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The Kids on the Beach

Enjoying the pleasures—and overcoming the challenges—of taking small children to the ocean


The tent seemed simple enough. Rolled up and stuffed into its cover, it wasn’t much bigger or harder to carry than a large loaf of Italian bread. Unpacked, spread out on a beach blanket, it consisted of one large canvas encompassing both the tent floor and the wall-and-ceiling half-shell; several corner spikes to anchor it into the sand; and the long, arching cross poles that would hold the half-shell up. Two men, 10 minutes, and we would have a shelter from the sun, a place to take a nap, a semi-quiet, semi-protected oasis from the hordes of August beachgoers all around us.

The idea was that Denis, not quite 9 months, could spend the better part of his day inside this tent, in between heavily chaperoned trips down to the ocean’s edge, and that his parents could better relax and enjoy the day knowing that he was ensconced (and thus easily monitored) within this relatively safe haven.

First of all, the tent was not so simple.

It was big and unwieldy, and feeding the cross poles through their guides proved much more pains taking than expected. “Thank God it isn’t windy,” I remarked to Chuck, seconds before a hearty gust undid about 15 minutes of our work.

Before the day was over, we had christened the tent “Beach Thing,” and before the week was over, we had ceased to bother bringing it to the beach.

Anyway, there was a fundamental flaw in our plan to use the tent as the home base for Denis: We had forgotten to consult Denis, who, it turned out, would have no part of being cooped up inside a tent when there was a beach to explore.

There may be such a thing as a small child who clings obediently to his parents and never throws himself to the whims of fate by crawling or toddling off on his own, but Denis was no such child. And so we learned several new things that year about taking small children to the beach:

• Children who naturally enjoy being in water will reveal their fishlike tendencies at a very young age. In other words, don’t assume they won’t crawl or toddle into the ocean. Like the baby turtles who hatch on the beach and immediately start slithering seaward, they’ll find their way.

• Sand and seashells and rocks and seaweed and hermit crabs and the like are fascinating to small children and can provide hours of entertainment. They also can provide opportunities for kiddies to wander farther and farther from their parents without realizing they’ve done so.

• Even a 9-month-old is capable of stealing your plum—and of course he doesn’t care how much plum juice he gets on his T-shirt.

• A child’s first unexpected mouthful of sand is quite traumatic.

Pitfalls aside—or I should say, conquered—taking the kids to the beach on a beautiful summer day is one of the simplest and most pleasant family activities Mother Nature ever created. And while the Capital Region boasts no oceanfront property that I know of, the great beaches of the Northeast are within easy striking distance, and there are plenty of nice vacation areas to choose from. So for those of you thinking about packing the rugrats into the Honda for their first extended trip to the shore, here are a few more tips:

Do the math. How close is your chosen location to a beach? What kind of beach is it? How well does the area cater to families? Will you be near a supermarket and a child-friendly restaurant or two? Are there fun things for the kids to do on a rainy day?

Learn the beaches. Ocean-facing beaches with good wave potential can be fun, but they also can be dangerous for small children when the surf really gets roiling. Many parents prefer bayside beaches with placid waters, where they can let their kids wade in without worrying that they’ll suddenly be yanked out to sea by a killer undertow.

Arrive early and leave early, or arrive late and leave late. Or both. Although some of us spent our college summer vacations baking on the beach for eight hours at a time, that can be a bit much for small children—besides, better not to expose them to the searing midday sun. (Good time for lunch, shopping, naps, etc.) And you can beat the crowds to that primo parking space by getting on the road before most of them have slept off the previous eve’s clambake. My personal favorite beach time is late afternoon, when the sun gets low, the world gets still, and for the first time all day, it seems as if there are more people reading than bitching about their jobs, gossiping about their friends and complaining that there’s no place to park.

Apply lots of sunscreen on every exposed inch of their little bodies. And repeat as necessary. Just like the song said.

Pack plenty of food, and, especially, liquids. The last thing you want is dehydrated kids. The second-to-last thing you want is to have to leave too early because there’s no food and everybody’s famished.

Bring toys. Modern science has yet to improve upon the good old-fashioned pail and shovel—well, OK, I’ll admit there was that one time that Denis abandoned our toys to try and elbow his way onto the next blanket, where the 3-year-old had a whole fleet of monster plastic trucks. The family must have had to bring a second car just for the toys. Not fair.

Bring beach chairs for Mom and Dad. The short kind. You can take them right down close to the water and relax while the kids splash around in front of you.

And if you think it might work for you, if you think your kids will actually use it, bring some kind of shelter. Hey, I’ve got a beach tent if you’re interested. Excellent condition. Only used a couple of times.

—Stephen Leon


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