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Natural Awakenings National

Kayaking with Kids: An Interactive Experience Between Children and Parents

Jun 01, 2010 03:00AM ● By Larry and Christine Showler

We began kayaking with our son, Justin, when he was only a few months old, understanding that the earlier children become accustomed to being in a boat, the sooner everyone can enjoy the benefits of exploring the outdoors together. By the age of five, Justin was paddling his own recreational kayak, and a year later he was confidently in charge of his own sea kayak.

Unlike a canoe, where small children have limited visibility and support, a kayak provides a more interactive experience. Some cockpits are even large enough for a small child to be safely supported on an adult’s lap, so they can take in the new world around them while maintaining the warmth and security of direct contact with Mom or Dad. What a wonderful way to solidify the bond between a child and parent, by sealing it with nature itself.

The first few trips together must be a positive experience to set the tone for future adventures, so make a special effort to create fun and interesting paddling experiences. Pick short destinations not more than 30 minutes away, so the family can stop and picnic. Bring snacks and drinks for the cruise along the shoreline, noting and explaining nature’s intriguing sights and sounds.

Unlike in canoes, young children sit low enough in kayaks so that, regardless of size, they are able to touch the water and splash it around. A wooden kitchen spoon makes a great first paddle; just remember to drill a small hole for a wrist leash, unless everyone wants to spend the day retrieving it 50 times. Often, a youngster will fall asleep to the rhythmic motion of the kayak long before reaching home.

Even rainy weather won’t overcome the fun, as long as paddlers are dressed properly in rain gear and a positive attitude. Some of our family’s most enjoyable adventures have been out on the water on quiet, rainy summer days.

By the age of two or three, we suggest moving a child’s assigned seat from a lap to the rear hatch of an adult’s kayak, facing the stern. This provides both comfort and legroom.  A cushion or blanket placed on the bottom of the back hatch insulates the child from a chilly hull.

By age five or six, youngsters may wish to paddle on their own. Coping with the length and weight of the paddle may lead to awkward technique at first, but with a little help and guidance, children quickly catch on. It’s a rewarding experience, akin to letting go of a bicycle with a child on board sans training wheels for the first time.

Initially, a child piloting a kayak will tire quickly, so using a towline helps ensure a longer, more positive day for all. When Justin would say “Dad, I have no energy,” we would hook up the tow line; after a while he would say “Dad, I have new energy,” and we would unhook the line and away he’d go again, water flying everywhere.

The safety of a child while kayaking is the sole responsibility of the accompanying adult, and the principles of safe kayaking—such as never go out on the water alone—must be instilled at a young age. It is essential that grown-ups know their own paddling limitations, can read changing wind and weather conditions and use common sense to minimize risk.

Necessary equipment includes: properly fitting, quality personal flotation devices, which everyone must wear; sun hats, sunscreen and sunglasses; shoes that can withstand water and grip well; cover-ups; and lots to drink, even for short excursions. Make it fun, and the essential skills will be quickly learned. Today, at 13, Justin paddles a sea kayak better than many adults.

As people today seek release from the pressures of daily life through a return to simpler family values, we remember that what fascinated us as children reverberates throughout our life. Exploring a nearby island and swimming off a secluded beach inspires children’s minds with the thrill of discovery on nature’s terms?by choosing a paddle, instead of a motor.

Larry and Christine Showler own Frontenac Outfitters Canoe & Kayak Centre, just north of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. For more information, visit

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