Discipline is key in martial arts study, making developmental readiness important in this sport. At Manhattan’s West Side Tae Kwon Do, children start as young as 3 years old. But as manager Paul Lim points out, “Three-year-olds are in a separate group in terms of focus, concentration and physical maturity.”
At Traditional Karate America’s studios in Ozone Park, Bedford Hills, and on Long Island in Franklin Square and Bethpage, 3- and 4-year-olds go into “Tiger” classes where the emphasis is on strengthening gross motor skills and teaching the youngsters to follow directions, says president Sensei Gustavo Larrea, himself a dad of five. “We’ll have them run, jump, do splits and karate-like games. They’ll go through obstacle courses, and then will have to stand still. But we keep it fun and non-competitive, with a lot of positive reinforcement.” Ages 5-8 go into “Dragon” classes. “This age group can focus a lot more,” says Larrea, “so we build on strength, flexibility, concentration and coordination, and flowing directions. We start to introduce a stricter structure.” By age 9, karate kids who have
mastered basic skills move on to a much more disciplined level.
Most martial arts studios emphasize physical and emotional readiness, and a gradual progression to higher, more demanding levels. Every child is different. “Ninety percent of parents tell us they are enrolling their child to give them focus, and as a form of exercise,” says Larrea. Some preschoolers will benefit from a physical class; others may not be ready. "I recommend 5 years as a minimum age," says Steven Sciandra, owner of The Martial Arts Studio in Forest Hills, who adds, "From experience, I find children don't have the emotional maturity and physical coordination to do what I'm teaching until that age.”
Being able to swim does not guarantee safety in the water. But classes that teach even the tiniest children to be able to turn around and propel themselves back to the edge of a pool can be life saving. Swim instructors are usually adamant that children learn to swim when they are developmentally ready, and that children should never be forced into the water; the idea is to gradually venture in and become comfortable, being held by a parent at first. Slowly, they can begin to be taught skills like coming back up to the surface if they go under, and rolling on the back to make breathing easier. The concept of throwing infants into the water and assuming that natural instincts take over has become controversial; most instructors have stories to tell about young children who have water fears because they have been forced into the water too early.
But don’t wait too long, parents are urged. ‘The earlier the better’, believes Fran Clifford, who has been teaching kids to swim for 30 years and is now aquatic director at the Chinatown YMCA Houston Street Center. “The most difficult part of learning to swim is comfort in the water,” Clifford believes. “If children from 6 months on start with water adjustment classes, such as Baby and Me, and continue on with classes or time in the water with parents, then the adjustment to a Learn to Swim class is an easier transition. If an older child comes in for their first-time swim lesson, they may be tense and rigid in the water.”
Rachel Peikes, water safety Instructor at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, is also a veteran swim instructor and a strong advocate for classes that include both parent and child. Swim classes for 3- to 5-year-olds at Beth Elohim include the parent, to help kids feel more secure. Their classes actually start at age 6 months, with the aim of helping kids gain confidence in the water early.
INSPIRED BY THE WORLD CUP FERVOR?
If your kids are clamoring to start soccer, the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) recommends 4 1/2 as a good starting age. Vinnie Falci, secretary of the board and a division coordinator at AYSO, says their introduction to recreational, non-competitive play has been working out very well; this year in Brooklyn alone, there were 330 kids playing in the under 6 age group. Says Falci, the developmental program AYSO promotes allows kids to progress and work their way up, with an end result: “It lets kids feel good about themselves. ”
JUDY ANTELL, CAROLINE COLE, SUSAN HODARA, ALISON HOGAN and SUZANNE KELLY compiled these interviews.