I find some of the best sensory therapy days we have are when we’re out living our lives. The grocery store, restaurants, the mall, miniature golfing, anything can be a sensory therapy experience. One of my favorite though, is the beach. Growing up, I loved going to the ocean, riding the waves on my boogie board, and burying myself in the sand. But then I had a child with sensory processing disorder, and the beach 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, and 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.
Have a sensitive kiddo? Or one with sensory processing disorder? Here’s what you can expect to work on during your day at the beach! Or what to do if you don’t have access to the beach is here too (bottom of post). And most importantly, what to BRING TO THE BEACH for your sensory sensitive kiddo!
The Sensory Beach Experience
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. 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.
And what beach experience wouldn’t be complete without the joys of putting sunscreen on a child with SPD? I think this has to be the worst experience of all. Spray pumped sunscreen, aerosol sunscreen, gel sunscreen, lotion sunscreen, natural sunscreen, name-brand sunscreen, we’ve tried it ALL, and it’s always miserable for my son. No matter how much Wilbarger deep pressure brushing and joint comprehensions we have done! And then the sand that sticks to the sunscreen, it really is a no win, necessary evil.
What a vestibular workout the beach is; walking in sand can be tough, and trying not to let the waves current pull you under requires advanced body control. Some kiddos with proprioception issues may become quite disoriented when the waves are pushing and pulling on their bodies. The auditory system is bombarded with the crashing of the waves, the birds, the group of teenagers blasting their music. And eating at the beach can be an interesting experience. Navigating that sandy juicebox, and keeping your hot dog sand free can be a challenge. A quickly melting popsicle might be something to try that can drip down their arm and be washed away.
This post isn’t to deter you from a beach day. In fact, I highly recommend going to the beach as often as you can as it’s the best free sensory therapy ever! Go boogie boarding, build sand castles, eat a picnic. Just bring all the supplies that 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.
I learned to live by the philosophy it’s better to have it and not use it, then to need it and not have it.
Sensory Sensitive kiddo beach day must have list!
A Tent. Seriously, I’m not joking. Hear me out. You can go all Cabana and have a pop up, where the whole family has shade and a protected environment, or 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. Even a little tent is awesome. We’ve taken a miniature tent that my son can only lay the top half of his body in, but it’s shade and creates a bubble. They make these for babies and toddlers, so just get a size that works for your kiddo (you’d be surprised what they can fit in!) Please take in the wind factor, which can blow tents around, so you’ll have to take safety precautions and use stakes on some days.
Any size tent your child’s upper body fits in will do. Just remember not to block everyone’s view if you bring a pop-up!
Umbrella. Okay, 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 it goes skidding down the beach, which is so not fun to chase after AND keep your child next to you. SO, yes, an umbrella can be great, but it can also be a pain. Pick what works for you.
A Beach Blanket. Make this heavy, so it doesn’t fly up with the wind. And the bigger, the better. 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. This will get covered in sand as the day goes on, and sometimes it’s a gonner from go, but when it does work out it’s nice for the kids to get to lay on it without the sand itch.
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 off the sand when you child wants to dig their hand into a bag of chips. AND keep at least one towel in the car for the ride home.
Lifeproof or other super-mega-sturdy-protective case for technology. Phones, tablets, or games can be ruined in a second at the beach, whether it be water, sand, wind, or losing it! Electronics + Beach + Kids = Disaster, so tread cautiously. Either you’re the gatekeeper to electronics and they can only use while in the tent, or while laying on the blanket (you can build a towel fort over them so they can see the screen), or have an electronics free day. Up to you. Some kiddos are find without electronics, and other’s may need the break, especially if you have other kids to tend to as well. Mama’s gotta do, what Mama’s gotta do!
Flip Flops. Okay, I’m going to sound anal retentive, but please teach 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 or their sunscreen. But sand gets hot, so sometimes the flip flops are needed to get to closer to the water.
WATER! Drinking water for hydration is crucial. And either a spray bottle with water to help wipe sandy or sticky hands (think Popsicle drip), or help clean their backs before re-applying sunscreen. ALSO, a gallon of water back at the car in case you need to rinse feet off before the car trip home. Or even dump it over your kids head to get off all the itchy salt water, but only if your child agrees to this, as some beaches don’t have showers.
Snacks. Really, as moms we 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, and juice boxes, chips, crackers, pretzels, sandwiches. Think of the items you’d pack for a school lunch. Popsicles are great, but eat them early as they’ll melt even in a cooler.
Baby Powers/Corn Starch. For sand removal, I’ve read to apply baby powder or corn starch. I do know not to apply it until your child is completely dry or it will just clump. I don’t use baby powder, so I’m not sure if this works (I use water), but this is something to think about.
Sun Protection. Whether it is a combination of sunscreen, hats, protective swimwear, and sun glasses. Bring it. Use it. And remind your kids to use them often. Sun burn is so painful, and 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 as those rays will shine through without you being aware.
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 along car trip home. Just remove as much sand as possible first!
Sand Toys. What better way to motivate your child to play with sand, water, sea weed, 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? or dried out? Best tactile sensory therapy ever.
Digging for crabs is a wonderful sensory experience. You have to be quick to get those guys!
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?
Can’t get to the beach? What about a salt water pool? Many aquatic therapy centers use salt water instead of the traditional chlorine based chemicals. No pool access? What about a kiddie pool for your backyard? Bring the beach to you! No backyard? What about a bath at home with Epson salt? Or even a foot bath with salt and essential oils? Bring the salt water therapy experience to you. Make it a movie night and watch something beachy while your feet soak.