If you have a child or teen with special needs, you know how much planning goes into each outing. You often have to ask yourself if the place is sensory friendly or conducive to safe fun. Enter LifeTown in Livingston, a magical 53,000 square-foot facility that aims to create an entertaining space that offers hands-on experiences for kids with special needs.
Only the second of its kind (and by far the largest) in the country, LifeTown opened earlier this fall and we got a first-hand look at what makes it so unique down to the last detail. LifeTown’s goal is to offer low-cost therapeutic, recreational and educational programs for people with special needs, and to teach independent living to those on the spectrum.
New Jersey has the highest rate of children with autism in the country, and the largest percentage of those kids live in Essex County, which helped inspire LifeTown to be built in Livingston. If you’re raising a child or teen who has special needs, you’ll want to arrange a visit ASAP.
“The goal of LifeTown is to make the world a welcoming place, integrating people with special needs, including autism, into daily life,” says LifeTown CEO Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum. “LifeTown is a model for people with special needs and all kids—when they play together they naturally come together and don’t notice differences.”
Embracing Real-World Experiences
The star of LifeTown is Life Village, where visitors will get real-world, hands-on experiences. If you’re wondering how one facility can accomplish that, picture this: a Main Street complete with storefronts like Regal Bank, RWJBarnabas Health medical center (with both a doctor and dentist office), a Words Bookstore, ShopRite, electronics store, pet shop, nail salon, copy center, flower shop, clothing store, coffee shop, laundromat, movie theater and a roadway complete with crosswalks, traffic lights and crossing guard. Life Village visitors start their journey at the bank, where they receive money to use at the shoppes. The kids then have to figure out how to spend their cash and book appointments where necessary, which boosts their budgeting and time management skills, and even a bit of patience if they’ve got to sit in a waiting room at the dentist.
“We are excited about the many opportunities that will be available to train and support young people with special needs,” says LifeTown Executive Director Toba Grossbaum. “This new facility will empower individuals with special needs to reach their fullest potential and become more independent.”
As they get older, they can gain valuable job training. The training teaches teens and young adults the skills needed to stock shelves at ShopRite, clean towels at an aquatic center, make copies at a copy center, manage ticket sales at a movie theater and more. Once the entrance level’s factory opens (they’ll be creating a bread mix), there will be more employment opportunities, too. Kids can sign up for job training by reaching out through the website.
A Sensory-Friendly Space
But LifeTown is more than just the amazing Main Street Shoppes. After you walk up the facility’s musical stairs, you’ll see the sensory wall, which encourages exploration of color, texture and design. There’s also an alphabet wall, which features braille, ASL, English, Hebrew and Mandarin, and demonstrates different methods of communication.
LifeTown’s zero-entry pool allows visitors who use wheelchairs to roll right into the water, which remains at a comfortable 90 degrees. The pool will only be 4 ½ feet deep, perfect for water therapy and exercises. Swimmers can enjoy interactive experiences like water spouts and a water umbrella. The water-activity room is an interactive play space, with water tables and squishy floors, that provides tactile engagement and desensitization therapy while kids push and spin to their heart’s delight. The pool will open in the next few months and the water play room’s opening is TBD.
When they’re dry, kids will love the therapeutic activity wing, especially its sensory play area. Made to bring the outside in, this park filled with trees, benches and loads of natural light has perfect weather year round. And the playground is soft and safe, so kids can play on swings, jump in the cheese pit, bounce on the trampoline, go down the slide, hit the climbing wall and more.
If it all starts to feel like a bit too much, the kids can chill for a bit at the Snoezelen Center which uses bubble machines and light displays to provide comforting sights, sounds and aromas.
More Special Features
All ages can visit the kitchen for safety classes, life-skills food prep and holiday-themed cooking sessions, plus train for jobs in commercial kitchens and restaurants. There’s also a Jersey Shore-themed room complete with a massive sandbox, toys and boardwalk boards (no Parkway tolls!). And of course, the art center, where messy, expressive art is a welcoming form of therapy.
Even the gymnasium has some special features for your little basketball star. It’s equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceilings to alleviate sensory overload issues, and will host recreational teams and sports leagues including tennis, basketball and volleyball.
A three-lane bowling alley, which has wheelchair ramps and bumpers for accessibility and fun, is also coming soon (date is still TBD). LifeTown also offers spaces for parties, dances and classes.
LifeTown even has an outdoor football field, which was created using olive pits instead of tires to keep the turf cool. The field is partially sponsored by the NFL and New York Jets.
If you bring your kids, you’ll need to stay on-site with your child. While they marvel at all the fun, you can hit the Parents Lounge, a place to work remotely, relax and meet other special needs parents. Volunteers have their own lounge, too, which offers games and entertainment.
If your kids are interested in volunteering, LifeTown offers integrated after-school programs, Sunday respite programs and sports leagues meant to help break down barriers between typically developing peers and those with special needs. Go to LifeTown’s website for more information on how to volunteer.
To plan a visit with your kids, you’ll need to schedule in advance. There’s a nominal fee and you should check online or call ahead for scheduled programs. Programs run daily from Sunday-Friday, depending on the weekly schedule. LifeTown is open 9 am-5 pm Monday-Friday and 9 am-noon on Sunday.
10 Microlab Rd., Livingston