Every time Brandon Nguyen DPT ’19, sees kids play with adapted toys for the first time, he feels excited. “It never gets old seeing the kiddo’s face light up when he or she is able to play with a new toy, just like any other kid,” says Nguyen.

Nguyen is one of the student founders of a group called HuskyADAPT, which aims to adapt toys so that kids with disabilities can play with them. As it turns out, when more kids can play with toys, everyone wins.

Toys within reach
HuskyADAPT (Accessible Design and Play Technology) was formed as a collaboration among students and faculty across different departments and disciplines — including engineering, rehabilitation, education, psychology and other areas — to help solve accessibility design challenges. One of these challenges entails adapting electronic toys, such as bubble machines, trains or singing stuffed animals, to make them more accessible.

While most people don’t think twice about flipping a switch or pushing a button, it can present a real challenge and inhibit play for children with disabilities. That’s where HuskyADAPT students come in — pulling apart toys, then redesigning them with different switches. Sometimes this means turning a barely visible switch into big red button or relocating a button to a more accessible part of the toy. (The program has also explored affordable ways to produce their own switches with a 3D printer.)

“Switch-adapted toys allow inclusive opportunities for all kids to share social experiences and play with their peers, regardless of abilities,” says Nguyen. He’s seen firsthand how increasing a child’s sense of independence during play leads to blossoming skills in motor function, cognition and language — not to mention joy.

“Parents and doctors are often surprised at how long a child can sit up, reach or lift their hand to activate a switch once they have a reason to move,” says Nguyen. “And that reason is play.”

Teaching empathy
Nguyen now works as a physical therapist at the Everett Clinic. When he was a physical therapy student, though, he gravitated toward HuskyADAPT because it used his background in mechanical engineering and education as well as his growing knowledge of rehabilitation. And, in addition to pulling in college students like Nguyen, HuskyADAPT also reaches out to K-12 students. By engaging these students in conversation and providing them with interesting projects, HuskyADAPT aims to challenge their perceptions.

“People often underestimate the competencies or abilities of people with disabilities. Maybe it’s because they haven’t met a person with disabilities, or the topic has never come up at home or at school,” says Nguyen, who led outreach efforts.

Several HuskyADAPT programs left a strong impression on Nguyen and his student trainees. In one of them, Nguyen taught fifth-graders how to adapt toys for their former teacher; she has twins with special needs. In another, Nguyen worked with a local high school to develop a STEM curriculum and modify ride-on cars for preschoolers with limited mobility.

The best part of these projects, says Nguyen, was having the children deliver the newly adapted toys to the special education classrooms. He watched all the interactions. “These kids are adapting toys for other kids. They can’t help but feel invested when they work so closely with peers who have different abilities,” says Nguyen. “There is an important empathy component.”

After their time in HuskyADAPT, all the students, K through college, feel more comfortable interacting with peers of varying abilities. And, of course, Nguyen noticed the new-found delight of the kids who can now play alongside their peers.

“After all,” says Nguyen. “Kids just want to be kids.”

Would your child, school or clinic benefit from adaptive toys? Apply at the HuskyADAPT site.