Paul and Susie Weber take their daughter and her cousin out on the water in their sit-on-top kayak.
Paul and Susie Weber take their daughter and her cousin out on the water in their sit-on-top kayak.

In the Midwest, we are lucky to have an abundance of lakes, rivers and streams that are perfect for introducing even very young children to paddling sports. With some preparation, being on the water with children or inexperienced adults can be rewarding and extremely fun for everyone.  

Before heading out on the water it is always important to consider what conditions the weakest member of your paddling team can handle. In the case of paddling with children, the obvious answer is “not much.” Never plan on a child to help. Instead consider that they will probably make a bad situation worse.

Perhaps the most important consideration is how prepared and capable are the experienced people in the boat to execute a rescue of everyone. If you do not have a group that can be expected to get every person back to shore safely when things go wrong, you should not be on the water. 

Before taking a child with you, consider signing up for some boating and safety classes at the local YMCA or another facility. This is not the time to be bravura about your skills. Don’t assume you can get out of any situation. Instead, consider the worst-case scenario and honestly assess if you can handle it while you have a child in the boat or on the water with you. You really cannot over prepare.

Where to go
Water conditions are another important consideration. My husband and I routinely kayak with our young toddler. We feel very comfortable taking her on small lakes, protected bays and slow moving rivers, but do not feel confident enough in our skills to navigate rapids. 

We also stay close to shore when we are on the Great Lakes. I am a strong swimmer with lifeguard training and a lifetime of experience in boats. But the possibility of capsizing in Lake Superior with a young child on a day when the wind has suddenly and unexpectedly churned the water into even small waves and troughs, keeps me off those waters for now.   

Be familiar with the lake before leaving shore with children on board. Sandbars and currents are good things to discover ahead of time, but it is also valuable to investigate local boat traffic and facilities. An unanticipated practice session for the local water ski show can create a lot of noise and big, uneven waves.

Know the location of bathrooms/outhouses if available. A picnic spot or lakeside restaurant can be a great destination for an afternoon paddle or a multi-day trip. With children, variety is important. They are unlikely to be happy sitting in the boat for hours without a break. An hour can be an ambitious goal. Start with modest expectations and everyone can have fun. 

The first time we took our daughter out in a canoe, we spent at least an hour getting the boat and paddles out; finding and adjusting lifejackets; preparing nutritious snacks and water; covering her in sunscreen and protective clothing. We launched with a vague idea that we might make it to a local park less than 20 minutes away. In reality, we were on the water approximately 10 minutes because our girl simply was not happy that day.

Children can be fickle, but it is important to remember that the goal is to engender a love for the water. One specific expedition is not important. If things aren’t going well, it is OK to abandon ship and try another day. Having said that, with frequent stops for play, exploration and rest, even the smallest child can be a great companion on the water.

Safety considerations
Personal flotation devices (PFDs) or life jackets are required equipment for everyone on the boat. Get some that are U.S. Coast Guard approved and the correct sizes. There are special PFDs for infants and youth. Brightly colored PFDs in red, orange or yellow are best because they are easiest to spot on the water. Everyone on the boat must wear a PFD at all times. I often see boats on the water where the children are wearing PFDs and the adults are not. 

Have you every tried to get a one-year-old child to do something he didn’t want to do? Have you ever struggled to get a simple pair of pants on a kicking and screaming kid? When they are protesting, kids are like little monkeys, kicking, grasping and wailing. They are also freakishly strong for their weight. 

Imagine the last time you saw a child throwing a fit on the floor of a retail store (not your angel, of course). Now imagine that same whirling dervish of a child in the water off a capsized boat with you next to him trying to calm and help him. You aren’t wearing a PFD. Capsizing and finding yourself in the water with a panicking child and no flotation could be a disaster. Wear your PFD.  

Sometimes small children baulk at wearing a life jacket. We first put a PFD on our daughter when she was an infant. Now two years old, she knows she can’t set foot on a dock or boat without one. She loves wearing it because she knows when she puts on her PFD adventures are soon to follow. With other children who aren’t as acclimated, we make a game out of putting the vest on. For instance, we might buckle it wrong or put it on backwards. We laugh when the child points out our mistakes and ask him to show us how to don the PFD correctly. We also state that wearing a PFD is a rule and that even the adults are wearing their PFDs.

It is a good idea to have rescue equipment for even the most modest expedition. If you have more than one boat, a towline can be invaluable. Likewise paddle floats and throw bags will help in a bad situation if you know how to use them. A simple hand pump to remove water from the boat is important and can double as a water gun for bored children. If you don’t feel that you can use these devices, take a class or practice until you are comfortable.  
A whistle is a simple, but effective means of signaling for help. If you’ve lost your paddle and try to wave down a passing boater, you might be surprised how many people will give you a friendly salute and travel on their way never knowing you are in trouble. A screeching whistle draws a lot of attention. 
Demonstrate the proper use of safety equipment to children, but don’t assume they will be able to use it in an emergency situation. Before the day goes really bad, be sure you have enough competent adults to ensure a successful outcome.
No matter how modest your expedition, tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be home. If no one is looking for you, it is pretty difficult to be found. If you are on a body of water that has Coast Guard or some other form of rescue available, have a means of contacting them. If you are in trouble, especially when you are with a child, don’t hesitate to call for help. The time to be embarrassed or worried about the bill is when you are back on the dock and the children are nestled all snug in their beds.  
Sunscreen and sun-protective clothing are a must. Consider a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses if the child will wear them.  
One final note on safety, when you are on the boat, never tether a child to you.  This can create a very dangerous situation.  For instance, if you capsize and you are tethered to a child who winds up on the opposite side of the boat, you could easily pull and hold that child under water without even knowing it.  Also, never tether a person to the boat.  If the boat starts heading somewhere you don’t want it to go, say to the bottom of the lake, you might not be able to cut the tether before the person is dragged under or away.

