The appropriate age depends a great deal on the specific style/art in question, the type of dojo, and the particular child.
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 knows 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, like Mudo Gym in Norway 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.