The 10 Best Martial Arts for Kids

best martial arts for kids

As a new father navigating the incredible journey of parenthood, I’m very excited at the idea of getting to teach and train with my children. Children’s martial arts is one of the best activities kids can partake in, and I’m a firm believer that the earlier, the better. As a BJJ player and nak muay, I’ve learned plenty of lessons in the dojo that I am eager to share with my son.

I started my martial arts journey later in life, first picking up boxing in high school and not starting BJJ until I was already an adult. For my children, I want them to begin their martial arts journey from as young an age as possible. So it leads to the question, what is the best martial art for kids?

With this list, I hope to share some insights about what makes each of these martial arts unique. All of these martial arts are great choices for kids, but the right choice depends on your child’s personality and goals. I’ll break down what makes each of these disciplines unique and the benefits they bring to kids. 

Benefits of Martial Arts for Kids

Youth martial arts is one of the best things you can do for your child. Children’s martial arts opens up a path for learning discipline, gaining self-confidence, and honing social skills – all while promoting physical fitness and learning self-defense.

The most obvious benefit to youth martial arts is giving your child an avenue for physical fitness. With childhood obesity on the rise across the globe, it’s important to instill healthy habits in our kids from an early age. Whatever martial art you or your child choose will provide great exercise, building a stronger body, increasing agility, and improving coordination.

However, perhaps an even bigger benefit to children’s martial arts is the mental impact. Martial arts will help your child build a stronger body, but it will also sharpen their mind. Youth martial arts offer regimented programs that improve a child’s ability to focus, increasing their discipline and building up their self-esteem.

Of course, every martial art comes with the benefit of giving your kid the tools they need for self-defense – whether physically or in the form of conflict resolution.

10. Aikido

Aikido often gets a bad rap amongst competitive martial artists for being “impractical,” but its non-competitive nature is one of the reasons why it can be a great choice for kids.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that implements redirection of force, non-resistance, and harmony. There are throws similar to Judo and joint-locks similar to BJJ, but unlike those martial arts, aikido emphasizes a non-aggressive approach.

Most aikido gyms use a belt system, but it will change from gym to gym. Aikido is generally practiced in keikogi, which consists of a white wraparound jacket and simple trousers.

If you have a non-competitive child or even a child who’s overly competitive, the calmer nature of aikido may be a good choice. There’s no striking involved, so timid children who are afraid to get hit won’t have a problem. It’s particularly well-suited for children who may prefer a less confrontational approach.

Of course, some kids thrive on competition. If that’s the case, you may want to consider another youth martial art for your child.

9. Capoeira

Capoeira is a physically demanding martial art that is one of the “flashier” options on this list. Developed in Brazil, capoeira is a martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music – instantly recognizable for its fluid and dynamic movements.

If your kid is already interested in dance and you want to get them involved in children’s martial arts, capoeira could be a great choice. Unlike other traditional martial arts, capoeira training often implements music and places an emphasis on rhythmic movement. The spinning wheel kicks are some of the most impressive techniques to witness in martial arts, so if your kid has a flair for fantastic movements, capoeira could be for them.

Capoeira has a belt system based on the colors of the Brazilian flag, giving it a unique color system compared to other youth martial arts on this list. The usual attire are white pants (called abada) and a t-shirt with the logo of the gym. The belt is traditionally worn around the waist to hold up the pants during training.

Some people consider capoeira more of a dance than a martial art. If you are primarily looking for a children’s martial art that will teach self-defense, there may be better choices. However, capoeira is one of the best martial arts for improving coordination and building agility in your child.

8. Boxing

Although generally not considered a traditional martial art, youth boxing is one of the best combat sports for kids. It’s one of the oldest sports in the world and is one of the best for teaching kids self-defense. It’s characterized by punches, footwork, and defensive techniques like head movement.

Unlike other martial arts on this list, boxing primarily focuses on striking with the hands. There are no kicks, elbows, throws, or submissions in boxing – it’s simply a punching good time. This can build up a child’s timing, speed, and coordination.

Boxing is a physically demanding sport that will push a kid’s cardio threshold to the limit. Boxers are regarded for having some of the best cardiovascular fitness out there, so it’s a great way for a kid to stay in shape.

Of course, there can be health and safety concerns for boxing. Children’s boxing may stick to the punching bags and mitts, but any form of sparring can present some injury concerns. Since it’s a striking sport, repeated blows to the head can cause serious conditions such as CTE.

Since it is not a traditional martial art, there is no belt system for boxing. There are specialized boxing shoes, boxing gloves, and mouthguards that are used during training. Kids also generally wear a protective boxing helmet.

However, there are safety protocols in place and children’s boxing classes go the extra mile to ensure safety. Many professional boxers began their boxing journeys at a young age without major injury. For example, Floyd Mayweather Jr. began training at the age of 7 and went on to become one of the greatest boxers of all time.

7. Muay Thai

Muay Thai is perhaps the most complete striking martial art on this list, implementing strikes from every part of the body. Originating from Thailand, it’s known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” since it uses strikes with the fists, elbows, knees, and shins. As a practitioner of Muay Thai myself, I think it’s a great martial art for kids.