Choice of boats
Choosing the correct boat is another important part of the equation. For paddling with infants and toddlers, a canoe is great choice. They can sit comfortably in the bottom of the boat with lots of room for toys and snacks. I have seen people using car seats in canoes. This is a good choice as long as the child is not strapped into the seat.  

For toddlers through tweens, I love sit-on top kayaks. Typically, these kayaks are extremely stable and provide a fun platform from which to jump into the water. With a sit-on-top kayak, capsizing is almost a nonissue because there is no concern about having to bail or wallow home in a water-logged boat. The disadvantage of a sit-on-top kayak is that it is harder to bring along a lot of supplies, especially on overnight trips. Also, sit-on-top kayaks are not the best choice for rough water crossings.  
A recreational kayak with a large cockpit opening can also work well with a small child although it can be awkward to paddle with a child directly in front of you. I avoid situations where a spray skirt is necessary when I am with children. Likewise, I prefer to easily see and reach a child in my care so I don’t put children in the rear hatches of kayaks.   

By the time a child is eight to 10 years old, he may be ready for his own boat. At this point, a sit-on top kayak or standup paddleboard could work well. Also, there are some great recreational kayaks that are sized specifically for children. Slightly older or highly skilled children can probably handle a canoe by themselves depending on the conditions.  

Never put anyone in a kayak with a spray skirt until that person has the proper training and skill to exit the kayak in an emergency. Remember, being able to perform a skill in a controlled and planned classroom environment does not mean one can perform that same skill in an actual emergency. Even in the safest boat on the calmest water, it is a good idea to practice, in shallow water, falling out of the boat and getting back in with your child. If the child sees it is fun and easy to exit and re-enter a boat, he is less likely to panic if you do capsize while underway.

Choice of paddles
A child as young as four or five years old may be ready to use a paddle in a helpful manner. Our two-year-old has a kayak paddle and is somewhat adept with it. She likes to imitate us. We consider the paddle a learning toy for her and obviously don’t expect her to contribute to the forward momentum. 

For a child under 10, a kayak paddle of 200 cm or less will probably work best, although the recommended length also depends somewhat on the boat. There are a few manufacturers making child-specific paddles with narrower shafts for easier handling. Canoe paddles for children are easier to find. A canoe paddle should reach to approximately the child’s nose when standing. A reputable outfitter or shop should be able to help you select the correct paddle. 

In my experience, children love to help paddle and feel very proud of themselves when allowed to participate. Offer paddles to children whenever you can, but don’t hesitate to take the paddle away if safety or expediency is a concern. Also, prepare to be whacked in the head on occasion.   

Nutrition, naps and entertainment
As with any outing with a child, it is important to anticipate the child’s needs when packing for a water outing of any length. Pack healthy food and beverages to avoid hunger, dehydration and general grumpiness.  

Children love to nap on boats. The water is a calming influence and often lulls them to sleep. If a child seems hot in a PFD while napping, don’t be tempted to remove. In this scenario, either make your way to shore and shade or create some shade for your child on the boat. We often use towels as pillows, blankets and sunshades. A towel or sponge dipped in the water is an excellent cooling device. Onshore, we have used an overturned boat as a kind of makeshift tent to keep the sun off our sleeping cherub. 

Finally, there’s the challenge of keeping children entertained or distracted while on a boat. While it may be a good idea to have some coloring books or toys along, we have been very successful with engaging children in their surroundings. We challenge children to be the first to spot a red boat or three ducks. We talk about wind shifts and how to spot them on the water, (yes, even with a two year old). We search for unexplored (by us) beaches. We feel that engaging, rather than distracting, a child is more likely to lead to requests for more boat trips and a general love of the outdoors.
 
The payoff
With forethought and some careful planning, paddling can be enjoyable with children of any age. For instance, on a recent Saturday afternoon, my husband and I took our two-year-old daughter and her three-year-old cousin on our sit-on-top kayak for a tour of a northern Wisconsin lake. We gave them each a paddle as well as some toy viewfinders that functioned as binoculars. 

When we started our expedition, all four of us had paddles in hand. Though our progress was slow at first, the children had a blast trying to stay in sync with us. Later they discovered they could use the paddles to drip water on our hats. Apparently, getting an adult wet is hilarious.  

When they got tired of paddling, we stopped at a sandy beach to look for snails, minnows and rocks in the shallow water. On the return trip, we opted not to give them the paddles. Instead, we suggested they search for loons and boats. Watching loons dive and surface was fun until they spotted a “pirate ship” and the race was on. With encouragement from our moppet crew, we managed to make it home before being captured. 

The total expedition lasted less than two hours and our distance paddled is hardly worth mentioning. But everyone had fun and they both asked for more boat rides. Our hope is that they will continue to love paddle sports into adulthood. Even if they never get on a boat again, we had one wonderful day on the water.

Susie Weber is a wife, mother, pilot and small business owner residing in west-central Wisconsin.