Karate For 3 Year Olds? Is It a Good Idea?

At an early age, children are very different even from one year to the next. Karate is reported to help increase the positive gains a 3 year old child receives from their milestones. Studies show that kids in this preschool age range can specifically benefit from Karate training.

University studies confirm that Karate can have a place in the physical education of young children, even before they reach elementary school. Karate is exceptionally able to help 3 year olds develop milestones in social, emotional, communication, cognitive, and fundamental motor skills. This can lead to a more healthy and productive life.

With children of this age, we are talking more about gaining confidence, learning the value of peer relationships, and developing ethical and moral behavior through reaching martial arts goals. Self-defense though an issue necessarily takes on a secondary role. What are some of these goals and where does safety and defense come in to play?

Goals For 3 Year Olds Taking Karate

Children at this age are developing toward many common goals that could speed up or slow their physical and mental development over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an article on its website lists many of the milestones in the lives of the average three year old.

The vast majority of these physical, cognitive, language, social, and emotional milestones are right in line with what these Little Ninjas would learn in a well taught and structured martial arts class. Let’s look at all of these milestones here and compare them with what Karate instruction can offer.

Emotional and Social Milestones:

3 Year Old MilestonesHow Karate (and other martial arts) Can Help
Displays affectionRespect and kindness for training partners and other children in the class are fundamental for being a good martial arts student.
Taking turnsIn a group setting like a martial arts class, taking turns is reinforced in over half of the drills and games.
Displays empathyA good instructor can make hurt feelings and the plight of others in the class teachable moments for the rest of the students about empathy.
Knows the meaning of possession (mine, hers, etc.)When dealing with uniforms, belts, gear, and equipment, children are taught about respecting the rights of others to participate in using items and what it means to respect the possessions of others.
Displays many types of emotionsMany 3 year olds mimic their emotional responses from those that they see in other children and usually use the ones that bring the most attention. Sometimes this can lead to over reactions and inappropriate emotional outbursts. Karate aims to teach them to control their displays and keep them within the range of social norms.
Readily independant of parentsIn an exciting and fun filled atmosphere where they will feel protected, these children can venture out from their parents and explore the limits of their social and emotional capabilities.
Routine is understood and change is resistedFor toddlers routine is king. There is hardly any other form of activity they can get into at that age more structured and routine orienting than the martial arts.
Can put on and take off clothes on their ownOne big component in the classes that I teach is emphasizing that children dress and undress themselves for Karate class and taking care of their own Gis.

Communication Milestones:

3 Year Old Milestones How Karate (and other martial arts) Can Help
Can comply with 2 to 3 step directionsThere are ample opportunities for 3 year olds in a Karate class to practice following directions at this length.
Able to identify things that are familiarWith many pieces of gear, clothing, equipment, and much more used on a regular basis, this sort of identification will be honed and developed in many ways in the martial arts.
Can identify ‘in’, ‘on’, and ‘under’Much in the same way they will be using the first two in the Communications Milestones, these will be in near constant use throughout their training.
Able to give first name, age, and sexMany Karate classes begin with greetings, identifications, and respect given to higher ranking students and instructors. Every class will be an opportunity to become comfortable in social situations involving this type of self identification.
Can identify friends with namesIn all group martial arts settings this will be a definite requirement to be worked on until it is mastered. This would be seen as respectful and a core element of any well run martial arts class.
Able to speak in the first person and use some pluralsThis skill will be developed in student creeds, in self reporting on behavior at with parents or preschool teachers, and in conversing with students and instructors.
Can be understood by strangersThey will get immediate feedback from instructors, students, and other parents which will help and inspire them to improve in this area.
Uses 2 to 3 sentence combinations in conversationsThrough mimicking student creeds, instructors, and other students this can be developed quickly. They will also be required to converse in each class with instructors and students to develop conversational proficiency.