Muay Thai offers the benefits of a traditional martial art, as there is a deep cultural heritage surrounding the sport. It also allows kids to use every part of their body while striking. Although there aren’t throws, there are trips and grappling – meaning kids will learn more aspects of combat compared to another striking sport like boxing or taekwondo.

Muay Thai is a great choice for kids who want to use every part of their body. Other youth martial arts don’t allow knees or elbows, and the emphasis on generating power will make your kid the strongest in his class. Muay Thai is also great for self-defense while also teaching the discipline and self-confidence needed to resolve conflicts without getting physical.

There is no belt system in Muay Thai. There is also no traditional martial arts attire, although there are shorts specifically designed for nak muays. Kid’s muay thai will often use boxing gloves and shin guards to protect their hands and legs during training.

Of course, like other martial arts that involve striking, there can be safety concerns. Muay Thai in  particular is an intense sport, with many gyms pushing their fighters to the limits. Of course, children’s Muay Thai won’t be as intense, but it can still be dialed up compared to other children’s martial arts on this list.

6. Kung Fu

Kung Fu is one of the most recognizable martial arts around the globe. Originating in China, Kung Fu is often attributed for creating the very popular genre of martial arts movies. This makes it a popular youth martial art, but it’s also very traditional and offers a lot of benefits.

Kung Fu is a diverse martial art, offering a range of techniques involving striking, grappling, and even some weapons depending on the dojo. There are a lot of fluid movements and acrobatics, making it a very beautiful martial art to behold.

In China, there are Kung Fu masters at 12 years old. However, there are plenty of kung fu academies that offer youth martial arts, including for toddlers and preschoolers. Children who like to express themselves creatively but don’t want to practice the contact aspect of a martial art may enjoy the ‘katas’ of kung fu, which are fluid movements that don’t involve competing against another person.

Kung Fu does not have a belt system and can change attire based on the particular discipline. For example, the tai chi variant of kung fu is practiced in a tai chi-fu. The shaolin kung-fu version is practiced in a traditional dress called a han fu.

Kung Fu has a rich history and diverse approach, which can make finding the right children’s martial art a bit trickier. Some gyms will emphasize a more competitive, contact-based approach, while others may focus on the traditional aspects. Finding the right gym for your child may take some searching.

5. Taekwondo

One of the most popular self defense classes for kids is Taekwondo, a traditional martial art originating from Korea. Taekwondo primarily focuses on kicking, although it implements some other aspects of striking as well. If you have a kid who’s light on their feet and loves to kick, Taekwondo is a great youth martial art.

Taekwondo offers a few different options for your kid depending on what they’re interested in. There is a competitive side, with full-contact matches that are judged based on points. In fact, taekwondo is an Olympic sport – so if your child has Olympic aspirations, it’s a great choice. However, kids who aren’t interested in full-contact matches can also participate in technique competitions involving breaking boards.

Taekwondo has a traditional belt system and is practiced in a dobok.

Because of its emphasis on kicking, Taekwondo is great at building up a kid’s flexibility, balance, and agility. If your child is particularly nimble, they may love taekwondo. However, less flexible kids may have difficulty with the kicking techniques involved in taekwondo. If you don’t want your child to feel discouraged because their hips aren’t that flexible, there may be better options for children’s martial arts.

4. Karate

One of the most popular youth martial arts in the world is Karate. Originating from Okinawa, Japan, karate remains one of the best options for self defense classes for kids. In fact, it’s the only martial art on this list to have a whole movie dedicated to kid’s martial arts – the classic film “The Karate Kid.”

Karate is a traditional martial art that mostly utilizes punches and kicks, emphasizing linear movements and powerful, direct techniques. Like taekwondo, there are both competitive full-contact options as well as non-contact options, giving you flexibility depending on your kid’s goals and desires.

Karate is renowned for its benefits for kids. Just like in “The Karate Kid,” children who train karate will learn discipline, respect, and self-confidence. It’s a great self defense option for kids, but will also strengthen their bodies and minds.

The traditional belt system of karate offers kids a clear and linear progression, often motivating them to stick with it. Karate is trained in a gi, though traditionalists will refer to it as a dogi.

3. Judo

Judo is a Japanese martial art that focuses on throws and grappling techniques. Like karate, taekwondo, boxing, and wrestling, judo is an olympic sport. It teaches kids how to use an opponent’s force against them rather than relying on strength, making it a great option for children of any size.

There is no striking in judo, with most of the focus surrounding throws and pins. Because it emphasizes technique over strength, it’s a great youth martial art for developing balance, coordination, and quick thinking.

Children’s judo often involves drilling techniques where kids learn how to properly execute and control throws and pins. There’s a lot of groundwork, though there’s a smaller range of joint-locks compared to a sport like BJJ. With proper technique, judo can be one of the safest youth martial arts in terms of minimizing risk of injury.

Judo has a traditional colored belt system and is generally practiced in judogi. A judogi consists of a heavy jacket, canvas pants, and a cotton belt.

