For children who are looking for a new activity both physically and mentally rewarding, a karate studio in Santa Monica just may have the solution.

Karate for Inner City Kids (KICK), a program that provides martial arts training to those between ages three and 19, offers free classes six days a week at its Santa Monica studio, 2202 Pico Blvd.

KICK was founded in January 1991 by Vassie Naidoo, a sixth-degree black belt in the Goju-Ryu style of karate, as a way to help disadvantaged children from different backgrounds.

By teaching the values of martial arts, KICK has influenced children to change negative behavioral traits and replace them with positive traits. The program teaches karate to be used in a meaningful and respectful way.

“We want the kids to learn self-defense, but we teach self-control so they’re not using it (karate) in the street,” said Naidoo, who is also KICK’s chief instructor.

A main result of the program is that within one year, nine out of ten children participating will show an increase in physical activity and academic performance, and a decrease in incidents of disruptive behavior.

Classes, which are taught by black-belt instructors and range in size from ten to 30 students, are held between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 9:30 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.

Although classes are free, the program is supported by donations, and many student expenses are paid through scholarships.

The idea for KICK came from Naidoo’s native country of South Africa more than 30 years ago.

Naidoo, who has been a martial artist for 38 years, said many minority children at that time wanted to learn karate but could not afford lessons.

“A lot of them were interested in learning, so I decided to start a free program for them to help keep them off the streets,” he said.

When Naidoo came to the U.S., he decided to continue the idea with KICK, which has trained hundreds of children since the early 1990s.

The Santa Monica studio is the only KICK location, but training is also offered through outreach programs at some schools and community centers, including the Boys & Girls Club of Venice.

Between 45 and 60 children who train regularly at least twice a week are currently enrolled in KICK classes, which include children of diverse backgrounds and ages.

Andrea Daly, KICK president, said about half of the students attending the studio classes are either minorities or from single-parent families.

When children enroll in the KICK program, the goal for instructors is to emphasize physical fitness as well as the aspects of discipline and focus, Daly said. By learning discipline, children will also make improvements at school and at home, she said.

“With the kids, the most important thing is to teach the discipline aspect because it helps in everything,” said Daly, a second-degree black belt in Goju-Ryu karate.

“We embrace the philosophy of physical control.”

Naidoo said karate training also has an influence on self-respect. While karate may seem like an unusual activity to teach young children, it improves balance and coordination, which help in every other sport, he said.

The Goju-Ryu style of karate, which is taught in the classes, is one of the major traditional styles of karate. Goju-Ryu karate “combines the hard and soft aspects of engagement,” Daly said.

“It’s a very disciplined style of martial arts and a very traditional, practical style,” Naidoo said.

The experience of karate has impacted the children of KICK by offering a number of physical, mental and emotional benefits, Daly said. Children have increased their physical fitness, improved academic performance, learned respect for adults and increased self-esteem, she said.

“In every class there’s a reward, like the experience of doing their best block.”

One 12-year-old who is a junior black belt in the KICK program and has taken karate classes for six years says she has benefited in many ways:

“I don’t get bullied as much. Even though I’m active, it keeps me physically active.”

Parents have also expressed gratitude for the KICK program.

The parent of one ten-year-old boy who is a junior white belt in the program says her son has expressed serious interest in karate, which has helped with his discipline.

“He comes here very happy to do it and it’s great exercise for him,” the parent said. “He seems to be very dedicated.”

Although hundreds of kids have already experienced the rewards of KICK, Daly said the goal is to expand the program with more students and to continue to do more outreach at schools.

“If we can reach one out of every ten kids that’s a big accomplishment,” Naidoo said.