Easy Beach Days with the Kids

Simple is Often the Key

By Sara Yaniga, Macaroni Kid Chicago (Midtown) May 22, 2021

Chicago has miles of lakefront and plenty of beaches perfect of spending a summer day!  And after a long wait they are finally (finally!) opening the beaches in Chicago again! 

I have found that many of our best beach days happened by accident when we found ourselves walking on the path, or exploring a new area, and decided to check out the beach for a rest.  This is why, during the summer months, I always keep a few things stashed in our stroller, or in a backpack, just in case we need to dip our toes (or more!) in the lake and make a sandcastle.

Things I always have on hand for an accidental beach (or splash pad) trip:

  • Towel/blanket - Surprisingly, one can be enough even though the instinct is often to bring one per person.  It can be used to sit on or to dry off before putting your shoes back on.  I found a super soft and quick drying Turkish blanket towel that is great because it is long, but not bulky when folded up. It pretty much lives in the stroller all year long.
  • Travel size sunscreens - I usually have at least one face stick and one lotion or spray for arms, legs and whatever other skin is exposed.
  • Hats - They are either already on our heads or hanging from the stroller handlebar
  • Bucket, sand sifter and shovels - I have a great collapsible bucket that is really easy to stash under a stroller or even in my backpack.  We love to make drip sandcastles and you need plenty of wet sand for creating these masterpieces!
  • A handful of small toys - A couple of My Little Ponies and some cars or trucks can get plenty of playtime at the beach.  Also, those random little toys that seem to magically collect in our house - kids meal toys, party favors - all perfect for beaches and parks!  I have a little mesh laundry bag that I stash these little treasures in and if they don't make it back home then no worries, so don't bring any favorites.
  • Snacks & Water - The beach seems to make my kids hungry beasts, so it serves me well to make sure I have some easy snacks on hand and nothing that needs to be kept cold, so if they don't get eaten we can save them for the next adventure, or later in the day.

Now, if I am planning on spending a few hours at the beach the packing list is a little longer, but I still try to keep it pretty basic.  Not having a car means we have to carry our load easily and that definitely helps keep the list manageable!  In addition to the items above, I will bring along:

  • 1 or 2 extra towels - we don't really use the towels to sit on when going for several hours, so at least one stays clean and dry in the stroller and is used once we have left the sand.  This way we can use it to knock off any remaining sand on our feet and legs before putting the shoes back on or to stand on if we need to change out of wet suits before walking home.  Having an extra towel on hand also lets me wrap up the toddler if she wants to take a nap while we are there.
  • Sand-free Beach Mat - Oh how I wish I had bought one of these years ago!  It's not a traditional blanket or towel material, which are magnets for sand and will take tons of shaking out before the sand is ever really gone.  These sand-free mats (often marketed as "blankets") are actually a dense woven material, so the sand literally sifts through the material instead of getting trapped.  I took it on our annual vacation to the beach in Charleston and I didn't bring any sand back home with me in it!  Many of them come with rings or grommets in the corners in case you want to stake it into the ground on a windy day.
  • Pop-up Tent - I love this tent because it is compact and comes with a carrying case that I can easily carry on my shoulder (kind of like a folding camp chair) and it is very simple to put up and take down, by myself.  It's great for when you want to get out of the sun, change with a little privacy and plenty big enough for a few people to fit inside.  Plus, I never have cash on me so renting an umbrella isn't usually an option.  If we are planning on being at the beach for 3 hours or longer I definitely bring the tent.
  • Small cooler - We tend to hit the beach between breakfast and lunch, so I am rarely needing a large cooler to fit a lot of food in, but I found a great cooler backpack at Marshall's a few years ago and it is great!  The bottom portion is a cooler with enough room for me to bring some fruit, yogurt pouches and cheese sticks - which I will freeze so they stay cold without needing heavy ice packs (frozen grapes are a fave!).  The top portion of the backpack is separate and where I stash the crackers, oranges and a few bottles of water - things that don't need to be kept cold.
  • Dry Clothes - We will wear our swimsuits to the beach, but if we aren't fairly dry when it's time to leave I will have the kids change into dry clothes for the trip home.  Walking in a wet swimsuit is no fun - plain and simple - so a dry pair of shorts for my son and a dress for my daughter is always stashed in the beach gear.
  • Old Sock - Okay, this is a poor description, but it's a trick I learned living in Florida and is great for helping to remove sand from your skin.  Take an old sock and fill it with talcum/baby powder, tie it up and store it in a plastic bag to keep dry.  When drying off and getting all of the sand off of your feet, arms and legs (we especially use it for feet and legs before putting socks and shoes back on) just pat and rub the sock on your skin and it will help remove all of the sand.

That's about it!  It's not really that much and totally manageable if I am the only adult taking the kids to the beach.  I may grab an extra beach toy, like a frisbee, scoop toss game, but one of my favorite things about the beach is that it's a great setting for kids to make new friends and come together to play games, build epic sand castles and have an impromptu game of beach baseball.

Do you have any favorite beach tips, toys or gear that you love?  

Send me a message at and let me know so we can add it to the list!