Judo is a great choice for kids who love grappling or are afraid to practice a martial art that involves striking. However, kids who want striking will have to find another martial art.

2. Wrestling

Wrestling is not a traditional martial art, but it is one of the most popular ways for kids to learn self defense and get in shape. In the United States and other countries, wrestling is available to kids in schools starting in high school. However, wrestling programs can start as young as 3 years old!

Wrestling is another olympic sport that emphasizes grappling. Throws, pins, and takedowns are the bread-and-butter of wrestling. There are a few different styles, including freestyle, Greco-Roman, and collegiate wrestling. It’s an explosive sport that will train a kid’s strength, agility, and cardio.

Wrestling lacks some of the traditional aspects of other youth martial arts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hone a kid’s mental acuity. Wrestling is a particularly grueling and intense sport, and kid’s coaches often emphasize the mental aspect of the game.

Wrestling is generally practiced in a singlet, with a helmet sometimes used for younger age groups. It won’t be suited for kids who want a traditional experience or who want to train striking, but if your kid loves rolling around on the ground, wrestling is a great choice.

1. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I may be biased, but my top choice for children’s martial arts is BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu). Developed in Brazil from traditional Japanese Judo, BJJ focuses on ground fighting and submission grappling. It uses leverage and technique, making it a great self-defense option for smaller children.

Known as the “gentle art,” BJJ emphasizes technique over strength and teaches kids that even a smaller, weaker person can beat a larger adversary. It’s great for developing self-confidence, problem solving skills, and equipping kids with self-defense techniques.

BJJ is great because it uses every part of the body. It will build up both cardio and strength and has a lower risk of injury for kids when compared to many other martial arts on this list. There’s no striking and unlike judo and wrestling, slams and throws are not allowed. This means most kids can comfortably train without having to worry about major injuries.

BJJ is generally practiced in a gi and has a traditional colored belt system. The system can change from gym to gym and children’s BJJ has a different set of colors compared to the one for adults.

Because of the intellectual components of BJJ, many kids feel engaged both mentally and physically. Other youth martial arts may have “problem solving” moments but in my experience, the puzzles that you find yourself in while rolling in BJJ class will have you wondering how you could have escaped that position hours later. Many kids find themselves obsessed.

However, kids who are interested in striking or using throws and pins may be drawn to a different martial art. Overall, I think BJJ provides the best of everything you could want in a children’s martial art, but any of the disciplines on this list would be a great choice for your child.


What is the best martial art for kids?

The answer to this question will largely depend on the individual child. Karate, BJJ, and Taekwondo are the most popular youth martial arts with traditional aspects. Boxing and wrestling are non-traditional martial arts that are also popular.

When trying to determine which martial art is best for your kid, you have to consider their needs and desires. If your child is very strong and loves rough-and-tumble play, they may be drawn to wrestling. If they love puzzles and problem solving, they may enjoy BJJ. If they’re constantly kicking and punching you, it may be time to enroll them in karate – at your own risk!

Ultimately, there is no way to narrow down the best martial art for kids. However, any martial art will provide benefits and promote a healthier lifestyle. Every martial art on this list is a good choice if your kid is interested and sticks with it.

Which martial arts are good for toddlers?

Martial arts for toddlers are a great way to spend your kid’s energy, teach them coordination, and build up their muscles. Many traditional martial arts offer programs specifically designed for toddlers. Generally speaking, these include karate, taekwondo, and judo.

Preschool martial arts won’t involve contact. The emphasis will be on technique, playing, and learning discipline. Any parent with a toddler can understand how difficult things can get when a kid is throwing a tantrum. Enrolling your toddler in children’s martial arts will give them an outlet to learn how to calm themselves in a playful manner.

What are the best martial arts for building confidence in children?

Practicing any martial art will give a child more confidence than they had before. Through improved physical fitness, coordination, and discipline, youth martial arts can open up pathways for otherwise timid children lacking in confidence.

Traditional martial arts like BJJ, karate, and taekwondo will have more emphasis on cultural techniques and honing the mind when compared to sports like wrestling and boxing. That doesn’t mean wrestling and boxing won’t build up a child’s confidence – only that they will not have as much emphasis on the traditional mental aspects of martial arts. Therefore, if you’re looking to maximize a child’s confidence, I would go with a more traditional martial art.

What are the best self defense classes for kids?

Any martial art will teach techniques that your kid could use to defend themselves in the instance of a physical altercation. More importantly, training youth martial arts also teaches kids discipline and respect, which will help them avoid a physical altercation altogether.

Generally speaking, the martial arts considered best for self defense include boxing, BJJ, karate, wrestling, and Muay Thai. These martial arts teach great self-defense techniques for both children and adults. However, the best martial art for self defense will be the one that you stick with – so take that into consideration when signing your kid up for a self defense class.

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Timothy Schoonmaker
Timothy Schoonmaker
I was an amateur boxer in high school when I competed in the prelims of the New York Golden Gloves amateur division. Later in life, I began training BJJ. My friends at the academy introduced me to Muay Thai, and I train all 3 martial arts today. I am currently a purple belt in BJJ, hoping to advance to brown soon!