Teach Your Kid To Surf With Big Wave Surfer Reef McIntosh

Whether you can surf or not isn't important.

by Jake Howard
Originally Published: 

Reef McIntosh is one of the most accomplished big-wave surfers in the world, which means he makes a living doing stuff like this. And that’s applicable to any guy who wants to teach his own kid how to surf in exactly zero ways. But McIntosh, who was raised on the surf mecca of Kauai’s north shore, is also the father of a one-year-old daughter, and he’s been thinking a lot about how he’s going to introduce her to the waves.

Whether you’re hoping to raise a surf buddy for mellow longboard sessions during your once-a-year beach vacation, or a life-long surf exploration companion, the first 6 years or so are basically the same. This is how you start:

Age 1-2

Don’t Worry About The Water

“It’s important for them to discover surfing on their own terms,” says McIntosh. “If you force it, they’re going to have a bad experience, and that’s the worst thing that can happen.” He takes his own daughter to the beach, just to listen to the waves, appreciate the warm sand, and see the birds. This is helpful in 2 ways. First, it’s a sensory sugar rush for kids. Second, it gets them comfortable with the whole environment before they tackle the trickier elements.

Turn Surfboards Into Toys

At this age, your kids are years away from riding an actual board — it helps to, you know, be big enough to carry the thing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play around on one. “I lay my boards out on the carpet so my daughter can get used to crawling around on them and the feeling of surfboards,” says McIntosh. “Then someday when we take it out in the water she’ll already have a good connection with it and recognize it as something that’s fun.”

Age 2-3

You Have To Run Before You Can Surf

Before they ever wade out into the water on their own, McIntosh suggests playing games of “chase the white water” — simply have your kid run toward the ocean’s receding water, turn tail and sprint back to dry sand before it gets them. Make the game slightly more difficult by challenging them to “tag” the water just before it turns around and comes back up the beach. They’ll be too busy having fun to realize that you’ve just taught them their first lesson in how the ocean works.

Also, You Have To Swim Before You Can Surf

“It kind of goes without saying, but the more time you take teaching them to swim and learning to be comfortable in the water the better their relationship with surfing will be,” explains McIntosh. That does, indeed, go without saying. Even though he just said it.

Getting Them On A Board For The First Time

Wait for a day with very little surf and get the longest board you can find. Suit Junior up with a lifejacket, plop them on the front of the board, and just go paddle around in calm water. The lifejacket has you covered, but most likely your kid will be so focused on how cool it feels, they won’t even fall off.

Age 3-4

Every Surfer’s First Board Is A Boogie Board

“I think we all start just riding whitewater up the beach,” says McIntosh, “just tiny whitewater waves that push them into shore.” Getting that process started is simple, because a boogie board is basically a toy and kids love getting a new toy. Let them pick out their own board at the store, so they have some ownership over it — all you care about is that it’s not too big for them and it has a leash for the wrist so they don’t lose it.

Posse Up

Once they’re old enough, have them bring friends or find a like-minded family with whom to share beach days. Having someone to explore the water with keeps anxiety at bay if they’re intimidated, and those early bonds can pay huge dividends if they result in a friend who grows up learning to surf alongside them (because eventually you’ll be too tired to keep up). “I’m still friends with a lot of the people I first started surfing with, they’re like my family,” says McIntosh.

Age 4+

Keep Them Warm

If you’re taking kids in water colder than about 70 degrees, it’s best to get them a full wetsuit because they get colder faster than adults and nothing ruins a surf session like the chills. Err on the size of thicker rubber — water that you think you’d be comfortable using a thinner wetsuit (3/2 mm) in, consider a thicker one (4/3) for the kid. “Just make sure you get something that fits,” says McIntosh. “Too big and they’ll get rashes from the suit, too small and they’ll complain it’s too tight.”

Go Long

The easiest surfboard to learn on is a long board with a foam top; they’re much more flexible than normal boards, so they’re more forgiving (also they hurt much less if they hit you in the head, which is sort of guaranteed to happen at some point). Don’t bother buying one — they should be easy enough to rent wherever you’re surfing. Look for one between 7 and 9 feet.

Push Them In

It’s unlikely that a kid this age will have the arm and shoulder strength to paddle themselves into waves. Wait for days when the surf is small enough that it breaks close to where you can (mostly) stand, and spend the session pushing them. “What I do is hold onto the tail of the board as the wave comes, then guide them into the wave, not letting go until I’ve set them on a line and they’re on their way,” says McIntosh.

3 Simple Tips

If your kid actually shows some aptitude and is catching waves, here 3 things that can help them grasp the hardest part: standing up and riding a wave.

•When they’re ready to stand up, have them put their palms flat on the deck of the board (as opposed to grabbing the sides). The downward pressure will settle the board on the water a bit.

•When they go to stand, remind them to arch their back and always keep their butt below their shoulders. If they break at the waist while trying to get to their feet, they’re way more likely to fall off to one side.

•If they make it to their feet, “Get the gorilla stance going, wide and stable,” says McIntosh. “That’s what you’re after. The rest will come later.”

Enroll In A Surf School

If your kid goes beyond showing aptitude and shows some actual talent — or if they just really really love surfing — hand them off to a professional. Seriously, you’re at the beach. Relax.

A Note About Fear

Any kid learning to surf is going to get scared at some point. In the very beginning, just getting knocked off your feet in the shorebreak can be scary; as they progress to actually going for waves, they may get held down a second or two longer than is comfortable. It happens to everyone and, at least initially, it scares everyone. Your job is help them back up the beach and let them calm down a bit. Ideally, you want to encourage them to get back in the water before the end of the day. “If they leave the beach on a sour note, you’re doing it wrong,” says McIntosh. “Surfing should always be fun.

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