An Olympian Shares Secrets on When to Start Your Kids Paddling

“At what age can I start my child paddling?” That’s a question I get asked many times…especially from parents who dream of paddling the rivers with their own kids. Adult paddlers often feel they started the sport late in life, a disadvantage they don’t want to pass on to their own youngsters.

Age is quite a good indicator of ‘when’ to start kids paddling. But first let’s discuss what kind of paddling. Whitewater paddling is my specialty, having been born into a whitewater paddling school: the Madawaska Kanu Centre. But, whitewater paddling is the final step along the introduction curve for children on the water.

I never thought to take the sport seriously myself – I thought paddling was for ‘old folks’ as no-one my age paddled, until my parents started the world’s first whitewater paddling school on the Madawaska River in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, and cute boys showed up. That’s all it took.

So, when I took over running this amazing place called MKC, the first ‘new’ course I introduced was Junior Week. It was geared for 12-16 year olds, which seemed to be the perfect age to give the rushing waters a try…strong enough to carry your own kayak, and old enough not to get scared. It was also cool, because they got to paddle with other kids. It was a great phenomena that spurred amazing paddlers…until it became obvious that Junior Week was a drop-off zone for parents that didn’t want to paddle and keep their kids busy in “Camp”. So another idea struck us, Family Week. Juniors could still come, be in a class with their peers, pick up the sport, while their parents learned the sport in their own groups enjoying the depth of adult conversation, and not being shown up by the fast learning youth. Family time was plenty, over meals, and at the end of the day when we gave the kids back. Our strength was on the water; we were never interested in the camp counsellor role. But there was a bigger upside to this new arrangement – kids fall in love with the fast-moving-adrenaline-sport of whitewater paddling, but do actually need adults to get there – drive them to the rivers, and be part of the safety network on the water called the “ never paddle alone “ golden rule. Now we were building both.

Then I had my own kids.

Our kids became the next phase test zone…and we broached the topic once again, “When can I start my kids paddling?”

We had two girls, two years apart with the younger one more outgoing. Being an active couple, we didn’t want kids to remove us from the world we loved so much…the outdoors, and the excitement of being active in it. We just changed what we did as a family. As babies they were towed in Baby Gliders behind us on skis, on our back reaching new peaks, and popped in the middle of our canoe or sea kayak on calm waters.

Once old enough to hold their own paddle, they did. Either in the middle of our canoe, the luggage compartment of our double sea kayak, or dare-we-say in the front of our “Topo-Duo” whitewater kayak getting absolutely buried every time we plowed through a wave at the eager age of 5, 6 and 7. This seemed to go well at least from our point of view. We were running whitewater again, and this time with our kids – amazing. Theirs may be a bit different, something we learned the hard way. Yes, we did learn a valuable lesson on the ‘best’ age to start kids kayaking, or canoeing their own boat in whitewater.

Whitewater is very different than calm, non-moving water. Whitewater has its own pulse, it’s own personality, and kids don’t all take to this independent power at first. Kids need to have reached a certain maturity where they start to ‘comprehend’ this phenomena. If they don’t then the currents moving their boat will scare them, sometimes irreversable – for life. This happened in our family.

When Katrina and Stefani showed signs of wanting to paddle their own kayaks, we created a new program at MKC: Kids Kayaking for 9-12 year olds. Fortunate to have had access to brightly colored, light fiberglass mini-kayaks called Rock Hoppers (designed by Rockwood Outfitters, Ontario, owner Gary Barton) we started a half-day Kids Kayak program. Originally for local kids, the program quickly grew to fill the other half of the day with an activity program. Parents could continue their full day curriculum, and kids stayed active. A half-day of whitewater paddling seemed to work best for this age group, as endurance past three hours waned quickly.

The beauty of water flowing downstream, pulled by gravity through a rocky obstacle course to us as adults is intriguing, inspiring and luring to jump in. For teens it is more – it is a challenge that needs to be conquered. But if you let your youngster get in his or her own boat too early in their development, it can scare them beyond return.

