Adaptive toy program

WWU clubs modify toys for children with disabilities

Children with special needs face obstacles that most kids never will. Common toys that line the shelves are often incompatible with disabilities. In 2017 when Brian Hartman, assistant professor of education at WWU, learned about toy adaptation programs that make toys more accessible for children with special needs, he decided to bring the idea to student clubs on campus in hopes of bringing these resources to local kids.

Since then, the Education Club and the Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers Club have hosted a toy hack workshop in Kretschmar Hall almost every year. Students modify a dozen toys to make them more functional for local children with disabilities. For example, this year they added large external buttons to a green dinosaur toy and a Minnie Mouse toy, both of which came wired with difficult-to-access control buttons. 

The WWU Center for Educational Equity and Diversity helps manage the relationships with donors, program supporters, and local health professionals who work with the children. Therapists request toys for the kids they work with and deliver the toys. The clubs prepare tools for the event and provide technical aid to the hackers.

“Lots of students can get involved, but it tends to be particularly of interest to engineering students. The students love being involved in something that meets a real need,” says Hartman. 

Modified in a single afternoon of hacking, the adapted toys have a big impact. While adapted toys are purchasable, they can be very expensive and this cost is often a barrier for parents of children with disabilities. Having age appropriate toys that support children’s learning and therapy goals is a game-changer according to the therapists who participate in the project. 

“We thought there were lots of toy libraries, but in fact, in the Northwest it is particularly hard to have access to these kinds of toys, especially in rural areas,” says Hartman. The WWU adaptive toy program has provided toys for kids in other states to help meet these needs.

The program has been a huge success over the last six years and Hartman hopes others can start similar programs at their institutions. “It really doesn’t require engineers. Any high schooler could do this with some problem-solving and soldering skills,” he says. 

Posted June 26, 2023.

Female student solders wires on plastic toy.