Now that I’m a grandma, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to teach my new granddaughter to paddle in a few years. I had a chance to do this many years ago when my son and my nieces were little, but it seems like it’s even more important nowadays to get kids outside and active.
If you have kids or grandkids and want to get them started in canoeing or kayaking, here are some things I’ve learned over the years.
- Make sure your kids learn to swim as soon as possible. It is a life-saving skill. It is a great fitness activity for anyone with joint injuries. Good swimmers can always get jobs as life guards. Fear of water can be a real barrier to socializing with other kids during childhood and adolescence when everyone wants to go to the water parks, not to mention it really interferes with becoming a confident paddler. Playing in the water is fun. There just is no good reason not to make sure that your kids become good swimmers.
- Every paddler, including the kids, needs to have a comfortable, properly-fitted life jacket. All paddlers, including the adults (you included) need to wear their PFD’s when out on the water. Kids life jackets come in three sizes, “Infant” (under 30 pounds), “Child” (30-50 pounds), and “Youth” (50-90 pounds). Kids life jackets, especially those for infants and young children, should have crotch straps to prevent the child from sliding out of the jacket as well as extra support for the head. Many of the kids life jackets also have a handle sewn into the back of the neck area to make it easier for someone to reach into the water and fish out a child who has fallen in. It’s not safe to bundle kids into adult life jackets figuring that the extra buoyancy will be good for them. It is more likely that they will fall right out of the jacket if they take an unexpected swim. Make sure to try the life jackets on the kids (just like an adult would do) to make sure the PFD fits snugly and comfortably. You should be able to lift your child up off the ground by grabbing the life jacket. There are many kid-sized PFD’s that are less than $50, but even at twice the price, it’s cheap insurance against losing something that is ireplaceable.
- Get a kid-sized paddle. I can’t stress this one enough. Kids can often do a reasonable job paddling an adult size boat, but an adult size paddle has blades that are too large and offer too much resistance. The child tires out too quickly, not to mention the extra weight of a larger paddle doesn’t help either. For canoeing, Bending Branches makes the “Twig” and for kayaking, Werner Paddles makes a great kids paddle called the “Sprite”. I’ve given these paddles to kids in my family and the kids I teach and have seen what a big difference it makes. Even if the child is too young to really add any power to the paddling effort, it makes him feel special to have his own paddle and to use it like the adults.
- Make paddling fun. Kids learn by playing. When you take little ones out for a paddling excursion, you need to plan the activity from the perspective of the child, not the adults. Younger kids have short attention spans and won’t want to do long stints of paddling. Do short trips or break up the day with stops for “plunching” in the water, looking for tadpoles,throwing stones in the water, playing in the sand, snacking, etc. As the kids get older, you can make up games to play or let them help plan the trips.
- Keep instruction to a minimum. Most people, including kids, will get the basic gist of how to make a canoe or kayak move through the water effectively. While they may not be doing it in the most efficient way just yet, don’t worry. Make small suggestions about how to hold the paddle, or ways to improve the stroke, but then let them experiment. If you’re familiar with teaching styles, think “guided discovery”, not “command-style”. As kids get older and their interest in paddling increases, there will be time to do more instruction. Don’t turn kids off to canoeing or kayaking by making it too much like a class at school.
- If you have the money to spend, get a kid-sized boat. It will make it more fun if your child has a boat of his/her own. The narrower hull and lower deck height of a small boat makes it easier for the kids to reach the water with their paddles. The smaller hull also has less wetted surface area reducing the resistance that the paddler has to overcome when moving the boat through the water. As a result, a child in a shorter kids kayak may be able to keep up with an adult in a much longer boat. If you can’t or don’t want to buy a kids boat, at least look for smaller adult kayaks. Shorter, narrower, and lower deck heights will make it easier for a child to paddle. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many kids boats out there to choose from as there seemed to be a decade ago, but I suspect that since not a lot of parents were buying them, the manufacturer’s decided it wasn’t worth marketing them. Don’t despair, though. For a recreational kayak, you can get the Perception Acadia Scout 10.0. For touring/sea kayaks there is the Wilderness Systems Tsunami SP. For whitewater, Jackson Kayaks makes whole series of kid-sized kayaks as well as the Mini Tripper recreational kayak. In the used market, keep an eye out for the Ocean Kayaks KEA or the Perception Hula sit-on-top kayaks. For touring, look for the Wilderness Systems Piccolo and the Perception/Aquaterra Umiak, and Old Town used to make a Loon 86 recreational kayak for kids. For those with woodworking skills, several of the companies that offer kits and plans for building kayaks have designs for kids. I wouldn’t worry too much about buying a kids kayak that your child will quickly outgrow. I think you’ll find it’s very easy to find a buyer when it comes time to move your child into an adult-size kayak.
- Get a tow belt. It isn’t always necessary to get a tandem. When kids are really small, you may want to have them in the same canoe or kayak as you, but when kids are toddlers, they often can fit in a solo kayak on your lap or up at the front of a recreational solo with a large open cockpit. Once the child gets to be anywhere from 5-7 years of age, they can begin paddling their own kayak. To avoid the problem of not being able to stay together as a group, an adult can easily clip a tow line on to a kid’s boat to give them the extra power needed to get back to the take-out, and the tow line helps to keep the boat from getting too far off track which can create a lot of frustration for a novice paddler. I’ve often used a tow belt when taking beginners out on canoe and kayak trips (even adults). The person(s) in the boat being towed can still continue to paddle, but if steering is a problem, the tow belt will pull the boat back in line when it starts getting too far off course. It can become a challenge for the kids to see if they can keep the tow line slack at all times meaning that they aren’t really being towed at all!
As anyone with kids knows, the time goes by much too quickly. The kids grow up and spend less time around Mom, Dad, or the grandparents. Don’t wait! Make the time to get out on the water with your kids this year and for as many years as they’ll consent to spend with you in the future. You’ll never regret it.