LAKE FOREST/LAKE BLUFF — Sage Explorers in downtown Lake Forest is the kind of store where children are encouraged to play with the toys. All are educational.
On a recent visit to the new store, More than a dozen youngsters of assorted ages and a few adults were actively sitting at tables playing games or making things while a foursome was on the floor enmeshed in Twangled. Some made purchases and some did not.
“It’s a place where kids can hang out on a Saturday or after school, play games and be off their phones,” said owner Allison Gurza of Lake Bluff. “A lot of kids who come in play and don’t leave with anything. I am confident they’ll know what to ask for when their birthday or Christmas rolls around.”
Sage Explorers opened September 2 on Bank Lane between Deerpath Road and Market Square to give youngsters a place to play and learn while Gurza puts her teaching experience on a different path.
Along with offering toys and games, Sage Explorers is also a learning center with individual and group tutoring. The learning center opened September 19. Gurza said she plans classes in the near future.
Before opening her store and learning center, Gurza taught fourth and fifth grade at the School of St. Mary in Lake Forest for 15 years. She was also a student there in her youth before graduating from Lake Forest High School and Humboldt State University in California. While in college she worked in a toy store.
“I worked at the Rocking Horse, which sold children’s clothes and toys,” said Gurza. “I enjoyed the job. It planted the seeds for Sage Explorers.”
Looking for a change, Gurza said she started searching for a way to combine her love for children and teaching into a profitable enterprise. As she did her research into the right merchandise mix for children in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and the surrounding area she worried how to compete with Amazon.
“I looked for things Amazon didn’t sell but Amazon sells everything,” said Gurza. “When a kid comes in, plays with something and enjoys it that’s what sells.”
One of those toys is Electro Dough. It is used to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to preschool and young elementary students; children make the dough and insert little bulbs. The dough conducts electricity, and the bulbs light up.
“It’s hard to sell when you look at it,” said Gurza. “When they see it light up and make sounds they get excited.”
Gurza takes time with her customers, both children and adults, to sit with them at a table and play games. She shows people how one game may help memory while another builds small motor skills.
Children are not the only ones at play in the store. Playing Twangled were three adults including a former school principal and a teenager. One of the Adults was Claudia Patel of Lake Villa. Her daughter, Serena Patel, graduated from St. Mary last year and they came to the store to check it out.
The Patels, former St. Mary Principal Vinni Biancalana and Beth Casey, another former St. Mary teacher and current employee at Sage Explorers were affixing bands to their thumbs and following the directions of Twangled.
With everyone connected, first player kicks the starter which gives a direction like go under the pink band. As the game goes on, players become more and more entangled. Claudia Patel said rather than fall on the floor together, part of the object of the game is disentangling themselves.
“I was very impressed with the store,” said Claudia Patel. “Children of all ages are there enjoying themselves. It’s good to seeing them try something more educationally focused.”
The learning center operates from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Gurza handles the individual tutoring while Casey helps children with language arts such as reading, writing and vocabulary. Tracy Pierret teaches math and science. Gurza said the learning center is geared to children from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We incorporate toys where appropriate,” said Gurza.
When classes start children will be making something with kits such as Make Your Own Dragon or Hang Glider Guy. The glider flies with the guy in it.
“They build the dragon by adding some of the body parts,” said Gurza. “Then they paint it.