LIVINGSTON, NJ — After being forced to put the grand opening of their new business on hold for several months due to the pandemic, Livingston moms and cousins Marina Sharfshteyn and Mila Grushin had a successful first few weeks at Exceptional Explorers—an indoor play space located at 277 Eisenhower Parkway Suite 12-C that promotes cultural exposure and diversity in kids while providing a unique childcare opportunity for parents.

During the township’s first ribbon cutting since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Mayor Rudy Fernandez, members of the Livingston Township Council and members of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce joined Sharfshteyn, Grushin and their families for a socially distanced celebration of their grand opening.

“It’s nice to see that even in these crazy times, people still want to open and open in Livingston,” said Fernandez, who was also enthusiastic that the two Livingston mothers chose to open a new business within their own community.

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According to the owners, the geography theme of the space “exposes children to other countries and landmarks through arts and crafts classes that promote motor and speech development, while at the same time also allowing children to explore a space that engages and entertains.”

Situated in what Grushin and Sharfshteyn described as an extremely family-oriented strip of businesses—which also includes Mezza Mediterranean, Aldi, Goldfish Swim School, Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa and more—Exceptional Explorers is currently offering open playtime opportunities Monday through Friday. In place of arts and crafts classes for the time being, the classroom space is being utilized for remote learning help, and parents are invited access the WiFi in the lobby area during that time as needed.

“Marina came to me when my kids were born with the idea of coaching geography-themed arts and crafts classes, so that's how the idea was really born,” said Grushin. “She’s an occupational therapist, so the idea of working with hands and manipulating items to develop the muscles is really her niche; and then as a speech therapist, I felt like there could be a different component where we could combine our experience and do nice arts and crafts classes.

“Our community was lacking a space where we could bring our kids, so that idea of arts and crafts classes really turned into creating a place where parents could bring their kids, where they could play and we could really use that idea and expand it.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused the owners to adjust and expand its guidelines, regular sanitization and other safety protocols had already been among the priorities at Exceptional Explorers.

“Even before COVID, one of our most important priorities was keeping the space immaculately clean, and of course we have even elevated that since COVID,” said Sharfshteyn, who noted that there is a different set of toys for each group of kids and that sanitization occurs in between all time slots in an effort to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19 and other illnesses. “Cleaning procedures was the first thing we did when it came to training our staff and managers because we are so concerned. We're really trying our best, and I think we're going to be successful between our staff and our customers.”

In accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), time slots are currently being limited to eight kids.

Grushin added that there are no weekly or monthly signup commitments at Exceptional Explorers, which allows parents to register for time slots on day-by-day basis.

“Parents who have a busy day or a meeting at work or errands to run could come in and reserve or register for a class,” said Grushin. “Seeing my own son sitting at home really needing to do something with that energy of his and not being able to and just knowing that all kids need some sort of movement throughout the day, I think that—right now especially—parents would love to hear that there's this option.”

At the height of the pandemic, Grushin, a mother of three, and Sharfshteyn, a mother of two, wondered whether other parents would ever again feel comfortable sending their children to such a facility. Even when certain businesses began to open earlier this summer, Grushin stated that they still were not sure “how people would respond to something like this or if they were going to be scared to come to a place like this.”

Based on the turnout during the grand opening, however, Grushin said it “seems like people are ready to bring their kids,” adding that “the kids are ready for sure.”

“We were supposed to open at the end of March or early April, so of course the uncertainty of all of this was very, very unnerving because we just didn’t know if it’s ever going to happen,” said Sharfshteyn. “But we really want this place to be almost a sense of normalcy for parents. COVID is around and it’s going be around for some time, but I think that our community and our state have worked so hard to come so far. So we want parents to come here and see their children have a little bit of fun with some socialization, which they haven’t had for a while.”

When they first moved to Livingston from Brooklyn, the two cousins fell in love with the area but felt that it lacked somewhere to meet other local moms as well as an indoor space for their toddlers to interact with others. With Exceptional Explorers, Grushin and Sharfshteyn hope to fill that void for fellow parents.

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