Cognitive Milestones:

3 Year Old Milestones How Karate (and other martial arts) Can Help
Able to manipulate parts, handles, and toysThere are many opportunities in a Karate class setting for this kind of interaction. There are many training aides and pieces of equipment at the instructor’s disposal.
Able to pretend playSafety training, with scenarios involving strangers, bullies, etc. are great teachable moments and excellent role playing and pretend opportunities.
Able to work puzzles with up to 4 piecesIn my Karate classes, as in many other martial arts schools, there are manipulatives that either are puzzles or closely mimic them.
Knows the numbers 1 and 2Counting in English as well as other languages and knowing what those numbers mean will be one of the first things discovered in a Karate class.
Can draw circlesThere may be opportunities to draw circles on worksheets, coloring books, or other take home material in a 3 year old level Karate class.
Able to turn single pages of a bookMany martial arts studios have student manuals for kids with coloring pages and exercises. There are also workbooks and coloring books in some.
Constructs thing 6 objects highIn many classes involving children of this age, constructing their own obstacle courses using pads and gear will help with this milestone directly.
Can turn a door handleUnless the class is only held outdoors… Karate has got this one covered as well.

Physical Development Milestones:

3 Year Old Milestones How Karate (and other martial arts) Can Help
Able to climb wellThe skills that help this milestone will be trained to a degree that far exceeds any basic levels.
Able to run wellRunning is a major component of a martial arts class and is usually done at the beginning and/or end as a specific warm-up or cool-down activity.
Pedals a tricycleThe muscle groups, motor function, and coordination needed to use tricycles will be developed much more than is needed to pedal a Radio Flyer.
Takes stairs one foot at a timeBalance training in the martial arts is second to none. This goes also for coordination, body-weight manipulation, and overall dexterity.

What Does the Research Say About 3 Year Olds and Karate Instruction?

Research On Preschool Boys

The above correlations of the benefits of Karate for 3 year olds is based on widely accepted practices and my experience of over three decades in the martial arts. But what does research done by universities and governmental agencies say about the subject?

In a study published in the journal Physical Activity Review, researchers studied the effects of karate training on preschool boys vs the state run program for physical and psycho-physical preparedness. In the study found here, they found conclusively that Karate instruction for 3 year olds “contributed significantly to raising the level of physical and mental fitness”.

They concluded further that these preschool children developed “better discipline, greater attention, higher mental capacity and less fatigue.” It was their findings that “classes with the priority of karate application can promote the full readiness of children for school.”

Research On Preschool Girls

A similar study followed the progress of girls in their development of chest circumference and respiratory systems. The research published in the Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology found here, stated that Karate instruction is “more beneficial for both the mental and physical development of preschool girls” than state developed programs.

It was concluded that Karate instruction for preschoolers could be instituted in state developed physical education curriculum as a preventative program, which could lead to significant reductions in health care costs in the future. You can also check out my other post, Benefits of Martial Arts For Preschoolers.

Research On Karate, Asthma, and Preschool Children

A study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that the risk of Asthma decreased as the number of hours per week spent in training increased. It also showed a decrease as the number of years in training increased.

The researchers concluded that implementing Karate instruction in the preschool stages of development offered the most useful outcomes. In these stages appropriate expectations and the minimizing of restrictions from treatment could be achieved. Check out the article here on BMJ Journals.

Most of the benefits of martial arts classes are begun for these children at younger ages, but the results are seen years in the future as well. Once children reach upper belt ranks, they have preempted a good portion of the effects caused by asthma without early intervention. It is this early activity that gives relief in subsequent years.

What Role Does Safety Have to Play For 3 Year Olds in Karate?

Safety in this instance can take on one of three meanings. One could be referring to safety from injury during play or physical activity. The second could be safety in the form of strangers and other dangerous situations. The third could be safety from other children with aggressive, physical impulse control issues. These two are definitely substantial concerns and can be addressed readily by a good Karate instructor and program.

Martial Arts Promotes Safety From Injury

In the physical safety of child either in the martial arts class or in other activities, Judo plays an extremely strong role in their protection. Judo is a system based on falling, take downs, and wrestling. This is extremely valuable if you know the absolute number one cause of nonfatal injury.

