Everything you need to know to get your kid started in kayaking
Can a 5-year-old paddle a kayak?
Most 5-year-old kids are ready to practice paddling their own child-sized kayak. In addition, five-year-old children can enjoy kayaking in the following variety of ways:
Last year our youngest son was four (we have three boys), and he tried paddling a kayak for the first time! Though his first excursions were short, he absolutely loved it! This year he is turning five and eagerly awaiting spring so he can practice paddling the kayak up and down the banks of the calm river that runs through the back of our property.
We have many neighbors, friends and cousins who come to kayak, canoe, and paddleboard with us each summer, and has given me the opportunity to see many children try paddling for the first time.
I'm delighted every single time! The first few moments of apprehension quickly turn into excitement as they try a few strokes with the paddle, and then they are off without looking back.
Five years old is the best age to begin kayaking for most kids
Here is what my experience having kids try out kayaking on our river the past few years has taught me about starting kids on the little kid kayaks:
SOME four-year-olds are ready to paddle a kid-sized kayak.
MOST five-year-olds are ready (Are strong enough, want to, and will enjoy it)
ALMOST ALL six-year-olds can paddle a child-sized kayak with great success.
Five is the recommended age for starting kids on a child-sized (usually 6 or 6.5 ft) sit-on-top kayak such as the popular and inexpensive Lifetime Wave. This was the first kid kayak we started with for our children and we own multiple of the same one so the kids can go out together and with their friend on the river.
These kayaks are very small and easy to manage. Virtually every kid within a mile of our house comes in the summer to play on these with my kids. My 11-year-old still has fun with it as well, so for the cheap price, they get A LOT of kid use hours. After a bicycle, I would say this is the best investment you can make for a kid. And unlike a bike, the same one can work from when they are 4 to about 12-years-old.
This is definitely the easiest type of kayak for young kids age 4-7 to learn on - a child-sized sit-on-top kayak. They are very stable, unsinkable, and easy to paddle. They are perfect for lakes and calm slow moving rivers. They kids can climb on and off easily to play in the water, and the kids seem to very intuitively know how to paddle as soon as they get on. The small size takes away the intimidation factor and the kayak feels like it was made just for them.
For this size of kayak, they will need a child-sized paddle, approximately 180 to 200 cm with a narrow shaft, so they have a comfortable hand-grip for their little hands, and a scaled-down blade on the paddle so that paddling is not too difficult. The paddle blade should not be the same size blade as an adult paddle with only a shorter shaft. This will make paddling much too difficult. It should look like a miniature paddle blade.
Not to worry though; most sit-on-top child kayaks come with a child-sized paddle.
Things to remember about 5-year-olds on their own kayaks:
If they are not ready to paddle alone, let them ride as a passenger first
A five-year-old can ride as a passenger with an older sibling 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.
Riding Duffer in a Tandem Kayak
A five-year-olds generally really likes to ride duffer (as a middle non-paddling passenger) with their parents. They are old enough to enjoy medium length river trips with parents who are competent paddlers.
At this age, they will only have enough endurance for very short trips paddling themselves, so unless you are willing to do a fair amount of towing, you will want to consider a tandem kayak or canoe if you are planning on taking your five-year-old on long touring river trips.
If they like to paddle, let them be the bow paddler (front of the boat in a tandem) for a short trip
If they are strong enough to hold and use a paddle, and the parent is a competent stern 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 that the parent feels 100 % comfortable with).
Unless the five-year-old child is pretty coordinated, active, large, strong or mature for their age (or just highly motivated), this is likely to be more successful the closer the child gets to the 6 or 7 age range, but is certainly something to try for some five-year-old kids in families that already have a tandem or are thinking about getting one.
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. Kids cannot successfully paddle a kayak with an adult-sized paddle. The blades are too big, causing the load to feel very heavy with each stroke and the paddle will be much too long.
Paddle a tandem sit-on-top as a family
A five-year-old may enjoy assisting with casually paddling a tandem sit-on-top kayak with competent older siblings or parents on calm water. They get to paddle but they don't have to be good at it yet and they get to be with others.
Some kids will be delighted to be alone on a little kayak and others will want to be with you. You probably know what your child would like best and be willing to do.
If your child is able and willing, I would ALWAYS recommend that you get them a little child-sized kayak SO THEY CAN EXPERIENCE THAT JOY AND DISCOVERY OF PADDLING ALONE.
It is amazing to give them that experience of independence and freedom. It is incredible what it does for the self-esteem of kids.
They don't get as many opportunities in this culture to do things on their own as most of us did as children. Not only do they have fun paddling around and jumping into the water only to climb back on and jump in again, but they are exploring nature, getting off of screens, getting exercise, and I feel like I've been able to give them more freedom on the river than I can riding bikes on our busy road.
Watching my kids learn to kayak and what it opened up for them was truly impressive to me and won me over to the child-sized kid kayaks. That's why we decided we wanted to help other families get their kids started with kayaking early by trying a kid kayak when they are 4, 5 or 6-years-old. We have invited others to come and play on the river with their kids, and we started this blog as a family hobby hoping we can help other families as well. When my oldest was young we had a hard time finding good information about kids brand new to kayaking and what age they could do what.
So far we have multiple friends who went and bought kid-sized kayaks for each of their little ones after they came and saw their kids play and paddle on our kayaks!
Important considerations for taking five-year-old kids kayaking:
Five-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 or ten minutes is a great success! Soon it will turn into hours.
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 spending time in nature together.
Wishing your family many adventures on the water 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.