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Building Toys to Meet Special Needs

September 7, 2005

McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science students at Northwestern University collaborated with the National Lekotek Center in Evanston to create original toys and adapt old classics for children with special needs.

“The students had a very challenging job,” said Deidre Omahen, Lekotek’s director of programs. “Not only did they have to create a toy, but they first had to research and understand the different disabilities.”

The project was a part of Engineering Design and Communication (EDC), which is a two-quarter required class for McCormick freshmen. The class allows students to solve engineering design challenges for real-world clients. Since the class began in 1996, Lekotek has been a repeat client.

Four teams of students worked to complete the toy-making assignment. Two teams adapted already existing toys -- a farmhouse simplified and made more durable for children with motor skills disabilities and a version of the recognition game “Guess Who?” for children with cognitive disabilities. The two other teams created completely original toys -- a sensory integration vest and mat, called the “Sensamat,” for children with autism.

The Sensamat consisted of a large piece of soft Velcro with various textured patches for tactile stimulation.

“Just looking at the sensory mat, you would think, ‘There’s not much to this,’” said Omahen. “But for a kid with sensory impairment, they spend so much time with it.”

In order to reach a final successful product, the teams of students first brainstormed different ideas. Then they user-tested a few prototypes to discover what the children would respond to.

“The boy who tested our Sensamat was feeling everything, running around with it and throwing all the pieces,” said Danielle North, who helped design the product. “You could tell he was really having a lot of fun with it.”

But the children and staff of Lekotek were not the only ones to benefit from the experience. The Northwestern students were also left with great memories and a sense of fulfillment.

“It was a really great experience,” said Erin Cully, co-designer of the Sensamat. “Just knowing that you’re creating something that can be used to help someone -- that’s a great feeling.”

Lekotek is a division of the Anixter Center, a non-profit foundation that assists people with disabilities to be able to live and work successfully in the community. Lekotek is the country’s central source on toys and play for children with special needs. Nationwide, there are 36 Lekotek sites that offer family play sessions, toy lending libraries, family computer centers and other innovative community-specific programming.

Topics: Campus Life