By Annabell Plush
Getting kids outside is important. Spending time in nature helps kids learn many valuable lessons such as body awareness, risk-reward analysis, and nature appreciation. Anyone who has kids or works with them regularly knows how rewarding it can be to help instill a love of the outdoors in them. And they also know how hard that can be at times.
Kids have short attention spans, especially if you’re trying to explain how to properly execute a forward stroke on a calm lake. They’d rather collect rocks or explore the rope swings peaking out from the trees on shore. So how do we get kids to learn how to safely kayak on flatwater while maintaining the proper ratio of fun and technique? Below are some methods I use while working with kids in an instruction setting that help get them interested in boating while also building skills that can be used on a lake or river.
1) Wide vs. narrow strokes. Kids don’t want to learn about draws, sweeps, or forward strokes. They want to know how to direct their boats. By having kids try to paddle to a fixed object they will discover the need to learn how to control their kayaks. Once they’ve discovered this sudden, urgent need, explain the difference between wide and narrow strokes. Wide strokes will turn the boat, and narrow will propel the boat.
2) Get comfortable tipping over. Whether you plan to use a skirt one day or not, kids need to get comfortable tipping over in boats and learn how to safely get out of an upside down boat. Turn it into a game, where you challenge kids to see who can stay upside down in their boat the longest without a skirt, then move on to a wet exit progression with a skirt if you plan on using one.
3) Sharks and minnows. If you have a good size group of kids, a game of sharks and minnows can be just the activity you need to help kids practice boat control while having fun. Start with all but one kid on one side of two goals about 20-30 feet apart. The child alone will be the shark; all the other kids are minnows. When you say go the minnows try to get to the other goal without getting tagged by the shark. Once a shark has tagged them, they become a shark and join the sharks for the next round. Keep going until all the kids have become sharks.
4) Relay race. Have the kids line up in front of you and split into two teams. You will want to be about 10-15 feet in front of the kids. Have one member of each team paddle around you then back to tag the next person in line. If you want to make it more advanced, have each kid do something different. The first kid could paddle backwards the whole time, the second one may have to shake your hand, etc.
5) Don’t forget the snacks! Kids need to eat often, so make sure you have snacks on hand. A friend of mine, Juliet Jocobson Kastorff who owns Endless River Adventures and has been teaching kids camps for over twenty years, suggests make-your-own burritos by filling tortillas with Oreos, peanut butter, blueberries, Cheerios, and bananas; basically anything can be wrapped up in a tortilla. The Oreos also come in handy as prizes for the games.
They key is to keep paddling exercises fun, short and interesting. The learning will happen naturally while they explore the new environment in a dynamic and interactive way.
Annabell Plush is a kayak instructor for the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Western North Carolina as well as an aspiring writer. She has been kayaking for nine years and enjoys sharing the magic of the sport with young people and grown-ups. In the winters she can be found chasing eternal summer in South America.
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