As a general statement, I think that movement (especially learning skilled movement) is important for young children. While there are arguments for and against specializations in sports at a young age, it seems that a variety of movement and skills can be more transferable to everyday life and can provide more options for movement choices later in life as we age. It’s also important that kids have fun and enjoy whatever activity they are doing, so that they are more likely to stick with a healthier lifestyle. Considering all of this, I decided to enroll my (at the time) 3 year old daughter in martial arts classes. I’ve seen her benefit in so many ways! Here’s a few I wanted to share:
1. Straight up self defense: Although it is always best to avoid confrontation and to tell a trusted adult, there will be times when your child may be in physical danger with no one to help him or her. Knowing how to defend oneself is a useful skill to have just in case.
2. Cultivating empathy: While it would seem that introducing your child to potentially violent techniques might entice them to physically bully other children, with a good instructor, the opposite is usually true. In classes that allow sparring, children will be faced with opponents that they may not be able to overcome at the moment. This humbling experience often teaches an aggressive student not to underestimate their opponent. They also learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of physical oppression and this can help them create compassion and empathy. Some children may even speak out about violence they see in school or elsewhere.
3. Athletic ability: Many martial arts require varied movement and skill sets which will help your child create useful athletic adaptations such as increased speed, strength, power, coordination and cardiovascular output.
4. Transferable skills: A lot of the athletic adaptations above are learned through skills that can easily be adapted to other sports. Running, jumping, kicking, punching (throwing) and learning how to fall and tumble are skills that can help in other sports and in everyday activities.
5. Self confidence: In the same way that (with a good instructor) an aggressive child can be humbled through physically oppressive situations, a timid student can be encouraged to overcome adversity with appropriate challenges. If a smaller student develops good technique and is able to overcome a larger and more physically imposing student, this can be a huge confidence builder and may teach the student to take on bigger and bigger challenges in life.
6. Respect: In most martial arts, there is a system of hierarchy or a belt system. Students are required to show respect to their teachers and other students who are higher up on the ladder than they are. The higher belt students are not always the biggest and the strongest or oldest, so this system teaches children a more sophisticated form of respect. They are also often asked to help newer students to learn. I have personally seen children learning to become more helpful to their parents and of younger children and to become more respectful of their elders outside of their classes.
7. Focus: Not to take away from the value of play, but it is important for school age children to appropriately discern time to play and time to focus. A good martial arts instructor will implement both in their classes to teach their students to focus when necessary. Being more skillful always leads to more options.
8. Teamwork and relationships: Many martial arts require a partner to learn various techniques. Working with a partner in such an integrated way requires the student to be able to assess and adapt to the other person’s mood, energy level, physical ability and personality. This can teach the student patience, tolerance, acceptance and many other valuable characteristics to help build strong friendships and relationships.