Sand hassles: 5 tips for sculpting on the beach with children

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 3-year-old daughter Viva, who, like a pint-sized Jimi Hendrix, knows the castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually.

Last week I talked about sculpting the drooping, amorphous mass that is your own torso so you can go to the beach. But what to do once you are at the beach? Sculpt drooping, amorphous blobs of sand into wonderful structures, of course!

If you Google “how to build a sandcastle” you’ll find plenty of tips for building impressive works of beautifully ephemeral art – mostly the tips involved using enough water. (There, saved you a search.) What Google won’t tell you, though, are tips for dealing with your the little helper you’ve brought along with you.

In recent weeks, Viva and I have built sand skulls (you know, for the kids), sand Pac-Man scenes, a sand Triceratops head, and, most recently, a larger than life sand alligator. (More on the advantages of sticking to alligators below). At least one of us had fun, although it might not be whom you’d expect. It’s time consuming, sand sculpting, so if you’re going to keep your child involved long enough to accomplish anything, you have to tend to their many physical and psychological needs.

Keep them fed

A child’s primary function is to grow – which means they need a snack roughly every 10 seconds to keep their bodies healthy and, more importantly, their mood stable. About five minutes into castle building this weekend, Viva needed her cheddar bunny fix. We went back to building, until 10 minutes later she needed a hot dog. Then we got in 10 minutes of building. Then a fruit squeezy. Five minutes of building. Then chips. Five of building. Ice cream. Five more minutes of building, five of crying about melted ice cream, five of hosing off the child, five of building, Then it’s probably time to go home. So bring snacks, or cash for the snack bar. And bring patience, and probably leave your desire to finish a sand castle at home. You can always build one after your child is in college, or after they chop down your trunk to build a boat to sail away.

Remember the sunscreen

Not for them, for you. Of course you put sunscreen on them, liberally, and frequently – you’re not a monster. But did you put enough on your own alabaster complexion? While you’re hunched over that pail, old Mister Sun is cooking you like a Maxwell Street polish, and in the two hours or so we spend on the beach this weekend, Viva got a sand castle, a hot dog, ice cream,and new friends. Daddy got squamous cell carcinoma.

Pay attention

Look alive, you, Michelangelo, sand sculptor. While you contemplate the buttressing of your creation, your child may be floating off to Michigan in her water wings. But that’s not the only reason to keep one eye on the sculpture and at least two more on your surroundings – that phone you keep nearby to photograph your sand art? It’s got a picture of a thermometer on in because it overheated. And three little boys are sneaking up on you to knock over your hard work. Oh, and your kid just kicked sand on their $6 Chicago dog.

Aim low

As soon as you pull out the shovel and pail, your child’s attention span clock is ticking. It always ticks fastest when you try and pull off these charming, oldey-timey child/parent bonding activities.

Remember the birdhouse your kid ran from before you were done? Remember the cookies they never finished decorating? Remember when they told you there were planes to catch and bills to pay? Well, if you think your kid wants to engineer tasteful Prairie-style sand homes with you all day, you are Frank Lloyd WRONG. (See what I did there?)

So, build something you needn’t dig up half the beach for – something with a low profile. A sand bas-relief, if you will. I recommend a nice alligator, or a sleeping dragon, or an enormous facsimile of a Kraft single.

Indulge their appetite for destruction

You know what your kid likes WAY MORE than building stuff? Blowing stuff up REAL GOOD. The second my alligator was finished Viva was curb stomping it like she was Edward Norton without the alarming tattoos. I actually had to tell a bypasser that she was my kid, because he was disgusted by her lack of art appreciation. (Little did he know she is merely the Ai Weiwei to my Han vase.)

To keep Viva building, I had to assure her she could be a part of the demolition afterward. It was frustrating to watch her make such short work of our efforts, but isn’t the real beauty in sand art the poetically doomed nature of it, as allegory to our own fleeting time on this earth? (Plus the lifeguard said I was gonna have to rake. I hate raking.)

If you really want to enjoy building a sand castle and build something impressive, don’t bring your 3-year-old to the beach. You’ll never become the Jeanne Gang of the plastic pail set with a preschooler running roughshod over your work. (Though you might still achieve the dubious distinction of “Sand Frank Gehry.”) If you must bring your kid along for kid stuff, though, follow my advice to make sure they are happy, healthy and get a chance to destroy all you’ve built while you stand, teary-eyed and stooped, beginning to smell faintly of human bacon.

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