The silence of a North Park neighborhood is broken by shouts of "Kai!" Boys of all shapes and sizes respond with jump kicks designed to strike the face of an attacker.
These children are learning centuries-old fighting skills, and they say it's a good thing. "People were beating up on me all the time," said 11-year-old Bryce Green. "I wanted to learn self-defense."
The Martial Arts Summer Camp, in its first year, has attracted more than 100 children ages 5 to 17 for three one-week camps. The sessions are held in a different San Diego County location each week. Parents and teachers say that the lessons, in addition to teaching the children self-defense, keep them off the streets and teach them self-discipline.
Since last summer's hit movie "The Karate Kid," two summer camps for martial arts have opened in San Diego. The North America Junior Ninja Arts Camp, in its second summer, attracted 75 children last year.
"We're heading for another karate boom," Lenny Schas, director of the Martial Arts camp, said. He estimated that half of the children who signed up had seen "The Karate Kid." Schas said that, until that film came out, the popularity of martial arts had been on the decline since the Bruce Lee rage of the early 1970s.
Martial artists say "The Karate Kid" has done wonders for the reputation of the martial arts. Schas said the Bruce Lee-type movies portray martial arts as extremely violent. But "The Karate Kid" showed children that the skills should be used only for self-defense.
John Douglas, a former San Diego deputy sheriff who operates the Bonita School of Martial Arts, said the number of children in his classes at least doubled after "The Karate Kid" became a hit. And he said children and adults alike are taking up the martial arts with a more practical attitude than those who joined the Kung Fu trend a decade ago.
"The difference in the current trend is they don't have false expectations," Douglas said. "They don't want to learn to jump over roofs. People are looking for self-awareness and safety awareness."
Most of the young karate students at the Martial Arts camp say that the next time they are picked on, they will abide by the nonviolent philosophy of their teachers. "I'd try to talk myself out of it. Then I'd try to walk my way out of it. Then I'd try to run my way out of it," said 7-year-old Chris Garrett, the smallest boy in the group. "If that doesn't work I'd try to defend myself." He added, "Self-defense is important."
But Vit Bielecki, 8, said he would be ready to fight. "If someone wants to fight with me, I'd flip him over my shoulder," Vit said. He wants to learn how to defend himself from big kids because "lots of kids want to fight with me and stuff."
Schas teaches a "combination art," taking moves from the different martial arts such as karate and tae kwan-do. The children learn through practice drills and games that use different skills.
In one drill, several children lie on the ground while another runs and jumps over them, landing in a roll. Schas said it teaches the students to roll as a reaction to tripping and falling. But Bryce, who takes karate lessons and has a white belt, had a better use for the roll. "If somebody has a gun on you, you jump and land right in front of them and stand up and knock the weapon away. If they shoot, you can roll under it," said the green-eyed, freckled boy.
Garry Wooten, director of the Ninja Arts Camp, a residential camp in Ramona, said the most important element in teaching children martial arts is positive thinking. Part of the training, he said, is morning meditation. "We teach them to get rid of their negative thoughts. It's getting rid of the 'I can't' attitude."
Children practice basic martial arts techniques one hour a day and spend the rest of the time learning activities such as mountain climbing, swimming and horseback riding.
"I show them how to use their mind and body together," Wooten said. "I teach them the mental first and then show them the physical. At the end of the camp they are more disciplined. They have greater self-esteem and courage."
Wooten said that, like the boy in the movie, he studied martial arts to protect himself from bullies.
" 'The Karate Kid' was about a nice kid who got picked on by other guys. The kid got into martial arts for self-defense," he said. "The movie was about courage.
"I was the Karate Kid long ago. I was the little kid who always got picked on. I got beat up trying to protect my sister from some bullies."
He said he stopped into a YMCA on his way home one day and saw some children practicing martial arts. He began taking lessons, and went on to win several national karate championships.
The camp code states that "junior ninjas" never start fights and only fight to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Schas said the martial arts teach children to walk away from a violent situation without "feeling like a chicken."
Bryce Green said he has learned to walk away from a fight. But if someone insisted on fighting, he said, "I wouldn't try to hurt them that much. I'd just try to tell them not to pick on me."