Adaptive Toy Project Transforms Ride-on Cars and Interactive Stuffed Animals for Special Needs Kids

IEEE student members work with physical therapists to retrofit off-the-shelf toys

12 June 2017

Kids love driving battery-powered toy cars and playing with interactive stuffed toys that have buttons and switches, but some children have disabilities that make it difficult to engage in such play. The Adaptive Toy Project at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, is working to change that.

The project involves a semester-long elective course that teaches the school’s physical-therapy and mechanical and electrical engineering students—including several IEEE student members—how to adapt toys with off-the-shelf components. The result is accessible toys for half the price of similar custom models on the market. IEEE Member Juan Aceros, an assistant professor of engineering at the school, helped develop the course and now teaches it.

Not only can the toys improve children’s lives, but the program also teaches engineering students how they can make a difference. So far, 87 engineering students have taken the course.

HELPING HANDS

Aceros and Mary Lundy, a professor of physical therapy at UNF, launched the project as a pilot in 2014. Their idea was to offer an elective course to engineering and physical therapy students who would work together converting ride-on cars and interactive toys for children with disabilities. Schools, hospitals, and physical therapy programs in the area identify kids who need help.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the U.S. National Institutes of Health awarded the project a five-year grant last year. That and donations from others cover the cost of the toys, the components to adapt them, and other materials.

About 25 students during the fall semester work with the children’s doctors to assess their needs, sit in on their physical therapy sessions, and visit the children’s homes. That process can take up to two months, Aceros says. Then the teams get to work at the university’s lab, which is equipped with 3D printers as well as power and hand tools including plenty of soldering irons.

Each semester, Aceros and Lundy focus on different types of disabilities. The teachers have addressed cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, quadriplegia, and other conditions.

From September to December last year, the teams customized ride-on cars and small toys with switches and buttons for children with cortical visual impairments. CVIs are the fastest-growing cause of visual impairment for children ages 1 to 3 in developed countries. The condition is caused by a defect in the brain’s visual cortex. According to Aceros, children with a CVI have trouble with visual signals and might require an object to move in order to see it properly. The kids can perceive color, but they gravitate toward simple objects with only one color.

A senior who took the course in the fall, IEEE Student Member Andrew Bliss, came up with the idea of applying line-follower technology so the car steers itself. Sensors he mounted beneath the car detect the contrast between black tape on the floor and the floor’s lighter background.

A button 15 centimeters in diameter replaced the car’s steering wheel. When the driver hits the button, the motorized car moves forward and follows the line of black tape. The car has an Arduino microcontroller and a Sabertooth motor controller. The Arduino acts as the brains, collecting data from the sensors. The Sabertooth provides the power to drive the toy’s electric motors. PVC panels with soft padding were added to support the child’s legs and head. A seatbelt keeps the child restrained and offers trunk support.

“Put the tape down in the child’s home and he can drive his car around the house along the tape without crashing into anything,” Aceros says.

About 35 toys have been given away to children who participated in the project.

“Low-income families can’t afford to buy them in a store,” Aceros says. If sold in specialty stores, adapted ride-on cars would retail for triple the amount of a regular car, which at national chain stores costs as much as US $240.

In the class, engineering students also teach physical therapy students how to adapt the small switch toys using a few wires and a connector for a little less than $10, Aceros says.

THE HUMAN SIDE

“Engineering students know how to build things, but the human aspect is not in the curriculum,” Aceros says. “We want them to develop skills not typically taught in the classroom and put them in situations they are unfamiliar with and where they have to think outside the box. I don’t tell them what to build. They have to come up with their own ideas for modifying the toys by working with the physical therapists as well as the children.”

IEEE Student Member Ayshka Rodriguez, a first-year EE graduate student, has been with the program since its start. Today she assists new students in the class.

“I signed up because I’m interested in biomedical applications, and through the program, I discovered a love for human anatomy,” Rodriguez says. “I now have a better understanding of how assistive devices can affect children or anyone with physical disabilities.”

Bliss says he took the course because he craved experience in building things.

“I wanted to learn how to use microcontrollers, motor controllers, and sensors,” he says. “But the class also taught me how to collaborate with others, to express ideas that were complex to students of other disciplines, and to take a child’s feedback and implement that in a design.”

It also taught him about what it means to help others.

“When we delivered our first adapted toy car,” he says, “seeing that smile on the kid’s face and hearing his laughter felt so good!”

This article is part of our June 2017 special issue on assistive tech.

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