Paddling with Kids: Tips for Paddling with Children

Introducing a young person to kayaking, paddleboarding, or canoeing is a great way to build lasting bonds. Use this guide to help you cover the essentials for a safe, fun outdoor experience.

Introducing a child to the outdoors is a privilege. You have the chance to foster a love of nature that will nurture them throughout their lives. But adventuring with children also comes with challenges. Children have different needs and expectations than adults, and often, you’ll need to plan more thoroughly to ensure a successful trip.

Every parent knows that one blog post cannot cover all considerations for paddling with children, but this post will offer some basic guidelines for engaging children in your outdoor adventures.

Stay Safe on the Water

Most outdoors advice starts with hazard awareness and safety concerns, and paddling is no different.

Any time you are paddling, all participants should wear a properly fitted PFD (Personal Floatation Device). Remember that PFDs are often tailored to specific weights, so check the inside label of your child’s PFD to make sure they fall within that weight range (See example below).

Once you’ve chosen the right PFD, it’s important to remind children to wear it at all times. There’s a reason the American Red Cross says, “Life Jacket Safety Saves Lives.” One way to avoid sounding like a nag is to model the behavior: let them see YOU always wearing your PFD.

As you plan your trip, be aware of the weather and plan accordingly. It’s good to refresh your knowledge on common outdoor hazards such as lightning, heat exhaustion, and ticks. While you do not want to scare children with possible hazards, this is a good opportunity to let younger kids become aware of the realities of the natural world. For older kids, they can help by educating themselves on hazards and sharing that information with others.

Choose the Right Gear

Much like a youth PFD, other outdoor gear is often sized down to accommodate smaller people and children. If you’re paddling with an outfitter, they should provide youth-tailored gear, including a shorter paddle, an appropriate boat, and a PFD. If they do not automatically offer this gear, make sure to ask for it.

Many kayaks and paddleboards have weight limits and age recommendation. If you’re shopping for them, check those specifications before buying. If a boat is too big, don’t expect a child to “power through” and handle the craft. They’ll just have a bad time…and so will you.

For smaller children or for more difficult paddle trips, it’s often best to pair them with an adult paddler. In this case, look for a tandem boat—usually a canoe or a sea kayak—which will allow the adult to control the boat while still allowing the child to participate.

Plan a Child-Friendly Trip

Children are children; they are not little adults. Your trip will be much more enjoyable if you try to imagine what a child can handle and what they will enjoy.

For your first time out, consider either going with a guided trip, or if you’re planning your own trip, choose a short, simple paddling excursion. A local lake is a good (and often cheaper) option. Many lakes offer kayak rentals, which means you can sample the sport before committing to buying your own boat and gear.

You’ll also want to pack things that will help guarantee a fun experience. For safety reasons, pack sunscreen, water, and extra clothing. But also consider comfort items; a favorite snack can do wonders if the mood starts to turn sour, and binoculars can keep little travelers busy while you paddle.

Help Your Child Engage with Their Surroundings

The fun part of paddling with children is that they give you, the adult, permission to see the world with fresh eyes. Rather than treating a lake paddle like exercise, point out interesting plants, birds, fish, etc. You don’t have to know what all these things are; the important thing is to be curious and to share these observations with your young friend. Talk through what you’re seeing and let them respond. You’ll find that curiosity is infectious and makes the trip more stimulating.

Kids love interactive experiences, and nature provides plenty of them provided you’re willing to engage. With a little encouragement, most kids love walking in shallow water, looking for tadpoles, splashing with their paddle, and playing with mud. If your child is hesitant or does not get outside much, you may have to model these behaviors to show them it’s okay to get dirty and have fun.

You just might find that childlike part inside you that needed the same permission to let go.

Anticipate Challenges, but Accentuate Fun

Many people love outdoor trips because they teach resilience. You never know what’s going to happen when you’re paddling. That might mean you spot a beaver in the evening hours, or it might mean you experience fear when you hear distant thunder. This is an adventure, right?

Challenges are real, and while they do bring discomfort, they also focus our attention and form the background of great memories.

Whatever your experience, take care to accentuate the fun aspects of the trip and give your child praise for engaging, for working hard or sitting quietly, for trying something new. These first experiences of nature can be formative, so the more you can do to help your child experience success, the more likely they are to enjoy the adventure, and to want more of them. With you.