With a few simple modifications, deaf and hard of hearing children can safely enjoy canoeing and communing with nature on the river. At the Tennessee School for the Deaf where I work, we take our students on a canoe trip every fall and it is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the fifth grade class year. If you want a great way to introduce your own children to nature from a different perspective, why not give canoeing a try?

Canoes are considered one of the best human-powered vehicles in that they require no fossil fuels. Canoes allow you to reach areas undisturbed by human activities and to move about without disturbing or destroying the wildlife. Learning to paddle a canoe takes some practice, but it is a skill that’s never forgotten!

Basic Guidelines for Canoeing with Your Child

It helps if you have some canoeing experience and your child should know how to swim. Most outfitters can provide beginner lessons regardless and give you access to a canoe, paddles, and personal flotation devices (PFD).

Be Safe

Always wear a life jacket! Life jackets don’t do much good if you and your crew aren’t wearing them. Remember, the best outdoor trip is the one from which everyone returns safely.

  • Be sure that every member of your crew has a Coast Guard-approved PFD in good condition, the right size, and fastened properly.
  • If your child is fighting you about wearing a lifejacket, think about your own behavior. Are you wearing your own life jacket or just sitting on it? 

What to Bring

If you don’t have it when you leave the take-out or dock, you won’t have it on the water.

  • Seal a first aid kit in a water-tight baggie.
  • A little preventive athletic tape over potential blister spots can help prevent pain at the end of the day.
  • The sun will reflect off the water giving the skin on your undersides extra exposure. Be sure to put sunscreen on yourself and your crew before pushing off the bank.
  • A hat with a brim and sunglasses will also decrease sun exposure and prevent glare.
  • Bring filled water bottles as exposure to sun and wind will increase dehydration.
  • Bring snacks and a lunch if you plan to be out for more than an hour. Put everything in a water-tight bucket or sealed plastic bags and tie them in on the canoe’s crossbars to keep from losing them if you are accidentally upended. http://www.paddling.net/guidelines/showArticle.html?73 Geocaching.

Where to go?

After considering your gear and provisions, you’ll need a destination.

  • For beginning paddlers, gentle flat-water is the safest.
  • If the wind is not strong, it is easy to paddle on a pond or lake.
  • Ponds and lakes also eliminate the complexities of a car shuttle. Outfitters usually provide this service for you on rivers.
  • Many state parks with flat water also offer canoe rentals.
  • Once you pick your canoeing spot, assist your child in mapping out the journey (try

Preparation on Land

While preparing the canoe and your gear, think of what is possible for your child to do and assign him or her reasonable chores for them to help.

  • If she can help you lift the canoe, take advantage of her muscle power.
  • If he can gather the supplies, let him help pack the canoe.
  • The more involved she is on land, the more interested she will be afloat.

On the Water

Putting the child in the bow position on flat water means that he or she only needs to know the simple forward stroke and won’t have to steer.

  • Canoeing on a gentle river or quiet lake can be a real adventure for a child.
  • Quietly drifting past the shore or the riverbank often allows for excellent opportunities to observe wildlife. Point out trees and plants from a different vantage point.

Tips for the Deaf Canoer

  • Deaf children can’t hear bird sounds, but they can see them. Give the child in the bow advance notice when you hear birds approaching. 
  • Lightly tap on the canoe gunnel (the strip along the top of the canoe's sides) with your free hand to create vibrations that grab attention.
  • Take advantage of the water environment to introduce nautical terms.
  • Sometimes vocabulary is introduced to the child in unexpected ways. Our students have a gained little “shoulder memory” regarding the definition of the word “current.”
  • For a glossary of canoeing language, see

Give Them A Break!

  • Breaks give kids a chance to enjoy a snack, rest, and stay hydrated
  • Breaks also allow you to observe nature on a different scale. Small surface-dwelling insects such as water-spiders become are easier to find when you are stopped.
  • In calm water it is easy for you and your crew to eat while floating along.
  • If you are stopped and have reasonably clear water, polarized sunglasses can make it possible to see a few fish swimming below.
  • You may be lucky enough to attract some fish by sharing a few crumbs of your snack.


These are just some ideas of what can be done when canoeing on flat water. Other enjoyable canoe activities that can introduce a child to nature include fishing, outdoor photography, and


My thanks to Jeanne Fair (TSD PE teacher), Luke Benson (TSD Fifth Grade Teacher) and the rest of the TSD staff for all they do in organizing our annual canoe trips.

Stephen Magocs (MS Education, BS Optics) is the Media Director at the Tennessee School for the Deaf. Before his education career he was an optical engineer for over 20 years. He can be reached at