The Karate Kids Teaching Guide: What You Need to Know about Teaching Karate to Kids

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of email concerning kids.

More specifically, how to teach kids Karate.

“What age is appropriate to start? What techniques should I teach them? When can they do sparring? How should I teach them the “essence of Karate”?”

Needless to say, the topic on teaching Karate to kids is as broad as it is deep. Methods and teaching systems vary greatly between teachers, organizations and cultures – which makes it even harder for the uninitiated to discern what ways are most practically suited for his/her teaching situation at hand.

Personally, I love teaching kids.

Why? Because:

  • They are totally open to my wacky ideas (unlike adults, who sceptically roll their eyes and desperately hold on to their “adult dignity” as soon as they feel uncomfortable when they’re taught new things)
  • They learn quickly (unlike adults, who need everyting meticulously explained and analyzed again and again in order to process it in their stiff adult brain centrals)
  • They ask the best questions (unlike adults, who prefer to “keep quit and be thought a fool, rather than open their mouths and confirm it”)
  • They love training (unlike adults, who are too scared and insecure to shut off their regular life for 90 minutes and just enjoy some goddamn training)
  • They give you hugs.
  • And sometimes they punch you in the groin.
  • But then you get a hug again.
  • So it’s totally worth it.

Now, what I thought I would do today is to just give you a general overview, a brief “guide” so to speak, on the most important factors you need to take into account when teaching Karate to kids. And even if you aren’t really interested in teaching Karate to kids, I bet you’re interested in learning how your own kids (or future kids!) work – both anatomically, socially and mentally.

In other words, the information contained in this post can (and should) be applied to more areas than “just” Karate – especially if you work with kids or are a parent.

You see, as Karate teachers (whether you’re a sempai or sensei) we really should know a thing or two about kids’ natural development, motor capability and psychosocial skills. Thus, although all kids are unique (and therefore mature at different speeds), general advice can always be given… and hopefully the smart reader will take that info and adapt it to his/her teaching environment.

So that’s what imma do right now.

Give you some sweet info.

Divided by age, here’s the basics of what I really think you need to know about teaching Karate to kids:

7-9 Years Old:

Physical: Kids of 7-9 years of age have a huge physical need for moving around. Because, at this age, physical movements are starting to automatize in their bodies – meaning they will naturally feel inclined to move around as much as possible in all different ways. However, kids at this age still have a very minor amount of muscle growth, and their capability to tense their muscles is quite limited. The same goes for their anaerobic capacity. Gender differences too are almost nonexistent at this age.

Mental: When it comes to the psychosocial development of kids age 7-9 (remember, these ages are just general guidelines. Some kids might appear younger or older depending on their growth rate), their social capacity is not yet fully developed, which means they have a hard time seeing themselves as a part of a group of different people with different needs. In other words, they are pretty much egotistical and crave the feeling of personal security and trust. Still, their sense of right and wrong is starting to develop strongly at this age, along with the ability to follow rules and instructions, even though their auditory skill (trying to follow spoken instructions) is at a low level.

Advice: When you teach kids 7-9 years old, try to focus on play. Have great variety in exercises, movements and lesson content – and try to be as clear and non-confusing as possible by always giving brief and short instructions. It is more effective to clearly show (visually) exercises than speaking (verbally) to the kids. At this phase it is also important to emphasize teamwork, without sparking a competitive mindset. Make sure to lay down the ground rules and establish what’s right and wrong, how to behave in the dojo, when Karate can/can’t be used (dojo-kun) etc.

10-12 Years Old:

Physical: Kids at the age of 10-12 have a greatly improved coordination. This means you can teach them harder cognitive tasks, along with more demanding physical movements as their respiratory function now develops to a greater extent. At this age, differences in gender also start to show, although still not fully developed.

Mental: At the age of 10-12, besides improved coordination, the ability to think abstractly as well as logically starts to develop greatly. This means you can place more demands on these abilities in exercises, in order to take advantage of their improvements in these areas. Plus, at this age, the will to cooperate increases along with a greater hunger for more training and competition. In other words, the “tribe” mentality is now gradually taking the place of the former “self” mentality, although both still exist in the individual.

Advice: Again, as you teach this group, make sure to have great variety in your lessons (as in the case of 7-9 year olds) but without being confusing. Kids at this age generally trying many different sports, so your job is to make them stick to Karate. Also, try to incorporate more technical training at this stage, with more details in technique, along with lighter tactical training and scenario-based situations. It is vital to be consistent in your actions and words as you conduct classes now, since fairness and justice are important concepts for kids of this age.

