I have seen different recommendations for different styles as to what age to introduce a martial art to a child, sometimes as young as 4 years old. Factors such as attention span and interest of the child definitely affect the individual. What are the right criteria to measure age appropriateness for a child?
For myself, the main criteria is not to do damage to the child's growth.
Repeated strains on joints (wrist locks for example) and repeated impacts can have negative effects much later in life. Some aikido dojo will have a syllabus for under 18s, other will just refuse to train anyone under the age of 18. What adults do is not necessarily what a child should do. Having a junior syllabus is a good indication that someone has thought about that.
Psychologically, some children are much more mature than others at the same age. But all do need good teachers to get discipline and a healthy states of mind in which to approach martial arts -- including western ones like fencing. Competition should be about learning to grow and not crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women.
In my not so humble opinion, the right criteria is "What will lead to the best development of the child, both mentally and physically, without causing harm?". The answer to that, will vary between child, parents, teachers and the law of your country.
Some McDojos will be teaching badly and those should be avoided at all costs.
Sardathrion made some excellent points!
I just wanted to add: every child is different, we have had kids as young as 4 in our jiu jitsu program, and some kids as old as 6 or 7 that couldn't handle the class. Of course we don't teach the small children any joint locks!
Our main criteria for determining if a child is old enough to participate in the class is their ability to pay attention during demonstrations, and to focus on the practice.
Even if the kids are having a hard time with the move, as long as they are not disrupting the class for the other students, or taking up all of the instructors time because they weren't paying attention and now need 1 on 1 attention for a long portion of time, they are welcome in our class.
This is really a broad question (there are many kind of martial arts).
Speaking of karate, I wouldn't reccommend training to anyone under 9, and even then the training should avoid fight (kumite). It should cover kihon and kata only.
They lack the maturity to understand what they are learning and the consequences of their acts; they usually want to play; they do not control their strength and may easily injure other or themself.
However, it is always up to the teacher to adapt the lesson to the audience.
I'm a co-instructor for classes of younger kids (under 8's) and juniors (8 to 14).
With very little ones (4 to 6 year olds) it's just about safe fun, developing confidence, concentration and improving co-ordination. I find it does not matter what you do, as long as they are enjoying it.
Along with plenty of games (sumo, wrestling, running, "sock war" etc), we also show them some of the basic rolls and falls was well as throws and sweeps (it goes without saying, nothing that goes anywhere near a joint lock!)
It teaches the child empathy. (Example, outside "arm twist" - kote gyaku) - the fact the arm gets torqued and moves uke, means that tori has to empathise with uke and help her fall without hurting her. This can be an important learning point for young kids.
Up to about 8, I don't personally think it should be too serious. Kids are very fickle. As long as they are doing something active (my daughter does dancing and my son rugby, as well as martial arts) then I'm not too fussed. From around 10 then they should have developed enough concentration and discipline to be taught properly (safely).
Back in England at my first Judo club we had a very active pre-junior (under eleven) class. The basic criteria for continuing in the class was interest, attention span and not being disruptive. We had kids as young as five, but most were seven to eleven. Having helped in the teaching of that class, I can tell you it was great fun and the kids that kept coming back seemed to have lots of fun as well.
In British Judo organisations, under sixteens do not get taught or permitted to use armlocks or strangles. This combined with all activity on nice foam mats, kept everything pretty safe from an injury perspective. If there was a Judo club near me, I'd have my daughters enrolled in it.
My local tae-kwondo club has an excellent juniors program. I started my two eldest at 3 and 5
- At that age, the patterns and circuit training, as well as the discipline, are really good for them, teaching core strength, fitness and respect
- They would also start and end each session with some games, which helped them enjoy it
- From the age of 4 the competed, both in patterns and sparring (which in TKD is very controlled - 90 second bouts, body armour etc) so got used to the competition aspect
Now 6 years on my eldest is almost at black belt, and my daughter is only 2 belts behind him, they have a wide collection of medals and trophies and despite currently spending more time in swimming competitions, they love the core strength, speed and discipline TKD gives them so they don't want to give it up.
Some of that is definitely down to the instructor - a good one will handle the youngsters as well as the transition to older classes well, whereas one who doesn't have the connection with the children may find they leave after a while - but also the way almost all martial arts give the individual a way to measure their own improvement. That challenge keeps them progressing and interested.
My club starts as young as four. Again, the overriding characteristic is the ability to listen to instructions and then carry them out. My club has a lot of primary school aged children, from prep (aged 5) and up. Most all of them do just fine. There are a few kids that are a little young for the age (if that makes sense) and they struggle and everyone else struggles because of it unfortunately. But hey, we're a family so we help the poor guy out (ADHD).
My daughter started just after she turned 6, mid way through prep, and she performed excellently. She's now nearly 8 and still going strong.