Get Active: Karate (and other Martial Arts)
By: Bonnie Schiedel
Hee-yaw! Martial arts like karate and judo -frequently showcased in movies and TV shows-always get kids excited. After all, all those fancy moves do look pretty darn cool. If your karate kid is interested in lessons, here's what you need to know.
The benefits. Martial arts are an excellent way to improve eye-hand and eye-foot coordination, flexibility and balance, plus get a fun cardiovascular workout. "It's a fantastic foundation for other sports," notes Linda Kessler Shapiro of Toronto, Ont., whose five-year-old, Justin, has been taking karate for about a year and a half. Still, the emotional and mental advantages may be even greater than the physical ones, says Christina Franklin, who lives in Carroll County, MD and has two daughters, 8 and 6. "Samantha and Tori now know what self-discipline is because their instructors emphasize how important it is. In the two years they've been taking karate, they will do things around the house without being asked, and then they'll say, 'mommy, I showed self-discipline!'" Kids like working towards the goal of the next color belt too.
Kimber Hill, an instructor at Modern Martial Arts in DeLand, Fla., also points to the good manners that are generally standard in martial arts. "Respect is a lost art these days," she says. "In martial arts, you always show respect to those who know more than you; to those who have achieved a higher rank. A bow is a physical demonstration of courtesy, and titles of respect are used: sir, ma'am, sensei, instructor."
Keep in mind. Martial arts lessons, like many extracurricular activities, can be expensive. The national average is between $120 and $220 per month for two classes a week. If you get involved in tournaments, competition fees and out-of-town travel can add up even more. On the other hand, the lesson fees are pretty much your only expense, as the familiar pajama-type uniform is usually under $20 and roomy enough to last for more than one year.
The number one concern of parents and kids alike? "A typical misconception is that martial arts will teach violence," says instructor Dawn Barnes, owner of the Karate Kids chain of schools in California, and author of The Black Belt Club (Scholastic) series of children's books. "It's actually just the opposite: children learn focus, discipline and patience." A child who has seen martial arts in the movies may be scared that he'll get beaten up during the lessons, so reassure him that he'll be safe. It's important to make sure your child understands that she is not learning how to fight someone on the playground, and that the skills she learns should only be practiced in class and at home.
Another common misconception is that children will be taught religious practices, says Hill. "There's this idea that martial arts are part of Eastern religions like Buddhism, but that's not the case at all." Instructors may come from a variety of religious backgrounds, but in most cases they teach martial arts skills only.
Choosing a school. It's crucial to shop around to find a school that's the right fit for your child. A number of schools offer a personalized meeting with the instructor, parents and child in order to assess the child's needs and skills-before you shell out for six months' worth of lessons. That way everyone knows what's expected. Other schools offer a free trial class, or trial package of three lessons and a uniform for as little as $20.
The martial arts industry is fairly segmented-there is a number of official associations and bodies- and there is no national standardized certification for instructing children. This means that you really have to do your homework by asking friends for recommendations, and checking out the schools personally.
Safety is one of the most important considerations. "Look for a good floor," advises Hill. "Hardwood isn't great. The floor should be well padded with mats." Ask the instructors about the steps they take to prevent injuries. Sit in on a few classes and pay attention to the general attitude and atmosphere. How do the kids respond to the instructor? Is the instructor able to give proper attention to the students, or is the class overcrowded or distracting? How is misbehavior handled?
The instructors should be very open to answering all your questions and explaining the school's approach. "Make sure the program focuses on life skills such as respect, patience and perseverance, as well as fitness," suggests Barnes. Some martial arts schools may specifically talk about related life skills during classes. For example, Franklin's daughters learned about bullying and "stranger danger."
The length of the class should be geared to young attention spans: a 30-minute class works for kids age 3 to 7, and 45 minutes is good for kids aged 8 to 12. If you're simply looking for a fun and social activity for your child, a weekly class is ideal, while classes two or three times a week are recommended for more serious students.
Hygiene is often a good indicator of how well-run a school is. "We immediately ruled out the ones that hit us with a strong smell of sweat as soon as we walked in," says Kessler Shapiro.
The classes should be age-appropriate for skills (no complicated flying leaps for 4-year-olds) and most of all, fun! Franklin says her daughters love games such as "Ninja Says," in the last five minutes of the class, and Kessler Shapiro says her son gets a kick out of instructions like, "Pretend you're jumping over lava!"