13-15 Years Old:

Physical: Surprisingly to most teachers, coaches and instuctors; kids at the age of 13-15 start to decline in several areas – mostly seen in coordination (which worsens) and agility (which decreases). At this point, kids who might have easily won Karate trophies before might start losing motivation, so its important that instructors understand that at this stage it’s natural for kids to change a lot, especially in their physical composition as they now get taller and weigh more. Maximum oxygen uptage (VO2), more commonly known as aerobic capacity, now increases massively too, as well as gender differences.

Mental: Additionally, a lot happens in kids’ brains when they’re 13-15 years old. At this stage it is common for kids to have emotional insecurity as they’re now gradually trying to identify their own “voice” (identity) in the crowd. This will be expressed in different ways depending on circumstances, but the most important marker is that kids now strive to become independent – and you need to cater for this need.

Advice: The group will now become increasingly harder to keep together, since big physical and mental differences emerge between individuals. However, luckily, the ability to solve problems and have theoretical discussions improves, which means you can talk more to/with the group. As a leader, this aspect of keeping dialogue is now more important than ever, since the kids will see you as a sort of pillar of trust and safety in their dynamic lives. So make technical exercises easier, don’t add too many complex movements, and don’t put too much stress on your students. However, do increase the tempo and intensity of classes, as the kids are now hitting puberty and will benefit from a nice kick in the ass.

16-18 Years Old:

Physical: When kids are 16-81 years old, they are on the edge of soon becoming adults. Physically, this is manifested in several ways: The lungs and respiratory systems are now on a whole new level, as well as the ability to handle increased levels of lactic acid in the muscles. At this stage, most boys (18-19 years old) and girls (15-16 years old) are generally fully grown (in height especially) and gender differences become a definitive factor.

Mental: When kids become 16-18 years old, their awareness increases too, so they start questioning a lot of your teachings – more often on a deeper level than previously. Insight and acceptance of their gradually established identity is taking place too, as well as more pronounced sense of independency.

Advice: At this age, it is appropriate to increase the training dose (both volume, frequency and intensity). As an instructor, you can have tougher classes now, both physically and mentally, as well as organized strength training and other supplementary training (cardio, for example) built in. Additionally, it is important to keep kids flexible as they now grow into adults by applying agility exercises and streching.

______

Sounds like much?

It is.

But obviously, there’s a whole lot more to be said about teaching kids, and quite a few courses, videos and books have been created on the subject. But for now this will cover the basics.

Always remember that kids and youngsters love variation (but not to the point of being confusing). As a trainer then, you should have this in mind to keep up motivation and interest in the long run.

Also, try to see the big picture: Most kids come to Karate to have fun, learn cool ninja stuff, feel seen, show off (kids love showing off), meet friends and make new ones – never deny them this possibility.

In the end, when it comes to teaching kids Karate, no matter what age or level they are (note: it’s often more practical to divide kids by age level rather than belt level), I believe the number one factor for becoming a great teacher for kids is experience and the deep understanding that comes from this. Sure, sometimes you need to be hard and cool. But sometimes you need to be flexible and fun. Sometimes you need to remind kids about the rules, yet sometimes you need to allow for improvisation.

It’s a balance act.

All kids are not alike, and all kids are not small adults.

(Funnily enough though, most adults are often big kids.)

As a leader, it is your job to make this distinction, and keep the balance.

Good luck.

