An Immersive Play Space for People with Special Needs

LifeTown in Livingston—which may be the largest play space of its kind—invites visitors to explore and learn in a sensory-rich world.

Zalman Grossbaum welcomes special-needs families to Lifetown in Livingston, where children and adults can practice life skills—even touch football—for the outside world. Photo by Debbie Galant

The first thing you notice when you enter LifeTown is the staircase up to the main level. They are musical. Yes, they look like regular stairs, but they behave like the giant dance notes of FAO Schwarz fame, chiming in time with your footsteps.

That’s a fitting entrance to what may be the world’s largest play space dedicated to children and adults with special needs. LifeTown—the brainchild of Chabad rabbi Zalman Grossbaum and his wife, Toba—is located in a 53,000-square-foot former warehouse in Livingston.

In the lingo of such places, it’s an immersive environment, a sensory-rich world that special needs people can explore and learn.

The heartbeat of LifeTown is its shopping center, LifeTown Shoppes, a simulated Main Street with a town square, traffic light, theater and 15 stores. Here special needs people can practice life skills for the outside world. When school groups visit, children are invited to withdraw $12 in real money from the bank. They can use it for purchases like a manicure ($2), ice cream ($2) or a movie ticket ($1). There’s a suite with a doctor’s office and a dental chair. Volunteers play store clerks, doctors and traffic cops (who are authorized to give out warnings and $1 tickets). One of the stores, Words Bookstore, is a satellite of the shop in Maplewood that runs a vocational training program for people with autism.

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LifeTown also houses art and dance studios, an indoor gym, an outdoor touch-football field (donated by the football Jets) and a commercial kitchen. But the favorite place of 20-year-old Ben Tepper, a regular denizen, is the Snoezelen room, a dimly lit space filled with trippy lights. A bowling alley and zero-entry pool were under construction in December.

The Grossbaums have been helping the special-needs population of North Jersey since 2000, when they opened a Chabad Friendship Circle in Livingston for Jewish children with special needs. They were inspired to build LifeTown, which opened in September, after visiting a similar facility in Michigan. Although LifeTown has some Judaic features (a small synagogue with real torahs and a styrofoam Wailing Wall), the facility is open to everyone.

Jonah Zimiles, owner of Words Bookstore and father of an autistic son, has been involved with the Friendship Circle for over a decade, as a user of its services and increasingly as a donor and fundraiser. “It’s been a game changer for us,” he says.

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