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How to keep children happy and safe on a narrowboat trip

To our children’s great excitement, we recently took them on a narrowboat holiday  – the prospect of our own barge for a few days really captured their imagination.

Home for the break was a 67-foot boat along the Llangollen Canal between Shropshire and Wales (full story here).

We loved the sense of freedom and slow pace of life and learned a lot in a short space of time.

But how do you keep children happy and safe on a canal boat holiday?

First off – are children safe on a canal boat?

We felt that at aged nine and six, our children would be safe – they both swim and follow instructions, plus they were happy to wear life jackets.

To be honest, I would not have wanted to take this holiday when they were toddlers.

It would be hard work and you would need to keep an eye on them at all times. Plus you would need more than two adults when going through locks for example – one to helm, one to operate the lock and another to look after the children.

How to prepare children for a canal boat holiday

You will want your children to be excited about the holiday and all they can do to help.

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But also make sure to give them some general safety advice.

Talk them calmly through the dangers and how to stay safe. You could also show them a video.

General safety advice for children on narrowboats

A girl wears a life jacket life vest on a canal narrowboat

Children should wear a like jacket

*Wear lifejackets and non-slip shoes

*Don’t run by the water

*Don’t lean too far over the side

*Step on and off the boat when it is safe to do so, don’t try to jump across a gap.

*Be very careful at locks and listen to instructions. Locks have steep sides and water comes in and out quickly.

*Children should always be supervised by an adult.

What to pack for children on a canal boat holiday

*Comfortable clothes including shorts and fleeces.

*Anorak and waterproofs.

*Non-slip shoes.

*Life jackets/buoyancy aids – check with your boat hire company if they are provided, ours were with Anglo Welsh.

*Sun cream.

*Scooters or bikes if allowed as large sections of the canal towpath are flat and have a hard surface. You can send one adult off with the children while the other steers the boat. But check with your hire company how many are allowed and where you can keep them.

*Most importantly, pack activities for the children to do while travelling (see next section).

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What activities to take for children on a canal holiday?

It’s a fantastic novelty for children to be in a floating home, relaxing, playing, watching the world go past, helping with some of the jobs.

But there are also hours spent travelling where kids can get bored.

Take reading books, activity books, board games, toys, paper and pens with you plus tablets or whatever else your children enjoy to pass the time.

If there is WiFi and a television, they may not work.

Pack a camera children can use to take photos, but not an expensive one in case it falls in the canal!

Take some binoculars. You can get children wildlife spotting and feeding the ducks.

And there will be plenty to teach them about the history of the canals.

Or take hats and pretend to be pirates.

Don’t go too far

It’s tempting to power on to new destinations with a tick-list of achievements.

But be flexible, the best times on our trip were when we ended up in a random spot in the evening and headed off in the fresh air to explore nearby footpaths, fields and woods.

Children exploring the countryside at St Martin's in Shropshire

Exploring the countryside at St Martin’s in Shropshire

So don’t be too rigid and build in plenty of stops if the weather is dry, so that children can stretch their legs and whoever is at the helm can relax.

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Tunnels

If children are inside, make sure the lights are on when you go through a tunnel else it will go very dark very quickly and they won’t be able to see.

If they are outside, ensure an adult is with them and they stay seated as tunnels can be very narrow and low.

Our two loved the tunnels and we played an echo game to keep them entertained but they can be very long and dark so some children could be scared.

Warn them that you will be turning the headlight on and sounding the horn before entering.

And obviously ensure nobody is on the roof or side of the boat.

Going through Chirk Tunnel in Wales

Going through Chirk Tunnel in Wales

What jobs can children do to help on a boating holiday

There are different boating jobs children can help with depending on their age.

They can help plan the route, keep the boat tidy, cast off and tie the ropes.

Older children can help with the steering under supervision.

They can also help with working the locks as long as they know how to do so safely.

However, don’t get them doing every lock with you because they get just as much fun from sitting on the boat as it rises or falls in the lock.

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Younger ones can look out for tunnels, bridges and oncoming boats.

We got our children to keep tabs on the number of each bridge because that tells you whereabouts you are on the canal.

Our daughter helps lift a bridge at Froncysyllte in Wales

Our daughter helps lift a bridge at Froncysyllte in Wales

What route to take with children

Pick places which will entertain children – work around stopping points which have family attractions where possible.

For instance we made sure to stop at Ellesmere because of its lake walk, playground and sculpture trail.

Pick spots which are near to playgrounds, woodland walks or leisure centres.

Blakemere at Ellesmere

Blakemere at Ellesmere

Have fun

Most importantly have lots of fun. You can feel like a real team on this sort of a holiday and it will certainly be one they remember.

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