It was Mother’s Day and the family rule was that you got to pick what you wanted to do on your special day, which for me was paddling. I was met with some opposition from my kids, but I ignored it, proceeded to a sandwich shop for lunch and we were on our way to the river.
Cold meatball sandwiches aren’t the most suitable river lunch but that’s what my son loves, so I consented. Soon after we pushed off, the kids began to eat. A meatball fell out of Bryce’s roll so he threw it into the river. His sister, Sierra, who was sitting behind him in the canoe, quickly grabbed her minnow net and tried to catch it. Got it! What fun! She handed it back to Bryce and they threw that soggy meatball into the river and took turns catching it for half an hour, giggling and having a great time. It was probably their best river trip ever.
Whatever works, even if it’s a meatball. The important thing is to get your children out on the water with you, which will only happen if paddling trips are something they enjoy. Here are some tips for keeping the kids entertained on your family kayaking.
Play With Them
Pull over and build a sandcastle. Bring along buckets and cups for making molds. Show them techniques for building bridges, moats, dribbling wet sand. Kneel and sit in the sand and participate.
Swim in the waterfalls that you paddle by. Stand under the pounding water with them, take a dip in the river on a break. Let them climb onto your back and take them for a ride in the deep water.
Purchase some toys and bring them along—nets for catching minnows, Mini Bait buckets for minnow storage, fishing gear, squirt guns, toy boats on strings to trail behind, a kite to fly on the beach when you’re sea kayaking. Or serious “toys” like binoculars or a camera (child’s versions of these even exist).
My husband brought along a monster mask when we paddled the Okefenokee Swamp (said he was a swamp monster) and wore it at various times (in the outhouse) to make the kids laugh.
Pick paddling destinations where there’s a good chance you’ll see wildlife—paddling with seals or manatees, or abundant bird life like terns and ospreys. Go early in the morning or in the evening when you’re more likely to see animals.
Invest in a fishing license and bring the basics just to get started. A push-button rod for small kids and fake rubber worms or mealy bugs (larvae) instead of earthworms if your kids are squeamish. Once kids get the basic casting down, they can troll while you float downstream, keeping them occupied.
One trip, my daughter Sierra wasn’t the least bit interested in paddling but she found scrubbing the inside hull of the canoe with the bailing sponge very entertaining. It kept her busy and happy and my husband easily managed to power the boat without her, opting for a happy adolescent instead.
Our kids make up songs and stories about where we’re paddling. They have a hard time paddling and talking and laughing at the same time, but we usually let them go and do the work ourselves, taking whatever efforts they give us as a gift. We want them to enjoy themselves on the water, lest they refuse to go at all.
If you can’t come down to their level and play, at least let them play. If they want to see what mucky mud feels like, let them discover with their senses. Try to close your eyes to mess as long as they aren’t hurting themselves. Discovering the natural world and getting messy or wet often go hand in hand.
Take Time For Time
Children don’t live for the challenge of covering miles, they live for the moment, so make time for them to explore. Detour up narrow side tributaries. Pull the boat over to investigate otter slides, animal tracks in the mud, undercuts in the river. If you pass beneath a covered bridge or ruins, stop, get out and explore.
Let them try out a rope swing that you pass by (test for water depth and rocks). If you have a rock hound or a kid who loves to catch minnows, build time into your schedule for that.
Whenever my kids whine that they’re hungry, I know it’s mostly a hunger for diversion, for as soon as they get out of the boat, they go off exploring and forget food. To allow them more time, I keep nutritious snacks and food handy in the boat and let them eat as we paddle. Then break time is their time.
If the water is shallow and your boat drags, let them jump out to pull. They love getting their feet wet, and being able to help. Make sure they have good protective footwear on.
The biggest gift of your time is more of it—going overnight on a paddling trip. Camping is what every kid loves most. Sit and watch a sunset with them. Go for an evening exploration with them. Build a small campfire and stay up telling spooky stories.
Once they are old enough to use draw strokes, choose trips that include some maneuvering and steering—an occasional Class II rapid and on up to steady Class II. Boredom will never enter the picture if they are up front scouting for rocks, directing you and taking action.
On flatwater, try putting your experienced children in their own boat to let them try their hand at steering and working together. It will reveal the challenging world of responsibility, and should bring you more respect when they realize the work you’re doing for them. Go with a guide/naturalist to expose your kids to new ideas.
Anywhere they can lend a hand, encourage them—portaging, carrying gear/boats to the bank, planning menus, lining boats through rocky areas. Make them feel as though their presence matters and keep them interested and you’ll all get out on the water more often.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.