Paddling with kids is pretty hard and it takes a lot of energy and patience. A simple afternoon outing takes far longer to pack and unpack from than the outing itself. The experience is not one you might call "enjoyable" in the standard use of the word. However, the rock-star parent feeling lasts longer than any frustrations, and little-by-little you'll condition them for longer trips. In this post I'll cover some of the things I've learned over the years of "enjoyable" short day outings. Another post will cover multi-day canoe trips.
Age and Ability
My daughter was around 18 months old when we did a canoe trip, and honestly it wasn't awesome. Kids that young have no concept of balance and zero patience. Fortunately, older cousin, Emily, was along for the ride. If you're going to paddle with toddlers, you really must bring a super cousin along. I continued paddling with my very young kids, but I started to enjoy it more when they were 4+ years old. I'd say a kid can start making a noticeable contribution to the paddling effort at around age 9 or 10. Up until then they are best at creating drag or paddling backwards.
Real canoeing ability doesn't come along until... I'll let you know when. I guess we'll find out this summer on the Allagash when the 10, 13, and 15-year olds rotate out into a canoe by themselves.
So what I'm saying is, you'll get good at paddling a full-sized canoe solo.
A canoe is hands-down the easiest vessel of choice for paddling with kids. Plenty of room to spread out and space for multiple kids in one boat. Most of this blog post will be focused on canoeing, but it's totally possible to kayak and paddleboard with kids. In fact, some of our most fun outings included an assortment of vessels that the kids swapped around.
Here's an area where I'd advise investing in the good stuff. The higher-end PFDs are simply more comfortable, and that's critical when trying to convince a kid to like something. I look for PFDs that are short in the torso. They end up being thicker, but there's a huge benefit to not having the PFD ride up to their ears. Both the NRS Crew and L.L.Bean Discovery PFDs have served us well.
When my kids were pre-schoolers they used those Stearns Puddle Jumper life jackets. They are Coast Guard approved and super comfortable. They have their flaws (no grab loop, no heads-up floatation), but were well-suited to our quiet-water paddling needs. In Maine, a Type I, II, or III PFD are required. Current Puddle Jumpers appear to be designated Type V/III, so they should meet the requirement, but double check.
Same advice goes for adults. Get a comfortable PFD and WEAR IT. Love your PFD, embrace it, place it at equal necessity-level as your paddle. Can't go anywhere without a paddle. Also can't go anywhere without a PFD. Trick out your PFD with fun gadgets like a dive knife and strobe light. The cooler you look the more likely you are to wear it. 2017 Coast Guard statistics show drowning as the cause of death in 76% of all boating fatalities. Nearly 85% of those who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.
For reference, here's the law: In the state of Maine, children 10 and under are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket or life vest at all times while on a boat.
State regulations require the life vest should be a TYPE I, II, or III USCG approved life jacket, be in good condition, and fit the child properly.
When my kids were toddlers, their "paddle" was a pool noodle. No problem if they dropped it, and when they inevitably dragged it through the water, it didn't hinder our forward progress. Plus when they hit each other they couldn't draw blood.
When they got a bit older I found cheap collapsible paddles. I'll look away as I admit I got them at Walmart. They were easy to adjust to different heights and were fairly durable (although we never did find that chunk of plastic blade my son smashed off).
Now the older kids have those basic wooden paddles. One of the collapsible paddles always goes with us on longer trips as a spare.
We always have at least one or two kids plopped in the middle of the canoe (I think they call it "duffer"?). Generally we just lay a foam camping mat out on the bottom and everybody can sit "comfortably". I also use a chunk of foam mat myself because I'm a kneeler. Another good option