Tae Kwon Do

Should I start my 4-year-old in martial arts?

January 27, 2024

The question behind this question is really, “can 4 year-olds really learn martial arts?”

If you consider “learning martial arts” as being able kick and strike effectively to protect themselves, execute a series of moves with precision, or spar meaningfully, then no.

So why then do I start them this young? More importantly, why do I believe so strongly in starting kids at this age?

First, let’s take an overview of children at ages 4 and 5

  • They are immensely curious about the world
  • They are starting to gain some independence from their parents
  • Their social circle is increasing
  • They are learning how to share space and limelight with their peers. 
  • They can do movements that escaped them not that long ago: walking, running,. hopping, jumping, twirling.
  • They still have trouble coordinating some other movements.
  • They are sponges, absorbing through all their senses
  • They move through these developmental milestone in their own unique ways

We set reasonable expectations

  • We set them up to learn, not to fail. We ask them to do things that they are capable of doing and introduce challenges in tiny steps. For example, we ask them to stand still for a count to 5, not 1 minute. We seize opportunities to teach life skills in small bites, not give lectures. We ask them to do one thing at a time, not implement 3-part instructions.
  • We communicate clearly to parents what they can expect from their 4-year old in class.  Parents can feel their parenting called into question when their children behave in certain ways. Assure them that their child’s “non-cooperation” isn’t something to fret about. Label the behaviors in objective ways when talking about their children’s actions in class: not “acting out” or “being difficult” or but “learning the expectations by experimenting” or “learning how to relate to others”
  • A child’s development is never simply linear. Often, a child will reach a new milestone only to revert to earlier behavior soon after. Sometimes we see sudden leaps in their progress. Growth is a magical thing. We can’t control it. We simply marvel at it, follow its lead, and be prepared and able to do what is appropriate at the moment. 
  • We distill moves into their simplest first steps. For example, we don’t expect kids this age to execute a side kick properly because it requires complicated coordination, strength and balance. What are the most basic components? Side-kicks for example, can be distilled down to: they to to the side, just like front kicks to to the front (conceptual) while the actual side-kick movements of bringing the knee closer in before pushing the leg straight out is the same as those for stomping. So, we place body shields on the floor and have our Tigers stomp. The only thing we need to teach is to get them to stomp with their heels. (physical)
cute and confident karate girl preschool
4-year old learning the side kick body alignment
young girl about to stomp on a body shield on the floor in a dojo
Young student learning the side kick action

We manage energy levels 

  • Children this age move. All. The. Time. They need to. We don’t stifle this energy. We don’t let it dictate the class either. Instead, we walk that fine line to re-channel, corral, guide it, and by doing so, help them learn to regulate themselves over time.
  • Calm moments. As important as allowing our Littles to move a lot, we always include moments of reprise. It could be simply "stand like a statue", "move only your eyes" "can we sit and not move to the count of 15?" Again, this is part of having them experience how to regulate themselves.

It’s all about play

Living, learning, playing: these are all one and the same for children this age. Play is the way that engages them. No child wants to learn “how to better the trajectory and aim of your kicks and strikes.” But everyone will jump on the chance to kick a ball straight to traffic cones and knock them over.

For the instructor, it is a chance to tap into our inner Tiger, to relive joyful moments that we can share with our 4- and 5-year olds. It is a process that requires a ton of energy, but also one of the most energizing things we can do.

Let's review

4-year old learns

- how their bodies move and start to gain control over their movements

- learn to interact with others

- learn to manage their energy

Aren’t those the gist of martial arts training? 

And so, yes, I believe 4-year olds can learn martial arts.

https://www.webmd.com/parenting/4-to-5-year-old-milestones#1-2

https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=the-growing-child-preschool-4-to-5-years-90-P02272

https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/reframing_challenging_behaviorhttps://tiltonstherapyfortots.com/resources/difficult-behaviors-reframing-negative-challenginghttps://

www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1250830https://selmar.edu.au/quiet-time-important-children/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6399383/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8260063/https://

www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/a-little-silence-can-go-a-long-way-for-kids-mental-health#:~:text=And%20relaxation%20helps%20activate%20the,and%20rewire%20their%20stress%20response.

https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/142/3/e20182058/38649/The-Power-of-Play-A-Pediatric-Role-in-Enhancing?autologincheck=redirected