. If it is a priority, then kung-fu based is also a good way to go.

May I suggest Jeet Kune Do as fitting both of these considerations... It's wing-chung kung-fu based, most certainly centered around self defense and personal development, is highly cross-disciplined, and has the added cool-factor of having been founded by Bruce Lee. Be aware, though, that "JKD concepts" is code for "I took a workshop once." If you can find a certified (sorry, corny, slow, nonintuitive flash) instructor in your area, it'd be worth checking out. If not, Wing Chun is a common, well-grounded system, as is Tai Chi, actually. If you can find a non-new-agey instructor, that is.
posted by cmoj at 8:06 AM on August 2, 2008

My son has been taking TDK since he was five. We initially started it because his occupational therapist recommended it for his vestibular and midline issues (which aren't really relevant for this discussion so that's all I'll say about it). What he ended up getting (and is still getting, as he's now 11 and still takes TKD), along with better balance and mobility, is increased focus, discipline, respect, and self-esteem. He doesn't like team sports because he feels too much pressure to perform and feels personally responsible if the team loses. With TKD, he knows it's all up to him and he gets out of it what he puts into it.

His dojang is run by a 9th degree black belt who really feels that kids should be nurtured and encouraged, not yelled at and intimidated. He only hires instructors who feel the same way about childrens' sports. In the younger kids' classes there's a lot more game-type stuff, but always with a goal in mind and always with a lesson. My son loves that as an older belt he is looked up to by the younger kids and he loves being in the teaching position. I could go on and on and on about what a positive influence TKD has had on his life. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the quality of the instructors, but TKD really has been the right martial art for him.

As for six being too young, I really think it depends on the child. My daughter started at the same school when she was 3 1/2 and she had been begging to go in the dojang since she was two. She's eight now and she loves TKD as much as her brother does.

You really need to be asking the instructors exactly what they're doing in the classes. If you see the kids running around like crazy, ask after the class what the purpose was. You might be surprised at the answer. Ask about the specific martial art's philosophy and the individual school's philosophy on teaching children. If they don't have one, look somewhere else. Also, nthing the idea that a school that doesn't offer a free introductory class is a school you want to avoid.
posted by cooker girl at 12:13 PM on August 2, 2008

I came in here to post exactly what Ufez Jones posted in the first comment to thread, except that I took TKD from age 9 to age 17. My instructor was good with kids and that made all the difference; it was one of the formative experiences of my young life.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:17 PM on August 2, 2008

I personally have strong preferences as to style, but my experience mirrors others here in that the instruction style is more important than the martial arts style. Also, you may have difficulty finding a school at age 6; many schools around here seem to start at 7.

You may end up getting more data from searching online than from the phone book--you won't find as many places, but what you do find may tell you a bit more than the phone book ad.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:17 PM on August 4, 2008

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