I like to go to the beach. So when our son’s (2 yrs) occupational therapist said frequent trips to the beach could help with his sensory issues, I figured this was a piece of cake. How often does a healthcare professional tell you to do something you actually like?
Excited about this new sensory homework I started getting ready for our first sensory beach trip. My son was watching TV while I packed up all the beach equipment, toys (buckets, shovels…) and food we would need, and off we went. Short 10 minutes later I was carrying him from the parking lot down to my favorite beach.
He really enjoyed playing in the sand, walking around, falling down and burying his hands in the sand. And after doing this for a full 5 minutes he started getting bored. So we went into the water. At first he got really excited at each wave and clung on to me stronger each time (one of the perks of being a dad). The first time some water got into his mouth and eyes he started crying. And just as I got him to calm down from that his teeth started chattering, so we had to go back out. After he ate a bit I noticed he was getting drowsy. So I packed all our stuff in one hand, carried him in the other and back to the car.
Back home I had to wash him really well because he couldn’t stand the itch of sand and salt on his skin. Once we got over that and he was back in front of the TV and I could attend to all the bags that needed unpacking.
In short, we had good 10-15 minutes of sensory play and fun, plus another hour and a half of ‘overhead’ work for me. This started feeling just like any other healthcare professional advice: a whole lot of effort, very little fun and questionable benefit.
7 years, another sensory child and over 500 trips to the beach later, I feel I have perfected a system I call Sensory Opportunities.
In its core it was invented for beach trips, but I have since expanded this system for all sorts of situations. The basic concept is to take a close look at each and every component that makes up an activity we do with our kids (or they do on their own) and try to find a way to make it a sensory activity for them.
So the ideal beach trip would look something like this:
My older son (9 today) is packing his own stuff. Carrying towels, water, and most of the food in his backpack (did someone say sensory heavy work?). My younger daughter (3 yrs) is running around carrying her toys. Filling in the toy basket with bucket, shovels, and whatever sand toys she wants. If it’s not too heavy she then carries the basket to the door.
They both put on sun cream on their own (with a little help). Even though we tend to go through sun cream bottles much faster than your average family, the cream sensation and full body rubdown is one of the best tactile activities ever invented.
So, from the moment we set out to go the beach, there is no TV, we use their excitement to help with preparations. Whether carrying, lifting or putting on sun cream, they are both engaged in sensory activities long before we even left the house.
On the way
We ride the bike. My son gets some sensory workout on his own bike. If he is up to it, we play around chasing each other or taking some short uphill detours. My daughter in my back seat keeps rooting for him or me (depending mainly on who’s lagging…).
As for her, she recently taught me something new. She puts her hands on my seat and I actually sit on her hands (not to hard though), giving her some of the deep touch sensory activity she needs. Not to mention the vestibular (motion) sensory action she is getting from riding the bike.
When we get to the beach, instead of walking on pavement up to the nearest point, we actually take the long route. Walking barefooted as much as we can on soft and wet sand is an excellent sensory activity for both of them (toe walking, temperature regulation, tactile sensations…).
At the beach
This is probably the easiest part of it all. Almost anything you do is sensory. Walking, running, swimming, jumping — it all makes for great sensory activities.
We like to build stuff. So carrying water buckets back and forth is always a key sensory component of any beach trip. That’s why I choose a home base not to near the water line and as they get older we sit further away, so they get the right amount of sensory challenge without getting frustrated or having it too easy.
For us no beach trip is complete without burying some body part in the sand (over and over…). It could be a leg, both or even a full body. We first dig together (I never dig for them, so if they go slow, so do I…). We then take turns at whose body part get’s covered. Once we finished tightening all the sand, we start drawing in the sand seeing if the buried body part can sense something (but actually prolonging the sensory wrapping feeling for as long as my drawing skills or distraction skills can hold…). When he/she are ready to jump out, I start to dig a tunnel nearby and tickle them underneath the sand (a big sensory success every time…).
Water is full of sensation. So anything we do in the water is good for them. However adapting the environment to each one’s sensory needs is an ever changing art. When our boy was little he wouldn’t walk in the water because he feared his feet are disappearing in the underwater sand cloud. So we had to find shallow water and ponds he could get used to slowly. Now he is looking for a good surf…
After the beach
Walking back we usually stop by a fresh water fountain or faucet. The streaming cold water, even if we only wash our feet is a completely different sensory feeling than beach water. So is getting dressed with some sand (tip: bring several sets of wide clothes and take a deep breath…). One thing I learned the hard way is to start heading back when I still have enough energy and patience left to make a nice sensory ending.
Coming back from the beach can hold several sensory opportunities as well. Stopping over for Popsicle or other frozen food / drink is a great oral sensory activity. Unpacking can be a nice sensory activity for the older one while the younger is taking a shower.
The sensory opportunities approach helps turn any activity into a sensory one. If you only look closely and have enough creativity (or picked up enough tips on blogs…) you can get a lot more sensory action out of everyday stuff.
One thing I can say though, despite how ideal this sensory beach trip may sound from a sensory stimulation point of view, I have never, in my 500+ sensory beach trips had used up all the opportunities in one trip. Having sensory opportunities does not mean you need to use them. In fact sometimes not using them and keeping something for next time is much better. It increases the chance there will be a frequent next time, and you have not exhausted yourself out of sensory fun.
There is no ideal sensory beach trip. There are plenty of missed opportunities. That’s the way it should be. Keep coming up with sensory opportunities and keep doing what feels right for you at any given time (or trip). Remember, it’s better to have 2 sensory beach trips when you only use up less than 50% of the sensory opportunities than to have 1 perfect sensory trip that gets you so drained that your next ‘perfect’ trip is next summer…
Oren Steinberg, parent & cofounder of SensoryTreat