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You may have figured that practicing martial arts is a great way to teach kids self-defense and fitness. But, especially for those with social or attention challenges, it may also improve focus, coordination, self-control and executive functioning—all building blocks for self-esteem. Plus, if your kid isn’t a fan of competitive team sports, well, bam. But what in the name of Ralph Macchio is the difference between Karate and Kung Fu, and which one is right for your kid? Let us break it down. 

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children learning tae kwon do
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Tae Kwon Do

Country of origin: Korea

The basics: The focus here is on striking, blocking and kicking (including jumping and spinning roundhouse kicks), with an emphasis on competition skills and tournament fighting.

How it helps kids: The foundation of the art form is self-respect, respect for their fellow students and for their instructors (students bow to their Grand Master at the conclusion of each class). They are taught about the mind-body connection using breathing techniques. Bonus: In one class we observed, five-year-olds learned to count to 20 in Korean.  

Best Age to Start: 7 to 12

 

child learning karate
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Karate

Country of origin: Japan

The basics: Like Tae Kwon Do, striking, blocking and kicking are key, with an emphasis on self-defense. In a nutshell: Fewer fancy kicks than in Tae Kwon Do.

How it helps kids: Like all martial arts, karate offers a safe outlet for excess energy and allows kids to set tangible goals for themselves—as they progress, they earn different colored belts, helping them to visually represent their achievements. 

Best Age to Start: 6 to 10

children learning kung fu
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Kung Fu

Country of origin: China

The basics: A highly physical form of karate with more fluid movements.

How it helps kids: Students move quickly—and break a sweat, releasing extra nervous energy or even anger. It’s aerobic exercise, but one that demands concentration, discipline and respect.

Best Age to Start: 7 to 12

child learning judo
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Judo

Country of origin: Japan

The basics: Wrestling and grappling at close range.

How it helps kids: Based on the concept of “maximum efficiency,” Judo is less about brute force and more about mental and physical control, which is a powerful exercise for kids who have more energy than they know what to do with. Similar to karate, they can also take control of their progress as they earn belts for each new level.

Best Age to Start: 4. One expert calls this the safest of all martial arts for young kids, due to the minimal risk of concussion or other head and neck injuries. 

children leaning jujitsu
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Jujitsu

Country of origin: Japan 

The basics: Also big on wrestling and grappling, not striking or kicking. Students start on the floor, ultimately aiming to use their opponent’s own weight against them.

How it helps kids: They gain flexibility, balance, learn cooperation, partnership and respect for adversaries. Definitely useful in any playground conflict. 

Best Age to Start: 6 to 10

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