When it comes to introducing children to a new activity, things rarely go as planned. I’ve spent 19 years taking my two daughters on a variety of outdoor adventures and it has been a balancing act of research, planning and a willingness to go with the flow when things go awry. We have had a lot of fun over the years, but we’ve also had our share of mishaps as well.
When my daughters were 10 and 11 years old, I introduced them to kayaking. On just our second trip out, after taking a short class through L.L.Bean the week before, my younger daughter flipped over in the current of a New Hampshire river. She was shaken and declared she would never get into a kayak again, even though she easily disentangled herself from the boat, “saved” her stuffed dog from the river, got herself to shore and asked a passerby to pick up her lunch box that was floating away.
Then there was the time, when the girls were 12 and 13, when I decided to take them to Peaks Island for a sailing lesson. It was a bit breezy on Casco Bay, and although I had taken a couple of previous lessons, I discovered quickly that my skills were lacking in just about every way, from steering to controlling our speed when we caught the wind in our sails. For my older daughter and me, the ride was a fast, thrilling 20 minutes on the water. But my younger daughter was near hysterics by the time I managed, with the aid of a good instructor, to get our little sailboat to shore.
Another summer, I took the girls and a couple of their friends on a three-mile biking adventure to a swimming hole. I’d taken my kids to this river many, many times. But that day, when I had somebody else’s kids and no car, was the day my youngest emerged from the water, covered head to toe in leeches. The other girls – screaming – discovered they had some on them as well. And so did I. I managed to scrape the wiggly suckers off with an old credit card before we got back on our bikes for the fastest ride we’d ever pedaled.
I have learned that, no matter how experienced you feel on the water, putting kids in the mix can be a humbling experience and full of new learnings. You need to be prepared for anything. And more importantly, you need to know how to stay safe and to walk away from the water when necessary.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned from taking my kids on water adventures:
Take a class or ask someone experienced in the activity to join your family on the adventure. This could simply mean meeting up with someone at the destination for an extra set of experienced hands. Pairing kids up with an adult for a one-on-one introduction to a water sport gives them a chance to ask questions and gain confidence with the activity.
Choose activities that match what they’re interested in and their comfort level, and the day will go more smoothly for everyone.
You don’t have to scare your kids with every worst-case scenario, but having a matter-of-fact conversation about what to do if their boat flips over will help them if something does go wrong. First, they know it could happen. Second, you’ve given them some tools to empower them. It can also lessen the panic (well, at least slightly) for a parent when you realize, in a moment of stunned, slow-motion horror, that your child’s kayak is headed right for a stump and a certain capsize. When I saw my daughter reach to save her stuffed dog in the river, I knew I’d prepared her well enough to handle the situation. Soliciting the assistance of another kayaker to retrieve her lunch box confirmed she’d paid attention to our talk before we set out on the water.
After flipping over in the kayak, my daughter was unwilling to get into her own kayak that summer. But a tandem kayak rental with me was just the recipe for giving the activity another try.
Just because you scheduled – or even paid for – a water adventure, doesn’t mean it’s worth the stress it could cause your child. Kids do not easily forget the times they felt scared. Nothing bad happened on that windy sail on the bay, but eight years later, my daughter remembers how she felt that day and has no plans to learn to sail.
And most importantly, make sure your child wears a personal flotation device that fits properly when paddling or riding in any kind of boat.