"Nobody goes for just sitting in a canoe," even - or perhaps especially - small children; so let them get used to holding their own paddles, even if they use them more for dabbling than for paddling.

That's the position of Charlotte Boynton, a member of the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington and mother of two small children. When the kids have their own paddles, "They feel like they're doing some of the work, and they're less restless."

But don't expect them to pull their weight: In general, children aren't ready to really learn to paddle a canoe until about schoolage. "Anyone younger than five years will not get much out of it other than a ride in a canoe," says Park Service Ranger Elaine D'Amico.

In other words, canoeing isn't just for couples equipped with a picnic hamper and a mandolin - it works for people with little children, too, so long as some common-sense rules are followed. Charlotte Boynton and her husband, Dave, for example, cooperate with their friends in canoeing with their children.

Calling themselves the "nursery division," several couples scout out a spot that combines a playground or picnic site for the children with a stretch of river that be canoed in half a day or less. She recalls one point on the Rappahannock where they found "an old school building with a playground. One or two couples watched the children while the rest went for an hour-and-a-half run." After lunch the "babysitters" got a chance to canoe while the others stayed behind.

"We're always looking for other couples who enjoy canoeing" to join the group, Boynton adds.

By the time the toddlers turn three or four, though, they're going on short trips. Barbara DesJardins admits that when she and her husband, Rick Lutowski, took their oldest child, Gail, then two, down the Shenandoah last year, Gail was more interested in lunch stops and seeing cows along the bank than in sitting in the canoe. But this year, DesJardins adds, Gail should be able to "help paddle."

The C&O Canal, with its placid waters, is a good place to start, particularly since two Park Service-leased concessions - Fletcher's Boat House, at Canal and Reservoir Roads, and Swain's Lock, about two miles above Great Falls - are right on the towpath. And, for those who've never done that sort of thing before, there are free introductory lessons at both boat for houses, co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the Canoe Cruisers, covering canoe safety, getting in and out of the canoe and mastering the basics of paddling and steering in a straight line. There's also a more comprehensive course in basic canoeing, taught by the Cruisers and the Red Cross.

"If you want to go canoeing with your children and don't know anything about it, get the children to come with you and take the course," says John Thomson, past president of the Canoe Cruisers.

Children should wear life preservers whenever they're in a canoe; and although canoeists should know how to swim, adults are also well advised to wear life jackets, Thomson adds, since spills are sudden. "In moving water there's never time to put a jacket on."

Besides, though the air may be warm, the water can be cold enough to immobilize even a good swimmer, says Alexandria canoe buff Mike Oliver. He and his wife, Linda, regularly take their two daughters out canoeing - but only with life preservers.

Other canoeing regulations, too, are mainly a matter of common sense:

Kneeling to paddle keeps your center of gravity lower than sitting on the seat, making the canoe less tippy. As a bonus, kneeling is also more efficient for paddling, reducing the likelihood of aching arms and shoulders. A cushion or knee pads make kneeling more comfortable.

Watching the weather and the water is a must; winds can come up quickly and create hazards, especially if you're caught in the middle of a large lake or river. An overturned canoe can be used as a life-raft, but sticking to safe water is better.

John Murto of Fletcher's Boat House says the staff there "have to talk to people and make sure they know what they're doing, make sure they're going to safe water." But some places that rent canoes simply ask for a signed release from liability.

The Potomac can be particularly undependable, Ranger D'Amico warns: "Most of the Potomac from Great Falls down to Fletcher's can be very dangerous to a beginning canoeist - very difficult. You need to practice basic strokes and maneuvering in a flat-water area."

Canoe Cruisers sponsors a wide range of courses and trips, from "barely moving water to heavy white water," says Rosemary Bridge, a long-time member. "It's a very open group - there's no requirement other than interest," former president Thomson adds.

Charlotte Boynton, who met her husband on a canoeing trip in Indiana, says the classes offer an excellent chance to meet people and make friends, as well as sharpening skills "even for people like us, with a certain amount of expertise already."

Group trips increase safety, as well as sociability. The Cruisers recommend that river trips be made up of at least three canoes, to give assistance in cases of upsets or swamping.

The mechanics of river trips are also easier in a group: In most rivers the current is too strong to paddle back upstream to the starting point, so a shuttle is needed to drop canoeists off and meet them downstream with cars and carriers.

Many families who start canoeing with youngsters find they have a lifelong family interest. Rosemary and Dick Bridge, who started taking their now-grown children out years ago, now have a whole new generation of canoeists. Dick recently competed in a slalom (obstacle) canoe race with their 13-year-old grandson.