Students customize electronic toys for disabled children

adaptive toy project
© UNF Adaptive Toy Project

The toy aisles have been undergoing a revolution lately. Stores and consumers alike have started to question and remove gender labels and more and more offerings are available for children with special needs, but for children with more severe disabilities, it's still hard or even impossible to find something appropriate on the shelf.

A team of University of North Florida students has set their sights on helping those kids. Under a program called the Adaptive Toy Project, engineering and physical therapy students work together to meet the needs of children whose physical limitations often create a barrier to playing with standard toys. The students meet with the families of the children, and go to therapy sessions and their schools to get to know them and find out how a toy can best fit their abilities.

“Engineering students teach the physical therapy students how to modify basic electronics … and in the process engineers learn how to do people-centered designs, and how to look at their clients differently,” said physical therapy professor Mary Lundy, who co-founded the project.

The project has so far focused on retrofitting ride-on electric cars, modifying them specifically for each child they work with. For 4-year-old Scarlett Wilgis, who has cerebral palsy, they customized her car to have a push button instead of a steering wheel and added lighted sensors that allow the car to follow a line of tape on the floor when she pushes the button. Her parents can create routes of tape for her or they can operate the car via remote control while she rides.

The program is being funded by a 5-year grant from the National Institute of Health's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“This program is getting students in the early phases of their training thinking about ordinary objects, toys, and how to adapt those toys so that children with limitations can use and play with them like children without limitations,” said Dr. Alison Cernich, a neuropsychologist and director at the agency.

The customized cars are worth about $1,000 but the families receive them for free. The program is one of 60 toy car projects around the world that served disabled kids, but is the only one that brings students together to make them for free. The program has helped 18 families so far.

You can watch a video of the students modifying a car below.

Students customize electronic toys for disabled children
University of North Florida students are adapting toys for disabled children so that there is no limit to their play.

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