29 Comments

  • Jesper
    You always get à good laugh every training!
  • Jay Killeen
    I think my favourite moment is those couple of weeks before a grading where you see them step up, grit their teeth and give that extra effort so they do a really good job. It is tough in our class because we teach the kids roughly the same as we teach the adults (except with less explanation of the detail) which can sometimes bore them, but the parents love the discipline they need to endure the training. The biggest struggle we have with the kids is getting them to eat right and keep hydrated before class. Too many sugary drinks is ruining their focus.
    • Boban Alempijevic
      I so recognize the problem with proper eating and drinking in the kids form our dojo as well. It happens so often that at least one of the kids need to sit down and get some water because they are almost fainting, funny enough it seems it does not go through there parents head when we tell them to keep an eye on the food/drink part as well.
  • elC
    VERY good article! Just one comment, you wrote: "Physical: When kids are 16-81 years old, they are on the edge of soon becoming adults." You should clarify that this is more true for males, who might have more trouble of becoming adult, even at an advanced age like 81! ;)
  • Andreas Quast
    "When kids are 16-81 years old, they are on the edge of soon becoming adults." That's the ultimate Karate truth !!! Let's pray together :O)))))))
    • You guys are really enjoying my typo, aren't you? I think I'll just leave it there for everyone's amusement ;)
  • Szilard
    All right, I will give you a hug too after punching you in the groin.
  • Jesse-san, I am ecstatic that you wrote this article! Thank you for including the age group that I asked about in my e-mail. it means a lot. I will definitely keep this in mind when I'm introducing my niece to karate, I hope I can include enough variety to keep her interested.
  • Tony
    I cant say more then thanks. I was really impressed you made this so quickly happen and i can say yes it works :)
  • Jesse-san, big thank you! This is very important for me - for understanding/training my son (and possibly other kids in the future), who is only around 8 now. And thank you for the previous response to my question too - on Inoue sensei.
  • Andrew J
    On a somewhat related note: I recently was part of an "Adult" class where most of the class was 12 to 15. At 41, I don't train the way teenagers do(the spirit is willing but the back is rather tight and the joints creak a lot), and I am not interested in the same things (for example, I'm more interested in self defense than competition). Based on the adult/teenager ratio, I wasn't the only one who felt this way. My point, such that I have one, is that there is a big difference between being close to adulthood and being an adult, and the former can push the later out(not literally of course; we still have the weight advantage)of an adult class if the class is too teenager oriented.
  • Kevin
    How do you emphasis proper technique with the young group without being too technical. It seems that they have a hard time really observing what is being done and just copy what they see on TV (or at least what they think they saw)?
    • Maja Elise
      you don't mainly. when you have to then you correct them manually. avoid telling them how to do stuff verbally cause no matter how clear you think you are there will always be someone who missunderstood (trust me, I work with kids. I love it, but it's a pain). instead when you have to correct them you should walk over to them and move their arms or legs to where they should be and say "perfect!". that last part is imortant. they want your approval and by using this approach the kids will start to correct themselves accordingly to it. also, about moving their arms or legs, you might need to tell them to just relax while you do it. both kids and adults seem to immediately tense up when you do this and it's so weird. if you discover that after being corrected several times they're still not getting it, then just drop it. focus instead on something you know they can do and give loads of praise (because they're probably feeling down about not getting that other thing). I'll give you an example. right now we've been working a lot on getting the kids to put more of an effort into their stances. part of it is teaching them NOT TO CROSS THEIR LEGS CAUSE THEY'LL FALL WHEN THEY DO THAT, but mostly it's longer and deeper stances. one of the girls got challenged to do it through the entire class to earn an extra sticker. she did it wonderfully! one of the boys though turned out simply not to be ready for proper stances yet. he doesn't understand it and to him right now it's impossible. so instead we decided to give him a different challenge. attitude and speaking out of term. he's been acting up a bit lately. partly because he's not doing as well as he'd like, partly because we've not done our job and been giving him too much of a slack. for an entire class he was not allowed to speak without raising his hand and waiting for permission. he did it and that was awesome! sorry, got totally off track, but point still stands. with some you correct them the way I described and with others you simply stop correcting them on the specific thing until they've matured a bit more :)
  • Nelson
    Hi Jesse san. I love this post. Is all true. My Youngers students are the way you describe in your article. The only difference is that the students hug me and the one that kick me are the parents, but then the students hug me again. Teaching children is the most satisfactory experience you can have. Adults are like a rock nothing get in. You always hit the spot with your post. Thanks for your great work
  • Carissa
    Fantastic article!! I love the things kids say in karate class. (Day after telling a kid to put his fists up by his temples: "Jimmy, where do you put your hands?" Jimmy: "umm...by my cathedrals?") :D in the school I train at, it's required at the intermediate level all the way up to start helping with the lower belts teaching them in class. Thanks for this article it helps! :)
  • Great stuff. Any clips of the actual training. Am more interested in 7 to 13 years category. Oss
  • Jo
    just found your article on teaching kids... Any suggestions for 4-6yr olds?!? I sempai and in our dojo, of the 8-9 9th Kyus I am regularly working with, 7 are 5 or under! Keeping their focus particularly with Kata and Combinations is pretty tricky. Any ideas gratefully received!! Oss
