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A parent’s guide to the different martial arts available for children.

There are many different martial arts. It’s important to know what’s what to ensure your child is taking the right classes. Read on to learn more.

According to physiotherapists and occupational therapists, different martial arts have an effect on four key aspects of children’s physical development: strength, cardiovascular endurance, balance and coordination.

They often recommend a martial art as an extramural activity because of the many benefits. The exercises build up muscle tone and core stability and involve a lot of reciprocal activity, which develops the use of both sides of the body and is certainly beneficial to children.

A valuable development tool

No matter the martial art, it can be used as a powerful educational and personal development tool. Coupled with the emphasis on discipline and respect, which lie at the centre of martial arts training, each session provides a focused and fun form of physical exercise, a chance to gain self-confidence, learn social skills, self-control and self-defence.

Knowing the different martial arts

There are a variety of disciplines from all over the world available in South Africa. Japanese martial arts include aikido, judo, jujitsu and karate, among others. The most popular Korean martial arts export is taekwondo, while kung fu is the well-known martial art that originated in China. The newest discipline is the Afro-Brazilian capoeira.

Hopefully, this brief introduction of the styles will give you an idea of which martial art that might best suit your child.


What distinguishes aikido (way of harmony) from most other martial arts is its non-violent character. This is a defensive martial art that aims to neutralise an incoming attack through techniques such as joint locks, immobilisation pins, and throws. Unlike many other martial arts, there is no element of competition in traditional aikido training. There are no tournaments, no matches, no winners or losers.

You can start aikido from five or six years old, however, Bruce Allemann, Fourth Dan Aikido of Fish Hoek Aikido Club in Cape Town, recommends starting at about nine years old.


In contrast to aikido, judo (gentle way) is a martial art primarily focused on competition and is based on moves similar to wrestling. Points are awarded to competitors based on techniques, pins, and overall opponent control. During judo competitions, opponents are often in close physical contact, so children interested in judo should be made aware that this is a physical, demanding and, at times, intimate discipline.

Michael Job (Sixth Dan) from The Judokan, a judo club situated in Wynberg, Cape Town, says, “Despite the physical contact, injuries are extremely rare, compared with other contact and even non-contact sports. Beginners are taught to fall properly, and you should be able to judge the safety by watching how well children are falling without mishap – and loving it!”
Coaches prefer to take children of at least six years or older. Many young children train only once a week, but twice a week is preferable, certainly for teenagers and seniors.

jiu jitsu

Jiu jitsu (compliant art) is one of the oldest styles of martial arts. It is based on unarmed self-defence and involves sparring. Although the primary focus is self-defence, clubs also cater for those who wish to do jiu jitsu to keep fit and learn something new.  Jiu jitsu teaches agility, timing, flexibility, and a knowledge of the body.

The recommended starting age is four or five years. Commitment to training is essential.


Karate (empty hand) is perhaps the most well-known martial art. Although it uses both aggressive and defensive moves, karate stresses defensive tactics. In karate, you will use throwing, punching and blocking.

A child can begin karate at the age of four years old. Training usually starts at twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour depending on age. Gradings occur on Saturday mornings every three months and the camps and tournaments happen during the year.

One of the benefits of karate is that it is good for improving posture.


Taekwondo (the way of the foot and fist),  is characterised by impressive displays of high standing and jumping kicks as well as punches and fast footwork. It combines self-defence, sport, exercise and meditation with the aim of developing physically, mentally and spiritually.

Taekwondo is popular with people of both genders and of many ages. Children from the age of five years old are welcome at selected dojangs (training halls).

kung fu

Kung Fu (well done) is a multifaceted martial art that includes duan quan, tai chi chen and black tiger kung fu. The physical aspects include throws, sharp blows, holds, chops, grappling and other techniques of self-defence. The philosophical teachings of this martial art combine threads of Buddhism and Taoism, and it teaches children self-defence, self-respect and self-awareness through discipline and hard work.

The different styles of kung fu accept students at different ages.  The average time of training is usually between 30 and 45 minutes, twice a week.


Capoeira combines aspects of self-defence, dance and acrobatics. It was created by African slaves in Brazil during the 16th century. It is the most laid-back in attitude, but the most vibrant of the martial arts discussed here. Participants form a circle (roda) and take turns sparring in pairs in the centre to music and song. The game is fluid and frenetic, ranging from the acrobatic to the defensive. It is characterised by extensive use of groundwork, as well as sweeps, kicks and blocks.

Sofia Stathopoulos from Capoeira Cordão de Ouro SA says: “Children may begin at three or four years old, although they usually start at around six years of age. Usually children do a one-hour long class a week. What sets capoeira apart is the holistic combination of movement, dance, music and culture. Children benefit from capoeira because it allows them to develop a strong sense of confidence and discipline in a highly creative and fun environment.”

Simone Gray