Everything you need to know to get your kid started in kayaking
Can a 4-year-old go kayaking?
our-year-old children can enjoy kayaking in a few different ways :
Right size of gear for a 4-year-old
The right size of kayak for a four-year-old wanting to paddle alone is a 6' or 6.5' child-sized kayak, and generally this is going to be a sit-on-top kayak at this age. The child will use either a 152 or 182 cm kayak paddle. Kayaks such as the popular 6' Wave Kayak come with a 182 cm paddle and this is what our four-year-old used last summer.
The child-sized kayaks do suggest on the box a recommend age of 5-year-old and up, so realize that any use a 4-year-old gets practicing on it is really a bonus.
Our experience with four-year-olds and kayaks
Our four-year-old son Hudson has been riding on the back of his brother's child-sized sit-on-top kayak since he was three. Together they have been on many adventures to collect lily pads and find turtles and frogs along the bank of the millpond. Riding with his brother feels like an adventure and helped to get him used to the idea of being out in a big body of water floating on a kayak.
Five minutes for the first outing
When he was four and a few months he practiced paddling the child-sized kayak alone a few times on our millpond. He immediately started paddling like it was intuitive (he had watched his brothers countless times) but he of course couldn't steer the kayak very well or make it go where he wanted it to go just yet. I would paddle along near him and push the kayak in the direction he was trying to go with my paddle as he experimented.
They pick it up surprisingly fast. With each of our three children, and all the other kids that have visited our backyard oasis to play on the water, I am always amazed at how intuitive paddling is to children. I took a video of him paddling so once I upload it I'll come back here and link to it.
Keep it short at this age
It only lasted a few minutes or so the first time Hudson paddled alone, but it was very exciting for him. I made sure to keep it short and let him end the minute he was ready so that he wouldn't get overwhelmed. I made sure to end on a positive note with lots of praise so he would want to do it again next time we went out.
Swimming pools are a great place to practice
Another great way to get a 4-year-old kayaking early is the swimming pool. Hudson especially enjoyed paddling the child-sized kayak in our above-the ground swimming pool all summer. Even a small pool like the one we have can be a great resource.
He felt safe and treated it like a game of bumper cars as he would paddle the kayak until he bumped into the edge of the pool. This was great experience for him to play around with the paddle and kayak and get used to using the paddle to pry himself away from the edge of the pool. Just by playing and having fun kids can teach themselves intuitively this way as they get a feel for how to move the kayak around the pool without any fear of being swept away down a river.
Let them be your passenger
Hudson also likes to ride duffer (as a middle non-paddling passenger) with his parents as well. When padding alone he enjoyed it, but only had a few minutes of endurance and motivation before being ready for assistance.
When he was four and a half he was able to paddle for on the millpond for about five or ten minutes before reaching his limit. He would then switch places with a brother and climb in with a parent, ask to ride as a passenger with a sibling instead of continue to paddle alone, or ask for a tow. Or sometimes he was just be ready to be done.
He really had a lot of fun but it was a big thing for him to paddle by himself and he had to work hard and be brave. He thought it was exciting but was definitely ready for a break shortly. At four-years-old any paddling is a great success.
Two of his little four-year-old friends also paddled with us last summer. Neither paddled a child-sized kayak themselves on the river but loved riding as a passenger on many sibling's child-sized sit-on-top kayaks.
Had the four-year-old friends spent years riding as passengers or come to paddle more often while they were four, I think they also would have liked to try paddling for five minutes or so on the pond at that age. Because they visited only a handful of times throughout the summer, they were most comfortable and very happy just being passengers.
Holding a paddle = getting attached to the idea of being a future paddler
Whether they are ready to paddle their own little kayak or not, I've found that they do all like having a turn holding a paddle at some point during the day, whether that is with a sibling on a tandem kayak, in the canoe with an adult, or even with mom on a SUP.
Even the tiny ones want a turn holding a paddle. Even if they just use it to slow you down, it is a great joy and sense of pride for them to be a "holder of the paddle". This is great. It means they want to be able to paddle and that they think it's an important job.
One 4-year-old girl visiting our yard last summer enjoyed paddling in the pool on the child-sized kayak. She would not have been able to paddle on the river, even though it is a slow moving calm body of water. I think next year she will be able to do it about as well as Hudson paddled last summer. So she will be about a years difference in her readiness. Each child is so different.
I would say the highlight for this age was just being on the water, whether they wanted to be a passenger or paddle for a few minutes, holding a paddle at some point in the experience, and collecting lily pads and looking for turtles.
If they want to, let them paddle their own kayak!
Most four-year-olds will enjoy practicing on about a 6' or 6.5' child-sized kayak (or smaller is fine) in a swimming pool or on calm slow-moving water with a parent nearby, or while being towed. See the kid-sized kayak resources page for advice on kayaks for kids of different ages.
If they are not ready to paddle, let them ride as a passenger
A four-year-old can ride as a passenger with a sibling or older child on the back of a child-sized kayak or as a duffer (in the middle of the boat as a non-paddling passenger) with a parent on a tandem kayak. We had a 6-year-old paddling a child-sized-kayak last year with one of the two 4-year-old on the back for about a mile trip on more than one occasion. She really liked having the 4-year-olds ride with her and they certainly loved it.
If they are strong and like to paddle, let them paddle with you
If they are strong enough to hold and use a paddle, and parent is a competent paddler, the child may sit as the bow paddler (front seat of the boat) of a tandem sit-inside kayak on calm water or water the parent feels comfortable with. Unless the child is exceptionally large, strong or mature for their age (or highly motivated), this is likely to be more successful the closer the child gets to the 6 or 7 age range.
Make sure you have a child-sized paddle that is lightweight, has a slim shaft for little hands, and sized-down low angle blades for easy paddling. See our kid paddle guide page for suggestions.
A four-year-old may enjoy assisting with casual paddling a tandem sit-on-top with competent older siblings or parents on calm water
Important considerations for taking four-year-old kids kayaking:
Four-year-old children benefit from going kayaking simply because it gets them out in nature and on the water and primes their excitement for all the skills they will be ready for very shortly.
It's not important how much they can do. Five-minutes is a great success!
Just let them do what they can and keep it very simple and fun and they will want to come back next year (and the next) for more!
Be safe, wear life jackets and take it slow and easy!
Have fun outside in nature together!
Almost six years ago we moved into a little New England house with a river in the backyard and quickly discovered the joy of kayaking kids.