An Introduction to Paddling with Kids

An Introduction to Paddling with Kids
Lotus Morning on Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0Paddling with kids begins with safety, and safety begins with a well-fitting PFD, or personal flotation device.

There’s no right age to introduce your kids to paddling. If they’re interested, it’s the perfect time. Experienced parents who know the ins and outs of water safety will be well prepared to start kids off with good practices. But if you need a refresher, you might prefer some help from the pros. More on that below.

However you go about teaching your crew, Dave Cole, the vice chair of AMC’s Worcester Chapter and a paddling leader, identifies two absolute essentials: a great sense of humor and patience. Following closely behind are a PFD (personal flotation device); a paddle; a dry bag for extra layers, snacks, and sunscreen; and the prerequisite that all participants are strong swimmers.

Ethan Hipple, coauthor of AMC’s Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, stresses that kids should always wear PFDs and that parents should set a good example by wearing them too.

PFDs come in five types. Most children will wear a Type III, suitable for various activities, while infants will wear a Type II, designed for calm waters. You’ll choose a PFD based on your child’s weight: Infant PFDs are for kids 8 to 30 pounds; child PFDs, 30 to 50 pounds; and youth PFDs, 50 to 90 pounds. To test the fit, secure your child in the PFD then grasp the shoulders of the vest, lifting your child. Your paddler’s ears and chin should not slip through.

If you’d rather wait to invest in gear until you see how your kids take to the water, Cole suggests signing up for a workshop, which often provides everything you’ll need. In addition to the classes below, check with your local REI store and Audubon chapter.

AMC offers family-friendly paddling events throughout the year. Check for updates. Boating in Boston, with locations including Boston and Hopkinton, offers a two-hour kayak orientation on boating safety, equipment, basic strokes, and maneuvers. The class is geared toward first-timers and is capped at eight people, so kids will get plenty of direct instruction.

L.L. Bean’s Kayaking Discovery Course, offered through many of its stores, begins with a safety talk. Participants are then fitted with a PFD, kayak, and paddle; once everyone is comfortable, the class hits the water for a guided interpretive tour.

Charles River Canoe & Kayak leads classes for kids, teens, and families in Boston, Newton, Waltham, and Cambridge. Advanced lessons in paddle boarding and sea kayaking are available, but the kids’ kayak class sticks to the basics, starting with an on-land introduction to equipment and strokes before diving into skill-building games.

PFD? Check. Basics mastered? Check. Great! Before you put in, Cole has one last piece of advice: Keep things playful. “Kids love games, like boat racing and balance tests, and are thrilled to play them on the water,” he says. He also advises packing beach chairs and nature guidebooks for when paddlers, adult or child, need to take a break.


Get tips on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in Great Kids, Great Outdoors and find trip ideas in AMC’s community for families, Kids Outdoors.

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Kim Foley MacKinnon

Along with Ethan Hipple, Kim Foley MacKinnon writes AMC’s Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog. She is a Boston-based editor, journalist, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, AAA Horizons, Travel + Leisure, and USA Today, among other publications. Kim has been writing about what to do and where to go in New England since her teenager was a toddler. Her latest book for AMC is Outdoors with Kids Boston.