Why martial arts is such a great activity for Chicago kids

As your child leaves toddlerhood and preschool behind, extracurricular pursuits become less of an ‘activity’ and more of a commitment; you’ll see families devoting their evenings and weekends to their team’s training and travel schedule. But what if the more traditional options of football, soccer and baseball aren’t their thing? Maybe the pace of games is just a bit too quick for your little one to follow, their hand-eye coordination and motor skills still need a little work or the training schedule for some team sports is just too logistically demanding for you – we all know how being a parent of a school-aged kid is akin to being a taxi service!

My oldest son was always an enthusiastic participant in soccer and baseball classes, but struggled to follow an actual game and was frustrated at feeling a little left behind. And while those are useful life lessons to learn to deal with, we didn’t want him to lose his interest in sports. So, inspired by his love of the Kung Fu Panda movie series, we decided to give karate a try.

Fast forward a little over a year, and to say he’s found ‘his thing’ is an understatement. We started in a Little Dragons program, taking just one class a week. Now he attends three times a week, and with his little brother having recently joined the action we’re regular visitors to the karate gym or ‘dojo’. So, what can karate offer your little one?


The focus and self-control karate can teach is fantastic. Each class begins and ends with a mini-meditation, encouraging students to focus entirely on their class for the time they are there. The katas — combinations of basic moves — are great for improving coordination and motor control. And when performed in a group they are hugely impressive. It’s learning these katas that earns belts — the ranking system of karate that denotes your level of achievement — and the opportunity to move up to the next level can be a great motivator!

As students progress and begin kumite — sparring practice — that self-control really comes into play, with the aim to score points by making controlled contact. Don’t worry; this isn’t kiddy fight club. The contact between them is minor, and of course they’re well padded and protected to give them extra confidence. And every class ends with the repetition of the Dojo Kun — rules of the dojo — to remind them that their karate is for themselves, and not to be practiced at school or on any unsuspecting siblings and family pets!


My son has gone from barely whispering “kiai”– the accompanying cry that gives emphasis to a move — when he began karate, to shouting it with so much confidence that I could use earplugs when he’s in class. And his ‘karate face’ is something to behold; there’s as many muscles being used in his face to keep that focused glare, as there are in the rest of his body!

Team spirit and competition

If you’re looking for a sport with a competitive edge, then karate can scratch that itch, too. Our dojo offers regular small, informal tournaments, as well as larger competitions a few times a year, giving children and adults alike the chance to compete in both kata and kumite. If you get really involved there’s the opportunity to travel to district, regional and even national tournaments – maybe even the Olympics after karate makes it debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. And for a sport in which you compete as an individual I’ve never witnessed team spirit like it, with seniors cheering on juniors (and vice-versa) with an enthusiasm only matched by Cubs fans cheering Baez back to home plate. 

Learning another language and culture

Okay — to say your little one is going to end up with fluent Japanese is something of a stretch — but they will be able to count to ten in a new language and learn the Japanese names of all their cool new moves. And they’ll even pick up a little bit of Japanese culture along the way, learning the respectful and disciplined nature of the sport.

So there you go, if your kiddo (or you – there are plenty of adult classes available) is looking for something a bit different, then karate might be the sport for you. My boys train at Fonseca Martial Arts, with locations in Roscoe Village, Evanston, Wilmette, Glenview and Park Ridge. Other options in our Lakeview neighborhood include Thousand Waves, and a quick online search is sure to find something in your area. Maybe there’s a secret ninja waiting to be discovered in your family, too!

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