Share the Love: Teaching Kids to Paddle


Leland DavisWhen boating is a part of your life, you want to be able to share it with those you love. Oftentimes kids don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Leland Davis offers expert advice on how to get and keep your kids on the water.

As a kids’ paddling instructor for many of the last 20+ summers, I’m often asked for advice by parents who want to get their kids into kayaking. The truth is, all kids are different, and one of the challenges of being a successful instructor is constantly looking for what strategy will work best with each child. There are, however, some larger themes that hold true for most kids that will give you the best possible chance of getting them into paddling. Here are my top tips for not only how to teach kids to kayak, but how to keep them excited about going to the river.

At first, kayaking might just be a way for kids to get to their favorite swim spot or jump rock.

Keep it fun.
It’s no mystery that kids like to play. In fact, it’s likely that your kid would much rather goof off than concentrate on sports. The most memorable part of their paddling trip will probably not be the kayaking at all, but the swimming spot, or the rock they got to jump off, the splash fights, or the ice cream they had on the way home from the river. So make sure there is plenty of play built into every kayaking trip. The only way kids will want to go again is if they associate paddling with having kid-style fun (or eating ice cream).

Kids need friends.
I hate to break it to you: even if you are the coolest parent in the world, odds are good that your child would rather paddle with other kids than with you. That’s not to say you can’t go along; just remember that their goals for—and perceptions of—the river experience are not the same as yours. They are more likely to want to repeat the activity if they have a group of peers along that they can relate to and share a sense of exploration with. Hey—you have your paddling crew, why shouldn’t they have theirs? Kids are also more likely to try new challenges if they see other kids doing it too. When an adult demonstrates a move or skill, it still looks like unattainable “adult stuff” to kids. The moment they see one of their peers do it, they usually can’t wait to try.

The preference for paddling with other kids can be a hard pill for some parents to swallow since the reason for teaching their kids to paddle in the first place was to spend quality time together. Don’t despair—that time will come, but probably only once the kids have reached their teens and already found their own comfort zone and identity on the river.

Start small.
Have you ever gone back to a place you haven’t visited since you were a kid and been struck by how much smaller it seems now that you’re all grown up? It’s easy to forget how enormous the world looks through a child’s eyes. It’s the same on the river: a tiny wave train that’s barely more than flatwater to you will seem like giant haystacks to them. For a young kid, a three-foot drop might as well be Gorilla or Spirit Falls. If you terrify a kid by taking them on whitewater that seems too gigantic, you can scare them off for good. “Thrills without fear” is the name of the game.

Accept that in order to get them comfortable with kayaking, you will probably need to spend some quality time on moving flatwater (class I minus) where they can learn basic skills like boat control, eddy turns, and peel-outs without being scared of flipping over all the time. You will be stunned by how excited they get when the current sweeps them down their first riffle. It doesn’t take much! Also, encourage them to play in the current out of their kayak; challenge them to swim through riffles and small rapids to get comfortable with moving water.

Practicing eddy turns and peel-outs in barely moving current is the way to get kids comfortable with basic skills.

Don’t over-coach.
Parents want to see their kids do well, and many paddling parents want to see their progeny progress quickly to whitewater that will be more exciting for Mom or Dad. While it’s okay to coach skills some of the time, constantly drilling them on their technique is a great way to take away the fun and turn them off of paddling. Teach them the basics, and then let them experiment on their own. Let the river give most of the feedback on what they are doing right and wrong. This will help keep paddling fun, and let them explore the river without dragging the weight of your expectations behind them with every paddle stroke. For kids younger than 13—or who are just beginning to kayak—I try to break my coaching sessions into small blocks of a maximum of ten minutes, with no more than one block of teaching in every 30-60 minutes of river time. As they grow up and get more into the sport, they will be able to handle more instruction.

Wet exits are fun.
The scariest part of kayaking happens when kids flip over. Nothing will set back their learning process more than the panic they get if they flip unintentionally and feel like they are stuck in the boat. Have them pull their skirt loop while right-side-up first, to show them they can do it and to make sure they have the arm strength. Then have them practice their wet exits in a pool or lake many times before taking them on a river. Make them perform a task after they flip over and before they pull their skirt to make sure they are not cheating by grabbing their loop as they flip. I have them flip over and then tap three times on the hull of their kayak before they pull—not only does it prove they can find their loop while upside down, it also provides an audible alert that they have flipped over. Turn wet exits into a game and convince them that the process of getting out of the boat is fun.

Kids should demonstrate confidence in the wet exit before they are allowed to paddle with a sprayskirt.

Give positive feedback.
It’s easy to get frustrated when a kid takes a swim—often directly caused by them not listening well enough to your coaching. Once you have the swimmer, their kayak, and their paddle safely in an eddy, your immediate impulse will be to tell them why they flipped over. Don’t.They are most likely scared, maybe a little bit cold, and almost certainly frustrated. Most of all, though, they are probably upset with themselves because they feel like they’ve let you down. The last thing they need to hear from you is what they did wrong. Instead, keep it positive by telling them that they did a great wet exit, or a good job swimming to shore. Failure is an integral part of learning to paddle, and kids need to be encouraged—not corrected—when they try and fail on the river. For every constructive criticism you give during instruction, try to think of one positive thing to say about what they did as well.

Kids hear everything.
If you give your boating buddies a hard time about their swims in front of your kids, it’s going to be hard to sell the concept that swimming is suddenly okay when they exit their boat. If you say something is scary on a river, they will be twice as terrified of it as you are. If your kids hear you tell your friends that the local class I/II run is boring, they won’t want to go. Not only do they hear everything you say, they feed off your energy. In order for your kids to have fun, you probably need to be having fun too (or at least acting like it). If you’re nervous about taking them on the water and let it show, they will be nervous too. I make a conscious effort to project fun and confidence—in myself and in the kids—the entire time I’m on the water with them.

Seek outside help.
Sometimes, there are simply too many other dynamics at play between parents and children for them to mesh well together in the early days of a kid’s boating. In fact, it’s often the best strategy to enroll your kids in a clinic or camp that can bring them through the early stages of kayaking and then turn them back over to you when they have some abilities and confidence of their own.


Paddling is not for everyone.
Even if you are the most patient and fun-loving paddling parent in the world, there is a good chance that kayaking won’t be the right activity for your kid. Be ready to embrace that difference, and to provide the same level of enthusiastic support for whatever positive activities your kids get into. They might surprise you and come back around to paddling later in life.

Notes on ages: I get asked a lot about what age is okay for introducing kids to kayaking. The truth is, it varies wildly from child to child. I’ve seen precocious seven year olds run class III+, and I’ve known other kids that weren’t ready to leave the lake and venture into moving water until they were 12 or 13. The key is to progress slowly and make sure they are comfortable with one step before they move on to the next. Start by having them paddle around in a pool or a lake with no sprayskirt. Once they are comfortable, teach them to wet exit in a controlled environment. Once they have mastered the wet exit, take them to moving flatwater and let them learn the basics of eddy turns and peel-outs. Be alert for when they’ve had too much, and be ready to take a big step back in order to keep their confidence up and fear down. Look for easier rivers with fun swimming holes, jump rocks, and adjacent restaurants or dessert spots that they enjoy so they won’t mind going over and over to practice fundamental skills.

Author’s note: Leland Davis has been having a blast teaching kids to paddle for over 20 years. He is currently the Director of the whitewater program at Rockbrook Camp for Girls in North Carolina, and also leads the Rockbrook Rapids Kayaking Camp. For more information:  http://www.rockbrookcamp.com/kayaking-camp/