As a young child, my parents often hoisted me into an old Grumman aluminum canoe in the summertime to either explore local waterways or cast a line, fishing in the vast lakes of northern Wisconsin. One of my favorite memories was dragging fingers through the water as it glided forward across the lake. “Don’t get your fingers bit by a Muskie”, my Dad would say. By spending time on the water as a young child, I was able to develop context, confidence, and reverence for the traveling and navigating waterways. These early experiences eventually led me to a career in the outdoors and education as well as a lifelong passion for paddling.
Flash-forward about twenty five years….after a life of adventure and teaching hundreds if not thousands of students in the outdoors and amazing adventures all over the globe- I faced one of my greatest fears before diving into motherhood. I feared that I would no longer have the time to do the things I love outdoors. Fortunately, I have continued to prove myself completely and utterly wrong on almost all accounts. Parenting is what you make of it and in my mind there is no better gift you can give your kids than the gift of time having shared outdoor experiences.
With all of the Chariots, and kid carrying backpacks, skiing leashes, and other “special accessories needed to get your kid outdoors”, stand up paddleboarding is a low gear and easy activity to do with your young one on the water and have a whole lot of fun. We first took our daughter on a SUP board as soon as she could sit up straight and hold relatively still (about 1). After about four years of paddling a with a small child “on board”, I have a few pieces of advice to get started or enhance your experience with your young child.
Get the Right Life Jacket
Safety first! Although many flatwater paddleboarders may do whatever they can to meet the minimum requirement for carrying a life preserver on their board, when taking your child out this is a big “no- no”. Quality and Coast Guard approved infant, toddler, and small child life jackets are readily available at most major department stores and are relatively inexpensive. Like most parents on a tight budget, these type of items are also passed around from family to family. Ask around and I’m sure you can find a good one. When my kiddo was able to sit on a paddleboard at about one we liked outfitting her with a good Type 1 PFD (the kind with the head flap). Now at four we have a more form fitting Type 3 vest. Also, always make sure to double check straps for tightness even with increasing independence (“I can do it myself, Mom”).
Although many people in my circle of paddlers have the next big trip planned in their back pocket, paddleboarding with a child is not your time to test your skills or “shred the gnar”. Find a location that has calm waters with little or no significant wind. Paddle early to avoid storms and other boat traffic (and being held hostage to nap time!). I also like to find places with neat nature features such as fish or great wildlife. One of my favorite moments with my daughter last paddling season was an evening paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where we got to watch loons diving for their dinner for over an hour. To our surprise one of the loons popped up right beside our board!
When starting out, give yourself a maximum paddle time of about 15-30 minutes and have clear safe areas with available shore line if you need to head back for weather, a potty break, or to change a diaper. As you paddle together more frequently, gradually increase the time you are out.
Pack Snacks and Water
If your growing child is anything like mine, snacking of their favorite past times. Bring plenty of water and snacks that don’t melt in the sun. Trail mixes are an ever favorite in our household but for younger children, cereals and squeezy apple sauces work wonderful. If your board has “D” rings for rigging, try bringing a small cooler or insulated lunch along to have a floating lunch in a small cove or in the lilypads. I also highly recommend investing in a small dry bag for food and other essentials you don’t want to get wet… even if it’s just from your kiddo splashing across the water.
Sun Protection is a Must
Sunscreen is the obvious elephant in the room on this bullet, but don’t forget to wear a good sunshirt/ Swim shirt and a brimmed hat. If you can get your wee one a brimmed hat with some kind of neck string or attachment device. We’ve lost several hats when a gust of wind blows up suddenly and it’s likely tear will follow when you don’t retrieve it (good advice for everything — attach everything!).
Know Your Board
Before you paddle with your precious cargo, make sure you have had plenty of time on your board, by yourself. Getting to know your board makes you better at managing when their is a small human on board with you. Know how to rig gear, safely get on and off your board, and balance proficiently. Be ready to ajust your best fancy race power stroke to accommodate small feet and hands on the rails. Feeling confident with these basic skills allow you to manage a wiggly child on board.
Balance and Ballast
Where should a small child sit when on a paddleboard? Before even getting on the board, frontload a few rules such as staying seated unless given permission to stand. I like to have my four year old sit just in front of the handle, in the center on the deck “criss- cross applesauce” style. I have sometimes put a fun sticker right where I want my kid to sit to make it fun and memorable. It is likely that they will put their hands or feet in the water… be ready for this. Remind them that they need to stay in the center to keep the board on balance. Also let them know that when you stop in a safe place there will be time to play more in the water and explore the rest of the board safety.
Involve Kids in Everything
Have your child help carry gear, try to pump up your inflatable, or even give a crack at paddling (with guidance). The more you involve your child in the routine – the more they know what to expect and how to prepare, stay safe, and have fun.
Make Small Steps
Although the eventual goal of paddling with your child is paddling on their own board beside you, take the time to teach a few skills each trip. Whether its standing up and balancing on the board (or just sitting still) or practicing switching sides paddling, infuse your experience with skills so they have the know how and the experience. Don’t expect your kid to shred a Class III river and surf a wave overnight, but give them small steps to learn the sport too – not just be in it for the ride. Our family phrase is “Be a crew not just a passenger” (ala Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound).
Bring a Change of Dry/Warm Clothes
No matter how high and dry you keep your board or kid during your paddle session, remember that kids will alway get wet and/or dirty! . Mud pie fights or snagging a slime chunk of algae will happen. Plan to change for a comfortable ride back home.
End on a High Note
The biggest advice I have for any outdoor activity you want to share with your child is… quit while you are ahead! The need for a nap or a trip to “crankytown” creeps up too fast and furious not to. Leave your child wanting more. And with this, there’s guaranteed to be a smile on their face as you head back to shore and savor how awesome your paddle board time was. I always like to ask, “What was your favorite part of today?” to reflect on the fun.
So with that – stop reading this and get your kid on the water today!
By Sarah Bayers