How Volunteers Are Building Better Toys For Kids With Disabilities

Dec 14, 2016

In a home in southeast Columbus, the cheery glow of a Christmas tree brightens the living room. The holiday may be more than a week away, but for Allison Carlisle’s family, gift-giving has already started.

And she has Nationwide Children's Hospital, not Santa, to thank.  

One of Carlisle’s three sons, 12-year-old Michael, is developmentally disabled.

“He is ambulatory, he does get up and walk," Carlisle says. "He’s non-verbal. And communication, very, very limited to none.”

Toys for children like Michael have not always been available. But several years ago, Nationwide started a program to help fill the void - and now Ohio State University students are teaming up with them to get more toys to kids who need them.

Easy Play

Until recently, Carlisle says, her son could only play with baby rattles.

“We really couldn’t go forward with toys that were more complex because he just, he couldn’t do it.”

But at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where Michael is a patient, Carlisle learned about “adapted toys.” These are toys that have been modified so that special needs children can play with them, too. Now Michael has a bubble-blowing machine and a bump-n-go train.

Adapted toys have on-and-off switches that are easy for kids like Michael to use. 

At Nationwide Children’s, Lindsey Pauline is part of the adapted toy program known as Toys For All Tots. It’s been running there for six years. 

“All kids like toys, but not all kids can access toys the same way,” Pauline says. “So therapists have figured out, ‘Sometimes I’ve got to change this toy to get my child to want to interact with it.’”

Pauline demonstrates the wide variety of toys that have been fitted with special on-and-off switches: “We have our standard police cars, and of course our fire trucks,” she points out.

Learning to Adapt

Nationwide Children’s now has hundreds of helpers who make the workload easier. That includes a number of eager OSU students.

“They learn reverse engineering. They learn how to take something apart, they learn to figure out how it works, they learn series and parallel circuits,” says Rachel Kajfez, a professor of engineering education. “But they also learn about, kind of, ‘humanitarian engineering,’ or giving back through engineering, which is really important. This is a really concrete, tangible way to show that.”

In Smith Lab, three full shelf spaces are filled with toys. Second-year student Jarrod Manguiat points to Sheriff Callie, a singalong cat, as their post popular.

He may be a computer science major, but Manguiat has learned a lot about educating young people with special needs.

“Children really learn through play,” he says. “And that’s one of the first things you do, is when you play with a toy, you learn the ABCs, you learn your numbers. And children who have special needs don’t usually get that experience; they don’t have that mobility. So it’s really important that we offer this skill so that each child gets that opportunity.”

Giving Back

At this year’s Toys For All Tots event, volunteers saw that the hours they’d put it were worth it.

“There’s this whole table filled with about 100 toys that we adapted that we were going to donate,” Manguiat says. “And so we had one child come in on a wheelchair and his eyes just lit up. And it was one of the coolest experiences, because it was something that we built, and it was just giving them so much joy.”

Allison Carlisle is also grateful for the program. At Nationwide Children’s, she learned how to re-engineer toys herself – so Michael can have more to play with.

“I’m super excited after going because I got to learn how to adapt,” Carlisle says. “This train was actually what I adapted while I was there. So I’m really excited now because I want to go out and find toys that I can adapt for him, so he’ll have a wider variety of things.”

For Michael, and for many other children, Christmas has come early.