Me and my kids on a recent multiday trip through the Tiger Eye canyon on the Orange river - ages 10 and 13

Start them young

Most paddlers would like their children to paddle. Most paddlers are unsure of how to go about it, but they give it their best shot. Sadly, most paddlers fail.

Paddling is one of those rare sports that can be enjoyed from a very young age to a ripe, old age. For many, it is a lifestyle as much as it is a sport. Why do so few children get into paddling, and why do so many of those that do stop paddling when they finish school?

I have given this a lot of thought over the years, especially after my own children were born. The first question I often get asked when it comes to kids is: How young can they start?

There is no perfect age to start paddling. However, you can literally start getting them on the water as toddlers, as long as you do it safely. This may be an extreme example, but both of my kids went on their first six-day Orange River expedition – in a large raft – when they were 16 months old. For them, spending time on rivers is the most natural thing in the world.

Ruben helping me row my oar raft on a multiday trip on the Vaal River.
Ruben helping me row my oar raft on a multiday trip on the Vaal River – age 2

Most children are able to paddle forward and do basic sweep strokes from around six years of age. From the age of eight, they can start learning different strokes and if you are that way inclined, you can introduce them to moving water too. When they reach 10, they will enjoy playing on small ocean waves or running small rapids (assuming that they already have a good paddling foundation by that time). If you spend a lot of time on whitewater and your children show interest, you could try teaching them to roll from around 12.

Taking my kids for a whitewater run on my raft.
Taking my kids with their friend Andre for a whitewater run on my raft – ages 5-8

These age milestones are merely an indication of what is possible. How you go about it is much more important. What follows here are not hard rules, but rather a summary of things that I’ve learned.

  • Make it fun. This is the Number 1 rule if you want your kids to keep paddling for years to come. They must enjoy it. It might mean taking your child on a double with you, or towing your child behind you in her own kayak, or just playing around on a swimming pool. Whatever you do, it must be fun and unintimidating for your child.
  • Make it safe. Your child should always wear a PFD (or even a real lifejacket if your child is very small), stick to shallow water and stay close to shore. You should always wear a PFD too. You won’t be of much help to your child if you struggle to stay afloat yourself.
  • Don’t pressure them and don’t ever get impatient. Not every child is destined for the Olympics, but most children can become proficient paddlers if you allow them to develop at their own pace.
  • Never take your child into a situation that you are not 110% comfortable with yourself. If you show any signs of stress, your child will most likely freak out and may never want to paddle again.
  • Get your child into a kayak that is easy to paddle and that is also very safe. Dealing with a swamped kayak is physically and emotionally draining for a child. Therefore, I’m a big believer of sit-on-top kayaks for kids. A sit-on-top kayak won’t fill up with water when your child capsizes. They can literally climb back onto the kayak right away and continue paddling. Choose a sit-on-top kayak according to their size and weight, that has decent forward speed and that they can manage off the water without your help. In my opinion, the best kayak for getting kids into paddling from a young age is the Kwando, the sit-on-top that I designed specifically for this purpose.
  • If your child decides to get into racing more seriously, it is normally a good idea to get someone else to coach him/her. Paddling with you should be a fun experience for your child, not something to resent. Few parents are able to be a good parent and a good coach at the same time.
  • Even if your child chooses to compete, don’t make racing the main goal of their paddling experience. I’ve seen too many kids that were pressured into racing too early; some of them got good results, even at national level, but the vast majority stopped paddling completely when they finished high school.
  • When you participate in races, don’t drag your child along every time. Leaving them to hang around at the start or finish of the race while you’re having a good time on the water gets boring. There is a good chance that they will end up resenting paddling, associating it with waiting for you.

Yes, you can start them young, but make it fun.

Kyla, Ruben and friend Ethan paddling with Kwandos on the Vaal.
Kyla, Ruben and friend Ethan paddling with Kwandos on the Vaal – ages 8 to 11

 

Ruben getting some air - age 10
Ruben getting some air – age 10

 

Ruben running a rapid on our local "Top Section" outside Parys on the Vaal - age 10.
Ruben running a rapid on our local “Top Section” outside Parys on the Vaal – age 10

 

Running rapids together with my son is pure bliss.
Running rapids together with my son is pure bliss.

 

Kyla paddling her Tarka on the Thunder Alley section of the Orange River - age 13
Kyla paddling her Tarka on the Thunder Alley section of the Orange River – age 13

 

Me and my kids on a recent multiday trip through the Tiger Eye canyon on the Orange river - ages 10 and 13
With my kids on a recent multiday trip through the Tiger Eye canyon on the Orange river – ages 10 and 13

This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag, November 2018.