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Basic training

The beach can seem daunting during the July Fourth weekend, especially with little ones. Consider a survival strategy.

Published June 30, 2005

[Times photo: Scott Keeler 2003]
You can expect to find a lot of people at local beaches — including Clearwater Beach, shown here, this weekend and for the rest of the summer.

I find it odd that most of the adults I know (my husband included) think it's too much work, too sandy, too tiring, too everything to even think about taking kids to the beach more than a couple of times a summer.

Here's my view: It's the cheapest way to wear the little darlings out. I spend a morning with my 7- and 2-year-old sons soaking up the sun, salt and waves. Then we come home to a quiet afternoon as the zonked-out offspring sleep it off.

Planning a day at the beach with kids can feel like the invasion of Normandy. But if you time it right and bring the right gear, you can all enjoy yourselves.

But before you storm the beaches on Independence Day weekend, take a look at my battle plan:

Heading out

Beach patrols expect the daytime traffic to follow the typical summer pattern this weekend: incoming hordes at noon, retreating into a massive traffic jam at 4.

So, get there early, before 10 a.m. if you can, and no later than 10:30. Since you'll be lugging a lot of gear, you need to establish a beachhead up close. Plan to leave about 1. That gets you away from the festering masses and home in time for a long, long nap.

Bring tons of quarters. Parking meters cannot be relied upon to take dollar bills or credit cards, despite their promises.

Have an exit strategy. If your choice is to park near the showers vs. the beach entrance, pick the showers.

Have a change of clothes for any kids under 5 so you can put them in the car relatively clean and in dry clothes. Chances are, they will be zonked out by the time you pull into your driveway, and you won't have to wake them up to change.

Some essentials

- A sheet, not a blanket, for sitting. It's much easier to shake the sand out of.

- A coach's net bag (the kind they carry soccer balls in) for toting sand toys and boogie boards. These bags are huge and have straps so you can carry them like a backpack, and the netting allows you to run the whole thing under the shower to get the sand off.

- A cooler with wheels.

- A beach umbrella anchor or holder that screws into the sand. I've seen them range from $8 to $20, but they make it a lot easier to get your umbrella into the ground and make it stay put. They can be found at Target or Wal-Mart this time of year. Beach stores also have them.

- Keep beach chairs to the lightest and easiest to carry. A low-slung chair that folds up into a bag is my favorite. You don't need one for every person. One per adult and one or two little ones will do, since no one is ever sitting for long.

- A wagon or a coach's equipment carrier can help lug all this stuff if you don't have another adult or bigger kids to help you. Beach stores usually have the kind of carriers that fold flat when not in use for $20 to $40. Or the kids could use the wagon when mom doesn't need it to haul the beach gear.

Cooler and picnic essentials

I normally hate those expensive and barely nutritious plastic packs of turkey, crackers and cheese aimed at kids. But these MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, soldier) are staples of our beach days because you can toss them in the cooler and never worry about them getting wet. And since I rarely give them to the kids any other time, they seem like a treat and not Mom's way of getting out of making sandwiches.

Put a container of tuna, ham or egg salad or a tub of pimento cheese spread or hummus in your cooler along with a box of wheat crackers, and you have an easy and portable meal for the adults.

The best fruits are grapes and melon cubes, since they hold up well in a plastic bag in the cooler. But ice-cold watermelon (sheltered in a sturdy plastic tub) tastes like heaven on the beach. The kids can get as sticky as they want and spit seeds to their hearts' content, then jump into the water to wash off.

For dessert, our favorite is big package of Double-Stuff Oreos (another beach-only treat). Avoid melty chocolate things.

If you plan it right with all finger foods, utensils are unnecessary. But baby wipes are nice to have.

Sun essentials

Slather on the sunscreen, especially with the recent news that adult melanoma is more common in people who had multiple episodes of sunburn during childhood.

It's easiest to apply the war paint at home. You have their attention, since they can't head out until they submit to it, and it's good to let it soak in.

You'll have to reapply it, though, midway through your crew's occupation of the beach. I've found those spray-on sunscreens are the easiest way to nab squirmy sunbathers. Spray bottles are also good for squirting the heads of little blond boys like mine who refuse to keep their hats on.

Surf shops are a good place to find sun-protective shirts and shorts that you can wear in the water. The clothes, which range from $20 to $40, have a label listing the garment's ultraviolet protection factor. The higher the UPF, the better.

Beyond sandcastles - bonus points

Once you get over yourself and discover the fun of beachgoing, you can take things up a notch with games, activities and even science lessons.

You can find beach versions of popular games, like the Candyland beach towel with foam playing pieces for $9.99 from Bed, Bath and Beyond, Target and other stores. They also have Twister and checkers towels.

Sand offers a world of play where you can dig, draw and build things. Trace out a dartboard and use rocks or shells to see who can get a bull's-eye. Draw a tic-tac-toe square or a hopscotch court. You can dig holes in a pyramid pattern and have contests to get into the farthest hole.

Devote some portion of the day to walking down the beach in search of interesting shells, pretty rocks and disgusting dead things (the boys' personal favorite). We also keep an eye out for shells that have a worm hole in them. They are great to bring home to make necklaces.

Sneak in some science. This may require advanced reconnaissance on your part, but teach the kids the difference between a mussel, clam and coquina. Learn the names of seabirds and watch what they do. Learn about clouds and how to identify different kinds. Check out and click on "Shelling" for a great gallery of Florida seashells.

Lastly, my ode to a giant tub: We have a huge plastic bucket with rope handles that you sometimes see at feed stores or in garden sections. Last May, when the weather was sunny but the water was still cold, I brought along that 70-quart bucket and filled it with water and dragged it back onto the sand. I watched in amazement as they played with that giant bucket of water the whole day.

It totally entertains toddlers. They dump things in it, they stand in it, they fill and empty it several times. And they're right next to you, which makes it easier to keep a close eye on them.

Heading home

Give a 30- and then 10-minute warning before it's time to go to avoid meltdowns.

Get everyone involved in cleanup and never leave even one scrap of trash behind (that includes cigarette butts, smokers).

Split the duties among the adults. One washes off all the beach gear and loads the car while the other showers and changes the little ones.

Now comes the spoils of war.

Deposit your near-comatose toddlers into bed, grab a cold drink and a good book, and you'll have a couple hours of peace on earth, all to yourself.

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 09:43:07]

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