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11 Tips for a Great Beach Day for Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder

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The beach is the most tactile place I know. It’s like stepping into a giant sensory bin that you can’t escape. From the moment your toes touch the sand, you’re bombarded with tactile information, such as sand and salt water, then the combination of the two; the sun’s penetration; possibly wind; and maybe wind whipping sand across your burning skin.

But this isn’t to deter you from a beach day. In fact, I highly recommend going to the beach as often as you can; I believe it’s the best free sensory therapy ever. Go boogie boarding, build sand castles, eat a picnic. Just bring all the supplies your child may need for comfort.  There were days when I packed as if we were going camping.  And yes, it’s a pain to organize and then be a mule and unload it all on the sand. But what a difference it can make.

Growing up, I loved going to the beach. But then I had a child with sensory processing disorder, and it became an entirely different experience. The water physically hurt him. He said it felt like nails on his skin, perhaps from the freezing cold temperature. The salt burned. The sand itched. The sun sizzled his skin. His eyes stung. For him, it was a torturous experience.

But he wanted to build sand castles with his father, so we focused on that. We purchased a rash guard, a big straw hat and dark sunglasses, and he’d tolerate the beach for short periods of time.

If you have a sensitive kiddo or a kiddo with sensory processing disorder, too, here are 11 tips for taking them to the beach:

1. A tent

Seriously, I’m not joking. Hear me out. You can go all out and get a pop-up cabana tent so the whole family will have shade and a protected environment. Or you can go with a regular two-person camping tent for your child to escape to. That way they’re at the beach but still have their private area to self-regulate and take breaks.

Please take account of the wind factor, which can blow tents around. So make sure to take safety precautions and use stakes on windy days.

2. An umbrella

OK, I prefer a tent over an umbrella and here’s why. Umbrellas can be super hard for me to dig into the sand and get stable. And it’s hard to keep moving the umbrella as the sun and clouds move. Plus, the wind can rip the umbrella out and end up skidding down the beach, which is so not fun to chase after and keep your child next to you at the same time. So yes, an umbrella can be great, but it can also be a pain. Pick what works for you.

3. A beach blanket

Bring a heavy one so it doesn’t fly up with the wind. And the bigger, the better. Make sure to have a rule that it’s for sitting on only around the edges and not to get sand all over it, which defeats the purpose of the blanket.

Blankets will eventually get covered in sand as the day goes on, and sometimes it’s a goner from the get go. But when it does work out, it’s nice for the kids to get to lie on it without the sand itch.

4. Many towels

How many? As many as you may need. The first towel will get soaked and sandy in minutes. A second towel is great for wiping the sand off your children’s hands when they dig into a bag of chips. And keep at least one towel in the car for the ride home.

5. Protective cases

Phones, tablets or games can be ruined in a second at the beach, whether it’s water, sand or wind. Electronics + beach + kids = disaster, so tread cautiously. 

Either you’re the gatekeeper to the electronics, and you tell them they can only use gadgets while in the tent or while lying on the blanket. Or have an electronics-free day. It’s up to you. Some kiddos are fine without electronics, and others may need the break, especially if you have other kids to tend to as well.

6. Flip-flops

Be sure to teach your children flip-flop etiquette. I taught my son at a very young age to walk flat-footed on the sand if he was wearing flip-flops, otherwise it sends sand flying on everyone you walk past. And no one appreciates sand in their eyes. But sand gets hot, so sometimes the flip-flops are needed to get to closer to the water.

7. Water

Drinking water for hydration is crucial. And a spray bottle filled with water will help wipe sandy or sticky hands (think popsicle drip) or help clean their backs before reapplying sunscreen. 

Also, it’s good to keep a gallon of water back at the car in case you need to rinse feet off before the car trip home. Or you can even use it to dump it all over your kid’s head to get off the itchy salt water, but only if your child agrees to it. Keep in mind that some beaches don’t have showers.

8. Snacks

Moms know we can’t go too far without snacks. For the beach, use resealable containers and a cooler if needed. Fruit is always good beach food, along with juice boxes, chips, crackers, pretzels and sandwiches. Think of the items you’d pack for a school lunch. Popsicles are great, but eat them early since they’ll melt even in a cooler.

9. Sun protection

Whether it’s a combination of sunscreen, hats, protective swimwear and sunglasses, bring it. Use it. And remind your kids to use them often.

Sunburn is painful, so it must be even more painful for a child with sensory processing disorder. I love the sun, but please be overly cautious and use sun protection even if it’s cloudy, since those rays will still shine through without you being aware.

10. Dry clothes

You may need to switch into more comfy clothes at the end of a long day. Or maybe your child can’t tolerate the wet swim trunks or swimsuit any longer. Sweats and a loose t-shirt can feel great after being squeezed into Lycra. Pajamas are always good for a long car trip home. Just remove as much sand as possible first!

11. Sand toys

What better way to motivate your child to play with sand, water, seaweed, shells and crabs? Pick up some shovels and sifters at the dollar store or tools to make a sand castle. Or you can use gardening supplies or your child’s favorite Play-Doh molds. 

If your child is on the older side, you can dig a huge hole close the water and keep them busy dragging seaweed into a pile of mermaid salad. You know how slimy seaweed can be, right? Best tactile sensory therapy ever.

By bringing the necessary accommodations, your child may be motivated by the fun they’re having to work through their sensory discomforts. How great is that?

young girl at the beach partly buried in the sand

Follow this journey on Peace, Autism and Love.

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Originally published: July 16, 2015
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