  • James Wyatt
    This is exactly what I needed to read today! Thank-you for reminding me how dynamic kids can be :) -James
  • Alain
    Hi Jesse San, I'm with Jo on this one, we have quite a number of 4,5 and 6 year-olds. These kids are very challenging, they don't sit still, they constantly interrupt/talk, they know everything (even if you haven't taught them anything) and they just don't stop moving. How do we get these ones to sit still and have focus longer than 5 seconds (think Dori from the movie Nemo) to actually learn something? Any suggestion?
  • A Rose
    My grandsons, 6 and 8 years old, recently started learning Shotokan Karate. The instructor teaches them the techniques, or katas, with his back to them. Why? They find it really difficult to learn this way and only learned the first one after I filmed the instructor from the side. He tells them which technique to use in Japanese, he isn't Japanese, they are learning them slowly. Surely it would be better to teach them using English descriptions initially. After running through the film of their first kata several times I spotted a formular, the large turns were always on the back foot after the 'kaia' (call) - the instructor never mentions this. Is this sort of thing and the 'back-to-the-class' method typical with Karate instructions? Thanks for your time
    • Jo
      Hi Rose, I can't speak for all, but at my club we always use both the English and japanese terms when teaching, AND we teach kata both looking at the students and with our back to them (side by side). Some of the kata though, particularly the lower grade Heian Kata are difficult to teach any other way than with your back to students because of the pattern. We use assistants in the class (children of higher belt grades), which may not be be a luxury your Sensei has, but I think using both the Japanese and English, I.e. " Gedan barai / downwards block" does help them understand it easier. Videos on you-tube are really helpful, as are some of the diagrams you can get from sites such as Pinterest, if you want to help them out more. Hope they enjoy and continue on their karate journey Jo
      • A Rose
        Thanks very much, Jo, much appreciated. The Sensai stands a few feet/yards in front the class, never to the side of them, nor does he turn to the side or face them ... always some way in front when demonstrating the Katas and many other moves. Perhaps it would be better to go further afield, there are a few classes in the surroundign areas. Shame though he seems a nice and supportive man, but they'd undoubtedly learn quicker, and maybe better, elsewhere. Thanks again :)
  • Hi Jesse San Is there a particular reason why you dont mention 5-7 year olds. Any advice on this age group would be more than welcome. Fantastic write up by the way and much appreciated. Colin Jolly
  • Chris
    Thanks for the help as i myself still advancing it karate i asked my teacher if i could teach a class for i thought that my next belt will be black and was hoping it may help me out as well . he agreed to it and the class was a success the kids loved how i tought.( Recently our sir passed away from illness so if your wondering why i called him our teacher is because he is filling in untill futher noticed) we are a small school and our previous sir was fun but alowed to much pass him by. I have been in martial arts a 3rd of my life and i understand just how you described it now that im an adult i ask more question from how to why it may work . i do plain on teaching more and if there is any more help i would love to hear. Thanks
  • Graziela
    I also love training kids. I train kids ages 5-11 and it is a lot of fun. In the short break from drinking, they might try to hold you down and beat you(which is also fun for me), but at the end of the day, they are more likely to hug you than to punch you. And during this little grappling part, you might hurt them a little because you defense surprises them or you accidentally roll onto their feet, but they'll never hate you. These kids forgive fast if you apologize and take care of them. I think teaching adults would never be nearly as much fun. Or at least not in the same way.
  • James Kabango
    I am just subscribing.
  • T
    Thank you for the insight, Jesse-san. I have a question and was wondering if you (or anyone here) can help me. What should I do to teach kids age under 4 y.o. very basic self defense technique such as dodging or breaking free from someone's grasp? I had some experience in teaching kids of 4 y.o. but I thought it was ineffective since I had to standardize what I teach according to the majority of students which were 8-10 y.o. This is because we were short on instructor back then and the dojo aimed more on shaping athletes rather than teaching them practical self-defense. I know that kids of under 4 y.o. have not yet developed the strenght to throw a punch that could affect a grown man (excluding attack to the groin perhaps) so my best bet is teaching them how to slip away from someone's grasp and dodge any contacts. But how should I train them to be able to do this? Cheers - A very concerned uncle
    • Maja Elise Løymen
      Hi! Kids that age are not gonna be able to defend themselves. Simple as that. What you want to do is teach them (through play when you can) some basics that they can build on once they're older. Teach them some dojo etiquette, teach them stances, punches. Let them have fun with maybe using you as a "punching bag", and teach them blocks. Teach them the same basic things you'd teach slightly older students, just be (even) less nitpicky about how well they need to do it. Just to be able to punch when they're told, and stand still while waiting to be told is hard enough. And games! Games! Games! Games and more games!! Any kind of game where they do something that they can build upon later is good. And sometimes do games that don't really have anything to do with martial arts, as long as they're moving around. They'll be exhausted from trying to stand still and wait for instructions, so they need loads of organised play-breaks. Ten minutes of seriousness is a long time. A few minutes of play before the next ten to fifteen minutes seriousness is good and needed. Good luck! :)

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