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Kid-Friendly Kayaking: 6 Expert Tips for Introducing Children to Paddling

A year ago I wrote an article sharing tips to support new paddlers and help them to fall in love with white water kayaking. Following this article, I had a number of people reach out to me to ask if I had any specific tips for helping to introduce children to kayaking. As I am not a parent myself, I reached out to the wonderful Chris Eastabrook and Dan Wilkinson who have kindly shared some of their expert tips with me. Both Chris and Dan are incredibly talented paddlers, coaches and also parents. This article will share their top tips for sharing the love of paddling with children. Enjoy!

Introducing you to Chris and Dan!

Chris Eastabrook

Dr Chris Eastabrook is an extremely talented paddler and highly respected coach. Chris’ desire to go beyond the technical skills of paddling when coaching led him to undertake a doctorate in coaching adventure sports with an emphasis on developing independent learners.

Chris Selfie!

Chris is now the Head of Centre at Bryntysilio Adventure Education Centre and so is able to help encourage hundreds of young people in adventures sports every single year. The centre runs residentials for young people as well as health and wellbeing programmes for adults. They are a practice based research group and are highly recommended!

Chris is also father to 7 year old Toby. Being North Wales locals, Chris and Toby can often be found descending the mighty River Dee in their pirate canoe as well as engaging in other adventure sports such as skiing.

Aye aye captain – Pirates of the Dee! Photo: Chris

Dan Wilkinson

Dan Wilkinson is another extremely respected adventure sports coach who specialises in white water kayaking and winter mountaineering. He is also one of the authors of Coaching Adventure Sports – which is one of my personal recommended reads if you are at all interested in getting into coaching! Over his career, Dan’s passion has led to him being involved in multiple campaigns for improving access to rivers as well as introducing countless people to paddling and coaching. Dan actually delivered my core coach training for kayaking last year!

All aboard the Wilkinson Express! Photo: Kate Wilkinson

Based in the Lake District, Dan has easy access to plenty of paddling locations to paddle with his children. Lake Windermere is their current favourite! Dan and his wife Kate have two children; Robyn who is 4 and Harry who is 2. Robyn was first in a Venture canoe advert at the age of 1, had her first kayak before she was 2 and had her 3rd birthday party at the lake in canoes… so it is safe to say that Dan and Kate have done an excellent job at introducing her to paddling!

Happy Robyn! Photo: Kate Wilkinson

Chris and Dan’s top tips!

1. Let the child choose the pace

The importance of letting a child decide whether or not they want to paddle and how much they want to paddle was really clear from both Chris and Dan’s answers. Chris explained this point so well so I have included an extract directly from him below.

‘I am incredibly fortunate to live in a house overlooking both the River Dee and the Llangollen Canal. This has given me a rich environment to introduce my son to the sport that I love. I also work at Bryntysilio centre that has taken young people into adventurous environments for over 50 years.

However, this is a unique circumstance and my experience of teaching Toby to ski is maybe as relevant for my first tip to supporting young paddlers.

After saving throughout the year and visiting an old friend who lives in a ski resort, I’ve been able to take Toby skiing. I have taught him myself, which has been incredibly frustrating and hugely satisfying. On one particular day last year, mid-trip, we decided that we were ready for a full lift pass and a reasonable expense. Unfortunately, we only made it down one easy run, involving a crash, tears and a yard sale of kit.

While I had set my expectations low, I was super frustrated at the cost of the day, his lack of progress and now my lack of ability to ski as well – I had to take him home. It’s easy to see this in kayaking with some of my friends with young children.

Time at the lake/canal/river is limited so parents (including me) want to get the most out of the investment in time and money. This can lead to young people being overloaded with information, staying out longer than necessary and therefore not having a great time.

At the centre, we rarely run full-day sessions because it’s too much. Leaders are setting the agenda rather than the young person. Bryntysilio focuses on giving the young people agency; outdoor activities are something they undertake, not something we undertake for them.

Adventure buddies for life!

This year, skiing was a different story; Toby has got the hang of it, got confidence, and is running some challenging slopes, and we were riding the chair lift, chatting like mates, at his pace (I was struggling to keep up).

There is hope! To begin with, set your expectations as low as possible in terms of what you can get done, accept that you won’t get much paddling done yourself and that the joy is in introducing your young person to the water.

Let them decide the pace, which means the first time will probably be driving to a location, 20 minutes getting ready, 5 minutes of paddling, snack & playing near the water, 5 minutes of paddling if you are lucky and then home.’

As Dan added, ‘Watch out for the commitment heuristic! We have loaded up before and headed to the lake only to not paddle in the end. At their age its really important to go with the flow. ‘

Photo: Kate Wilkinson

What I found particularly striking about this tip is how easy it would be to not follow it because of the effort that is involved with paddle sports. It is far more effort to prepare for time on the water than it is say to take your child for a walk in the local park. I can see that after making that effort only to have your child change their mind or not want to spend very long doing the activity could be quite frustrating. If you prepare yourself for this potential outcome however and accept it as part of the journey, it may well be easier to contain those frustrations and not impact your child’s view of the sport.

