Five Reasons to Get Kids in Kayaks

Overcoming "nature deficit disorder" on the Nantahala River

Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

By Annabell Plush

As a child, I spent most of my free time outside, gardening, building, or re-enacting the Civil War. I hatched chickens, bred bunnies, and dissected insects. We can all remember summers spent outside while we were growing up: learning about ourselves, the world around us, and creating lifelong memories. These days, kids spend most of their free time playing a video game, or watching TV. It’s strange to try and imagine what kids today will recall in 20 years: “Remember that day I beat your level in (insert popular game here)? What an incredible day that was!”

In his book “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv poses this question: “What would our lives be like if our nights and days were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?”

Last summer I taught dozens of kids how to kayak. I got to see kids getting unplugged from technology and immersed in kayaking for a week. I saw kids transformed, changed, and altered by this experience. They learned new skills, practiced techniques, and had the chance to relax. Away from a structured classroom environment, I watched them experience the magic of experimental education–learning by doing, and sometimes failing.

Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Spending time in nature provides crucial lessons in how to be fully human. After watching kids learn all summer, and thinking back to my own childhood, I’m reminded of these five reasons to get kids outside and introduce them to kayaking.

1) Learning how to kayak teaches kids to use creative problem solving skills under pressure.

While kayaking, we often have to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan on the spot. There is a rock in the rapid we didn’t see, a branch that wasn’t there a week ago, and these things cause a wrinkle in our plans. We need to solve those problems as they arise, on the river.

2) Learning how to kayak creates an awareness of the natural world, and the need to protect it.

Nothing gives us a reason to take care of our environment more than enjoying it. By being a part of nature, and relying on it for fun, kids learn to appreciate the natural world and develop a desire to preserve it.

3) Learning to kayak creates physical awareness for kids.

By using their bodies for a fun, adventurous sport, kids learn to respect their bodies and care for them. Children who spend time being active outside also develop body coordination and awareness. After a long day kayaking this summer, one of the girls watched me stretching out by doing yoga. After talking about why I used yoga to keep my joints limber to protect against dislocations, the girl and her friends joined in. The next day they asked for a short yoga session at the end of the day.

4) Learning how to kayak teaches kids persistence.

How many of us were able to get a roll the first time we flipped in moving water? Not many of us. But we stuck with things, practicing and trying until we got it right. In our culture of instant gratification, giving kids a reason to stick with something hard because it will eventually pay off is a lesson that is harder and harder to find.

5) Learning how to kayak introduces the idea of risk vs. reward.

Teaching kids real life lessons in a fun, interactive way that will help them remember them is every teacher and parent’s struggle. Learning how to kayak teaches kids to evaluate risk and how to balance it with reward in a fun, interactive way.

Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Of course, these are just a few of the top reasons we should be getting kids into boats. I still remember the night all the girls in my cabin gathered in a circle while I asked them the best part of their day. They took turns talking about their first combat roll, a nasty swim that showed them how tough they are, and the new river they got to explore. For over an hour, a group of teenage girls giggled and chatted about kayaking, praising each other for trying, not just accomplishing things perfectly.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can teach our kids is to realize there are other ways of living. By immersing them in kayaking, we can expose them to other ways of living outside of chasing a paycheck and working toward a retirement that is harder and harder to find. We can teach them to value things other than money: things like community, the value and importance of wild places, and enjoying the present moment. As Sir John Lubbock, the Vice Chancellor of the University of London, said, “Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”

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.

More from C&K

5 Ways to Hook Kids on Flatwater Kayaking

Video: Tips for Paddling with Kids