Vacations with children: a little planning can make all the difference A day at the beach

Sometimes I yearn for those carefree days of youth when ''Let's hit the beach'' meant just that. I'd put on my suit, grab my baby oil, and, with a towel over my shoulders, hop on my bike and pedal on down to meet my friends at our favorite beach on Lake Michigan.

Now, with two small children, ''hitting the beach'' can mean a week's worth of preparation unless you plan ahead and know how to make the most of what you pack for a day's outing.

Here are a few hints to make a day at the beach pleasant for everyone.

Clothes: Insist that your children wear T-shirts, beach jackets, or sweat shirts over their bathing suits. Children can become cool after swimming, winds can come up, and weather changes when you least expect it. Having children wear shirts also means that much less for you to carry.

Shoes, sandals, or flip-flops are important, too. Sand can get very hot in the afternoon even if it's cool in the morning.

Beach hats are great if your children will keep them on. Mine never would. But I did find that inexpensive visors are a huge hit and protect eyes from the sun just about as well.

I try to travel with a change of clothes for each child for the simple reason that the times I don't, I always need them.

Essentials: These may seem obvious, but they're also the most likely to be forgotten. Be sure to bring suntan lotion that doesn't come off in the water and pre-moistened wipes or dampened paper towels kept in Ziploc bags.

The old standby snacks work even at the beach - raisins in small boxes, carrots and celery, solid crackers that won't turn into crumbs the moment they're packed, oranges (pre-sliced and quartered), and sugarless gum for the older children.

Things you might not have thought of: Small plastic containers (to conserve space, make sure they fit inside each other) are great for playing in the sand. They make wonderful turrets for castles, pies and cakes, homes for shell and rock collections, or good display cases for new-found creatures who can then be returned to their natural habitat before you head home.

Empty plastic bags always come in handy for diapers, food remains, damp suits , or shells.

Ask any child who is old enough to carry his or her own basket or bag with his own toys in it. I've found that even a three-year-old is proud to hoist on a backpack.

Plastic spoons and knives can perform a myriad of feats, as can lids of plastic containers. They make particularly good Frisbees.

As you plan your forays to the shore, the beach, or even the pool with little ones, remember that most of their joy comes from the sheer pleasure of being there. Water, whether it comes roaring in to tickle their toes or placidly laps around them while they build drip castles, is the big drawing card.

Children will have a wonderful time if you have a wonderful time. And you'll have a wonderful time if you're prepared. Plan ahead a little and get ready to have a great time with them. In no time at all they'll be off and running with their own friends, and you'll wish they were back with you. So relax and enjoy these brief moments as your children discover the joys of squishing sand between their toes, chasing waves, putting sugar frosting on sand cakes, and chewing on sand-covered raisins for the first time.

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