6 years into the kid in kayak experiment has been thrilling, interesting, motivating, tough as Hell, expensive, crazy at times, bewildering, and most importantly; FUN!
For those of you that paddle and have kids, get them a boat, get them started in this fun insanity. You'll be rewarded a hundredfold in the level of their discipline, awareness of consequences, level of self-confidence, and level of maturity.
What age is the right age? Any age is the answer. But I honestly believe, the younger, the better.
The younger they are is where it gets interesting. They're very much visual learners at age 3, which is when I started my son. You have to resist the temptation of talking too much in detail and learn to keep it very very simple. The first simple steps are;
- Starting Out - Pool only for a while, paddle strokes, wet exits, hip snaps, basics of rolling and always use nose clips and swim goggles when they're going to be upside down. That's so they can see what they're doing and not worrying about their eyes burning and water up the nose.
- Rivers - Very short sections of rivers, 50 yards or less that have minor features and an eddy or two. The idea is to give them confidence in small steps by conquering the little things.
As they progress, introduce them to longer runs with few of minimal consequences, because they will have swims. You need to have other boaters there to help with safety. They have to trust in the fact that you'll be there to get them no matter what.
On easier runs, you can start letting them lead once they're confident. Ask them their opinion on what line is the best line and why they think it's the best line to take.
- Practice swims in rapids with them, teach them self-rescue and assisted rescue, how they're supposed to grab the throw bag line and how to position their bodies.
- Eddy hopping games - Make a game of catching eddies and always lose to them.
- Rolling and bracing drills - I made of a game of this with my son, I'd push down on either side while he held his paddle level in front of him or over his head. He never knew which side I'd slam down on. It teaches lightning fast reaction skills in quick bracing.
- Introduce them to competitive kayaking - Slalom, freestyle, and downriver racing. Always be there to help them in the beginning, eventually you'll be sitting on the sidelines watching them rip it up. Slalom teaches precision paddling. Freestyle teaches them 3-dimensional thinking in the sport. Downriver racing teaches them strength and endurance and reading water well. The combination of all three makes them safe and balanced paddlers.
Lastly, you will see fears, you will see tears and there are times when you have to push them a little, and times when you have to totally back off of it. There is no exact way to predict how they'll react in any given situation. It just has to be fun for them. Fun is the most important thing.
They will do and say the damnedest things. I have seen my son freeze up on a Class III drop in his boat, only to have him park it and go swim it deliberately. Conversely, I have seen him not hesitate at all on a Class IV drop and read'n'run it.
The experiment continues, but he's way beyond teaching to by me anymore. Just get them into the sport if they're willing, the rest will follow and you will be amazed.