You might have guessed it from my description of Judo. According to the National Safety Counsel’s website, the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in one year was falling with a whopping 8,591,683 injuries. This was over double the next highest cause, which was being struck.

If falling is such a high percentage (31% percent according to the NSC) of the injuries incurred by 3 year olds, then Judo would be an excellent choice to protect them inside and outside of the martial arts class. With regular practice on hand and body placement when falls occur, Judo could save a child suffering, time in an ER, and money for their parents.

In many Karate systems Judo throws, falls, and pins are incorporated into the curriculum. Isshinryu Karate does this and many Karate practitioners cross train in Judo as well. Likewise, many Judo instructors cross train in Karate.

Martial Arts Promotes Safety From Strangers Through Awareness

Anyone who actually thinks critically would be able to figure out that a small child could and should not attempt to physically attack an adult that is attempting to lure a child away. The most effective means of defense and safety in this situation is awareness, escape, and reporting.

Children in Karate classes regularly have instruction on how to recognize potential threats, evade, and report to nearby, known adults. Safety of this type is a component of most well organized Karate programs and should be based on awareness.

Admittedly, safety against threats such as these are not going to be the norm in the vast majority of children’s life. But that reminds me of a story I once heard. It goes like this…

An old man was down on the beach after a large storm throwing things out into the sea. Two boys saw him and wondered what he was trying to accomplish. On closer inspection, the old man was throwing clams into the water. The beach was a minefield with almost every other square foot containing a clam shell or two.

One of the boys went up to the man and asked, “Why are you throwing those clams back out to sea? There are just too many. You will never get them all back in before they die.”

The man stopped for a moment and turned to the boy, “You are right. I won’t be able to get them all back in, but the ones I do get to will be glad I came along.”

If martial arts child safety programs can save only one or two kids from abduction or trafficking, then every martial arts school in the country should regularly practice those techniques.

Karate Promotes Safety From Bullying Behavior

If you haven’t ever spent much time around 3 year olds, there are two things you will notice right off the bat when you see one. First, they always have a fresh “boo boo” they are willing to give a broken, one sided story about. The second thing you will notice is, they have at least a couple half healed “boo boos” they are dying to tell you about as well.

We know the majority of those are caused by fall through statistics alone. Yet the statistics also show that the number two nonfatal injury is caused by getting struck by objects of some type (14% according to the NSC). What are those hard plastic toys used for when playing in groups of children with only one set of adult eyes on them? Sometimes for fun imaginative play. Other times… police riot batons.

Kids can be vicious. They are in the middle of learning the merits of empathy and compassion over impulses brought on by emotion and uncontrolled desire for their wants instead of needs. If they think they are wronged, they want vengeance, but usually to return to playing with the offender once justice was served.

Sometimes, you will have a child with a problem in the impulse control and self discipline department. Other children around them will be constantly wearing red badges of courage. Karate instructors that have the experience to handle these situations have plans in place to teach the kids around the offending classmate how to keep themselves from harms way.

This type of safety is not truly understood until you have watched 3 year olds play for extended periods of time in mixed groups. Some children can have their entire personalities transformed by a violent, maladjusted child in their room. Blocking, evading, and reporting are important skills that could help save a toddler from wearing scars in the future.

The Karate For 3 Year Olds Takeaway…

Karate is a safe, fun, and highly constructive activity that can help with achieving age level milestones, improving mental and physical health, and keeping toddlers safe. Studies show that they improve these areas in kids in preschool much more than other sport and exercise programs.

Is it a good idea to put a 3 year old in Karate classes? Absolutely. The only qualifier would be the competency of the instructor and his or her experience with the age group. It should be remembered that teaching and proficiency are not the same things. To drill down even further, teaching elementary aged kids and teaching 3 year olds are not the same thing either.

Ultimately it is a great idea to get kids into martial arts classes early. It could help their development, teach them virtue, and actually prevent injuries. Besides, you know you want to see that Little Ninja in the slightly over sized Gi with the ends of their belt sticking out to the sides. Adorable.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

Recent Posts