This is what we experienced with our own daughters. Katrina at 9 years old loved the rapids, in or out of her kayak, on a boogie board, or jumping in to float down through the friendly waves. Being two years younger, Stefani didn’t want to be left behind. Swimming was her favorite, and paddling the Topo Duo was tolerable. She didn’t quite like being fully buried every time we crashed through a wave…but then it was time to try it out in her own boat.

Stefani’s first kayak river descent started out in the little ripples which seemed fun. A little hesitant as we entered the first rapid, with me at her side, she started to panic. When it became obvious that stopping wasn’t an option, Stefani went into hysterics. Her screams where heard over the roar of the rapids, something I will never forget or forgive myself for. I was always at her side, holding her kayak next to mine, but this didn’t seem to matter. Stefani felt out-of-control. Sobbing, crying in uncontrollably, we had no choice but to ride out the rapid. In the final eddy, Stefani jumped out of her kayak before we reached shore, falling into the water making things worse. She ran screaming up the path and into Daddy Dirk’s arms. Not only had fear entered Stefani’s world, but worse…I had lost her trust. I was devastated.

Years later, Stefani still has stayed far away from a kayak. Happily for us, she has returned to the river. But her mode of choice is a non-constricting-craft – the Canadian Open Canoe. Now 18, Stefani has is an accomplished canoe tripping guide and has re-discovered the lure of whitewater rivers from her own point of control. Working each summer for Blackfeather Wilderness Adventures in Canada’s north, Stefani inspires newcomers into this whitewater world…her way.

Katrina is the opposite. She lives for kayaking. Travelling the world with her boat, running steep creeks, hucking off waterfalls, and now focused on making it to the 2012 Olympic Games she trains full time.

Thus the question returns, “When should I start my child in whitewater?” My answer is open… sometime between the age of 8 and 10…these are the magic years. Feel it out, don’t push and do it with them.

Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk is a 10-time Canadian whitewater kayak champion, and Olympic bronze medallist and TV analyst. She’s the co-owner of Madawaska Kanu Centre with her husband Dirk Van Wijk, Canada’s first whitewater paddling school celebrating its 40th season in 2011, making it the oldest commercial whitewater school in the world. Her two daughters, Katrina (20), Stefani (18), have also been bitten by the whitewater bug. For mro info, visit

Get your kids paddling and high-fives will become commonplace...

Posted in: How To, Outreach, Paddling, Places

3 Responses
An Olympian Shares Secrets on When to Start Your Kids Paddling

  1. abbie says:

    Awesome article! Shared this with my facebook fans and twitter followers. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Henry Hyde says:

    Hi Mrs. Van Wijk!

    I think age for starting kids in paddling really depends upon the kid. I started at 3 years old and I am now 12 and I have to say there was always weird little fears I had at various times about things on the river.

    My dad did a lot of things around rivers with me besides being in a boat. We did a lot of swiftwater training, sometimes just simple things like using a throwbag and taking turns being the one getting rescued. That reall helped me a lot with being comfortable in fast moving water and swimming in rapids (which is a ton of fun!).

    I also think getting kids into competitive paddling as early as possible is good too. It gets them focused on competing and not worrying so much about the river.


  3. Amy says:

    This is a great article! I had a similar experience last year when taking my 10 year old rafting on the Upper New. She didn’t want to go but we pushed and pushed until she gave in. Right before the biggest ( only a class III) rapid she had a full blown panic attack. I did let her get out and we hiked around it but that was it for her. When getting back in the boat she crashed. Slept to the take-out and then started vomiting once she woke. I felt like the worst mom ever and she swore she would never get back in a raft again. I felt that I had robbed her of something. And now she would never experience the joy we feel every time we are on the river. But 2 weeks ago she decided to give it one more try without any pushing or convincing on my part. And she LOVED it! Was even asking for bigger rapids! I’ve taken criticism from friends and family for not making her get back on the water sooner but it turns out I knew what I was doing. Im so very thankful I didn’t scare her away from whitewater for life!

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