Planning a day at the beach with sensory struggles

written by Megan Land McCarthy (Occupational Therapist (OT), Somatic Experiencing™ Practitioner) on 31/07/19

For most Manitobans, summer is something we look forward to all winter long. We dream about the warm summer days, the trips to the beach in the hot sun, watching fireworks explode in the sky on the first of July, eating cold ice cream and drinking icy Slurpee’s. However, for those with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), these summer pleasures can be overwhelming. Knowing and understanding your child’s sensory preferences is not only important, but the only way to manage summer fun for the whole family.

A trip to the beach can overwhelm a child with SPD: Planning is the key to fun for everyone!

Individuals with SPD perceive all incoming sensory input as abnormal, overwhelming and unorganized. The way their nervous system receives the sensory input from the various senses and then turns it into accurate responses is skewed. As a result, the way they perceive and/or respond to their incoming sensory data is impaired.

Consequently, summer can then mean endless sensory overload. Take a trip to the beach, for example. For a child with SPD, the tactile (touch) sensations of noticing each and every grain of sand and how it feels like needles on the body, and the endless need for sunscreen to be reapplied can be frustrating. The combined input of the visual (vision) stimulation from the sun, the colors of all the beach umbrellas and toys, the auditory (hearing) awareness of each and every bug that is buzzing around, the waves and birds cries, other families’ sounds of play and amusement, the olfactory (smell) intensity of sunscreen and bug spray, the gustatory (taste) overwhelm of a Slurpee with the texture, taste and cold all to separate out and respond to appropriately, the vestibular unease that comes from walking on uneven ground/surfaces such as the sand along the shore line, proprioception of being able to right oneself when knocked over in the water is a lot of sensory information. Finally, the interoception of feeling thirsty, hot and sticky and nauseated due to all of the above combined can lead a child to feel overwhelmed, and they may shut down, or have tantrums and meltdowns, as a result.

Anticipating your child’s sensory preferences and using the information is a critical part of being able to manage summer fun for the whole family. For the individual dealing with the sensory challenges, going into these environments can be anxiety provoking and can result in an array of behaviours.

Ways to ensure fun for the whole family on a summer adventure are to do some planning into what outing would be the most fun for all, what location will help create ease and planning details down to day of the week and time of day is preferred.

Here are a few more tips to help you plan your day at the beach:

Choose the best location:

Researching the beaches, you want to visit is a good start. If you have a child or family member that can’t handle the sand, you will want to look for beaches that have implemented a Mobi-Mat. Mobi-Mats allow for direct access to the water from a path that avoids the sand. Birds Hill Park and Gimli are two beaches that are close by to Winnipeg who have implemented this type of beach access.

Choose the best time of the day:

The earlier in the day the better to help with a reduction of noise on the beach from other beach goers. Also, cooler temperatures and less glare off the water are all things to keep in mind, and advantage of morning trips to the beach.

When it comes to sun protection: Get creative!

Wearing SPF beach wear and a protective hat can serve as an alternative for those who cannot handle the sensation of sunscreen on their skin. Alternatively, trying mineral based sunblock lotion will help with the reduction of times it needs to be reapplied and many are now scent free to help those with olfactory sensitivity. Using a beach tent or umbrella will help reducing the amount of sun exposure and reduce the sensitivity to the eyes. Encouraging sunglasses also will help limit the intensity of the beach to the visual system.

Reduce or replace overwhelming sounds:

While in the shade, cooling off, it will also be easier to wear ear protectors if needed to block out overwhelming and unpredictable sounds. Even the use of favored music with ear buds or earphones is a way to control the auditory environment if the idea of ear protectors is unappealing.


For those whose vestibular and proprioceptive system can’t handle being in the water they may need support of another to navigate the moving sand under their feet or to support the push of the waves on their legs. When in the water, encourage play with stable objects, not ones that move, because they can add another level of frustration and unpredictability to your child’s situation. Alternatively, play on the beach which will provide a firm base of support.

Snack time:

At the end of the day if everyone is going for ice cream or a Slurpee, keep a preferred treat handy so no one is left out of the day’s fun. Remember that ice cream and Slurpee’s can be overwhelming to the taste buds and the temperature may be too intense and feel like an assault to your child, thereby, taking away the fun and enjoyment that these treats are supposed to bring!

Be prepared for challenges by having calming activities handy:

Know that by the end of the outing the cumulative sensory experiences may have become overwhelming to your child’s system. Due to a lack of interoceptive awareness, they may not have been able to put a stop to the play before it became too much and now they may be in a complete state of dysregulation. This is when having a calming preferred activity for the car ride home will come in handy. Also, knowing and explaining to the individual what has occurred so they can start to understand what their body was trying to tell them is important so that a “next time” can be better managed.

SPD can be challenging but it should not stop your family from going out on outings and enjoying the summer. Outings just need a bit of preparation, understanding and discussion. We know that summer is short in Manitoba so use the tips above to find all the fun ways to enjoy it with your family!

Follow Megan on Instagram at @emergetherapyservices

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