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Sun, Sand & Children with Complex Challenges: How to Enjoy a Family Beach Trip

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    When my wife Natalia and I planned a trip to Ballito a few years ago, we envisioned a day of family fun, relaxation and quality time playing.

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Sun, Sand & Children with Complex Challenges: How to Enjoy a Family Beach Trip

We lived in Johannesburg at the time, and we drove more than 6 hours to get there. We arrived on a beautiful, hot, sunny day, anticipating the enjoyable week ahead.

Rather than sunshine, however, the weather changed to windy on some days and other days it was muggy and unbearably hot: Natalia ended up spending the entire holiday watching the movie Frozen on repeat with our daughter Pearl because Pearl could not tolerate the heat.

Sensory processing difficulties, anxiety caused by crowds, or intolerance of new activities can make one of summer’s greatest joys — a holiday to the beach — very difficult for children with complex challenges.

Though a popular destination for many families, the beach can create obstacles for children with ADHD, sensory processing disorders or other challenges. Between the grit of the sand, the breezy winds, the bright sun, the unpredictability of the waves – not to mention the ample activity of beach-goers! – the beach can be full of stressors for our kids.

However, it is still possible to enjoy precious moments in the sun with your family.
Here are 5 ways to prepare and help your child with complex challenges enjoy a day at the beach.

Identify the sensory issues your child may experience.

Because no two children are alike, understanding your child’s own needs is the first step. Common challenges at the beach include:


If sand is a concern, consider bringing a large beach blanket to sit on, protective shoes and/or a small inflatable kiddie pool you can fill with water.

Sunscreens vary in feel, smell and application, so it’s important to determine which is the most tolerable for your child. Some children might prefer spray over bottled lotion, some brands have smells that kids don’t tolerate well, and some sunscreens have ingredients that might sting sensitive skin.

Sun and/or heat
If your child won’t wear a sun hat, a beach tent may be a good option. Some beach tents are also good at limiting stimuli; they provide not only shade, but also a protected environment to take breaks and self-regulate.

Between ruffles, tags and elastics, swimsuits can be irritating to many children. Have your child try on all swimwear in advance to ensure tags or liners in bathing suits, beach shirts or rash guards won’t be bothersome.

Bring what your child needs.

Once you’ve identified your child’s issues, bring your own supplies to alleviate them.

• Children with ADHD, sensory processing difficulties or other challenges might need sunglasses for bright sun, earplugs for noises, quiet activities like colouring when overwhelmed by large crowds, or lots of towels to clean off and keep dry. Familiar foods or small toys may also help your child feel more comfortable.

• Bringing so much stuff might make you feel like a pack mule as you unload, but it’s worth it to ensure that you have what you need for an enjoyable time!

• Prepare your child for the wait times that come with parking at or entering the beach.

• Social Stories are useful for helping your child understand what the day will bring. Makaton are a great source to tap into around stories ( are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity in a story format that includes information about what to expect in that situation and why.

• Talk with your child about what you will encounter at the beach ahead of time. You can even practice laying out a beach towel and getting in a swimsuit or putting on sunscreen. This helps you, and your child, avoid surprises.

Take the day slowly.

Remember: don’t try to push your child to overcome their sensory difficulties more quickly than they can manage. Controlled, slow exposure to this experience — as well as work with an occupational therapist — can help, but in the end your child will learn at their own pace.

Don’t force the experience.

After all of the points above, it’s important to note that you don’t have to go to the beach to enjoy some wonderful summer experiences! Want water play? Turn on the sprinkler, inflate a kiddie pool or set up a water table. The same goes for a sandbox or bin filled with sand and pebbles!

Experiences like the beach can be difficult, so be sure to celebrate small successes when trying out new activities. Most of all, don’t forget to just have fun!


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