2. Be efficient about getting on the water

Dan suggested it was important to learn to become ‘mega efficient’ when it came to getting ready to get on the water. Whilst paddlers are notorious for being ‘faffy’ and slow at getting ready for the river, it is something that is worth getting better at when you are with children.

Dan has even invested in a canoe trolley so that the journey from the car to the water can be made in one go. This avoids his children having too much waiting around time and allows them to keep up their excitement for the water time.

Photo: Kate Wilkinson

3. Make sure it is fun

I love that making sure the experience was fun was something that came through strongly in both Chris and Dan’s answers as it was also a keep tip that I included about introducing adults to kayaking. When you start paddling with children, it should not be immediately about their skill development. Instead the goal should be for them to just enjoy being on and near the water. Dan says most of his paddling journeys with his children are planned so that within 10 mins they are able to get out and play on a beach or throw rocks from the bank.

Having plenty of toys with you can also really help. Particularly with young children as they may not be able to paddle when they’re young. Dan keeps his children feeling involved by often throwing a toy ahead of the craft and then letting the children collect it as they pass by. Having an active role makes it much more fun for them than just being a passenger.

Photo: Kate Wilkinson

4. Make sure it’s not too scary

In my article about introducing adults, I highlighted the importance of not making it immediately off putting – for example by getting people to paddle rapids they are more than likely to swim on. Imagine the most scared you have ever been whilst kayaking. Now imagine being in a child’s sized body for that experience. Paddling, especially if it is on white water, might be incredibly scary for a child. They are closer to the water and more likely to be splashed in the face for a start. Ensuring that the environment is not only safe but also not scary will really help to improve a child’s experience of it.

As Dan says, ‘it’s about their experience that they get. I’m always trying to work out different ways for them to be on the water safely. Safely at the moment to me is NO capsizes or accidental immersion.’ If a child chooses to enter the water that is one thing. An unintentional swim on the other hand is a different story and could be enough to put them off paddling altogether.

Photo: Kate Wilkinson

5. Consider equipment and clothing to suit them

As you may have picked up from the article so far, a lot of the paddling experiences that Dan and Chris’ children have had have been in a canoe or SUP with their Dad. From paddling parents that I know, a huge number of them have introduced their children in a similar way. It’s nice to share the craft with your child and there is plenty of space to store all of the extra things that you need with you with a child. I know that Chris even acquired a large pirates flag for his canoe when Toby was very little.

In terms of what to wear, it is important that it it fitted for them. On becoming a father himself, Pete Astles (owner of Peak) really focused on developing children specific paddling gear and in particular the introduction of a children’s Buoyancy Aid (BA). It is important that the child has a well fitted BA and Dan has recommended whichever BA you choose you must ensure it has a crotch strap and handle for lifting them with.

Photo: Kate Wilkinson

Dan was lucky enough that Uncle Andy from Pyranha made little Robyn a kayak paddle from a broom handle and two paddles made of ply! Being much lighter than anything commercially available meant that she can actually lift it and use it herself, thus increasing her sense of independence.

Chris also agreed on the importance of a BA, with everything else being optional. For Toby’s early canoeing day, he would be dressed in waterproof trousers, wellies and a t-shirt in warmer months. Chris suggested that if the child then develops a taste for it, a wetsuit might be needed for colder months, and a helmet once white water is involved. Forcing the child to wear too much gear at the beginning however can be a bit of a sensory overload. Finding a time and place for the paddle that needs as little extra things as possible is ideal.

6. Have routines and pack snacks

As a teacher, this one makes a lot of sense to me. Children thrive when you have routines as it provides security for them around what to expect. Having patterns in your paddling days can really help children to manage their own expectations. I have included another wonderful extract from Chris on this point.

‘When we first started running laps in canoe of the River Dee, and then back up the canal, there were clear routines that we followed. Toby would sit on the same rock while I ran Serpent. We would stop at the same beach by the river for peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Then on the paddle back up the canal, we would stop at the same bench to read a story. I believe that repeating this pattern on our paddles gave Toby a sense of expectation. He knows (to some degree) what’s happening, rather than a nervous experience of not knowing what comes next.

Now he’s more experienced, we’ve ditched this pattern because he knows the rapids and in fact, I struggle to get him on the Dee because ‘the lower Tryweryn has more rapids.’ What have I created?’

I think routines help children to feel in control of their situation. Knowing what to expect is incredibly reassuring compared to the feelings of nervousness when you have no idea. I also love that Chris and Toby’s paddles incorporated other fun activities like food and story time! Having fun activities included as part of the paddle really increase the positive experience. As adults, we also appreciate this! Think how many canoe club’s summer night activities involve paddling somewhere for a picnic (or pub lunch!) and then paddling back again. Dan also recommended always packing snacks (and alcohol gel for hands) on family paddles. He also pointed out snacks are great for you to eat if your children decide they don’t want them that day!

Thank you

Thank you for reading! Please do comment if you have any tips of your own to share!

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