It’s never too early to start boating! Introducing children, even toddlers, and babies, to boating at a young age, will not only make for a fun day but will also give them confidence and good life skills such as spatial awareness, planning, enhancement of communication skills, confidence, responsibility, and more.
A few years back, when my sister and my nephew visited from out of town, I took them sailing with me in the New York Harbor. My nephew, who was just a little over 2 years old, had such a great time that he still talks about this boat trip, even though he has been on many boat trips since then. Recently, at 7 years old, my nephew asked my sister to enroll him in a unique boating program in their hometown, where he gets to kayak, row, and sail optimist boats as well as dinghies. Obviously, he made me a very proud aunt!
As you can see, I enjoy sharing my passion for boating with kids. Children are typically energetic, curious, and enthusiastic. Having them simply wear a life jacket and sit in the sun doing nothing…well, needless to say, it probably won’t do much for them. I am always compelled to find new ways to engage with children while onboard, which makes their boating experience highly enjoyable and memorable.
Following are a few ideas to help children have fun and be more engaged while boating:
Let them “drive” the boat!
Steering the wheel of a boat is probably one of the most attractive and exciting experiences for a child. You can either stand or sit close to a child at the helm, or if they are younger - have them sit or stand on your lap. You might be surprised by how good they are at steering the boat, sometimes even better than adults :-).
Another fun activity is to let kids sit with an adult at the bow of the boat to feel the breeze, and maybe even get an occasional exhilarating splash. Doing so has the same effect as riding a roller coaster!
If you have a dinghy, let your child experience steering the outboard motor using the tiller, or teach them to oar. Letting children experience and exercise these skills as a fun activity, under safe conditions, will benefit them in the event that they will be required to do it under rougher conditions.
Tubing behind a boat or getting towed on a water float is extremely fun! The speed and the splashes of water make this activity even more exciting. Make certain that your children are strong enough to hold on to the handles/float and that they are good swimmers since the likelihood of falling off is pretty high. A more relaxed floating experience can be achieved from giant inflatable floats such as flamingos, unicorns, rubber duckies, watermelon-shaped floats, and more.
The most common watersport activities are water skiing, wakeboarding, and kneeboarding. Thye all involves being towed by a boat, preferably one that is designed for that purpose. Watersports activities are a great workout that shoots high adrenaline levels through the body, is exhilarating, and is highly satisfying.
There is a lot of satisfaction - for the young and the old - in catching fish. The process requires preparation and sometimes a lot of patience, but once someone feels the sudden pull on their fishing rod… it feels like cha-ching!
Stand-up paddleboards and kayaks
If you have a larger vessel like a cabin cruiser, a larger sailboat, or a catamaran, you have enough room to fit a SUP or a kayak. Finding balance and paddling while standing on a SUP or sitting in a kayak, not only provides good exercise, but also fun, and the thrill and excitement of accidentally falling off the board or capsizing.
Swim, dive, and snorkel by the boat
Diving off the boat into the water makes for a big splash and loads of fun! Once in the water, your child might also enjoy exploring the underwater world by using a mask with a snorkel. Swimming and snorkeling off the boat in shallow water, such as in the Florida Keys, will allow you to see coral reefs, many colorful fish, sea turtles, manatees, and maybe even dolphins and rays. Now, how exciting is that?
Safety is key to allowing everyone to enjoy these fun activities. Your children may object to wearing a life jacket or be impatient to listen to your safety instructions, but you should insist. The US Coast Guard requires that within a vessel that is underway, children under 13 years of age must wear appropriate U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable life jackets unless they are below the deck or within an enclosed cabin.
Some states may have different requirements which only apply to waters that are within that state's jurisdiction. Contact your state boating authority for more information.
It is highly important to wear life jackets while on human-powered vessels such as kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, or other similar craft. Since walking on the docks could be dangerous too, I always make sure the kids are wearing their life jackets when they enter the dock.
Life jackets come in many sizes, shapes, and colors, some even with prints of Superheroes and Disney princesses to make them more attractive to younger children. Having said that, make sure that the life jackets are designed for the child's weight, that they fit properly, and are USCG approved.
Make sure to perform a safety briefing with your child once they board the boat. Repetition is the mother of learning - so make sure to repeat those basic rules and instructions every time you go out. And here’s another idea for a fun thing for kids to do - have them perform the safety briefing for everyone on board!