By Kaitlin Kersten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist
It’s that time of the year again! If you have small kiddos in your life, you are no stranger to the whirlpool of “Toyland” in every major store that sucks your family in with bright colors and cool noises. As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I’m always scoping out these aisles right along with the kids! I love to see what’s new out there, and what could entice some good movement from my littlest patients at their appointments. But I also scrutinize the toys for another reason… To adapt them.
Most toys are designed for “typically developing” kiddos- kids who can use their pointer fingers to reach out and touch a button, who can pinch a toy’s foot or hand to make it sing and dance, or can manipulate the small wheel and switches of a remote-controlled car. But in my line of work, not every kid has that ability. A child could be born with spastic cerebral palsy and struggle to reach out and grab an object. They could have had a stroke in utero and have significant weakness in an entire arm. Some kids are “typically developing” and just have really weak hand muscles. For these kids and many others, the mass marketed toys just don’t work. But of course, try telling them that. Kids are, by trade, stubborn and smart, and LOVE all the toys they see on those big box store shelves.
So where can I bridge this gap between a child’s abilities and the ultra-coolest, must-have toy of the year? Well it involves a soldering iron, some electric tape, wire strippers and a lot of patience on my part! When I was in school for Occupational Therapy, one of our professors was a whiz at assistive technology, could adapt anything and everything. He first taught me how to adapt the simpler, push-button sing and dance toys. With a simple snip into the internal wiring and splicing in some cords of my own, I can adapt this toy into a large push-button toy. Buttons for toys are widely available, but expensive, so I usually 3D print those at my local library to go along with the toy. Now, wha-la! A kid with spastic cerebral palsy or history of stroke just has to hit a four-inch button rather than try to squeeze the toys paw/foot! They have a singing, dancing toy perfect to annoy their parents with.
Some toys are a little trickier, but with a quick solder of a circuit board I can add in some wires to a switch. I also use head tilt switches for kids who have next to no use of their upper extremities. A caregiver puts a band around their head, and all the kid needs to do is tilt their head forward to activate the toy. You have not lived until you can see the joy spread on a kid’s face who before could not access toys like this and now gets to play with them like everyone else.
Remote-controlled cars are another toy I can adapt in so many ways. Maybe it’s just a bigger joystick with a handle for a kiddo who can’t grasp a tiny controller. Many times I make these with a universal mount so they can go on any wheelchair and be secure. These kids get so excited. It wasn’t a complete success at first though; my first few prototypes suffered quite a few tumbles.
If you had told me before I became an Occupational Therapist I would be scrounging the aisles of various Toylands searching for deals on toys I can adapt and give away to kids with special needs, I never would have believed you. I am not technically savvy, and most of what I do is learned from YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error. But even through the blood, sweat, and tears of trying to adapt a new toy for a kiddo, it all melts away when you see their face light up because now they CAN play. As one kid shouted when he realized he could now race his brothers in remote control cars- “It’s a MORE THAN Christmas Miracle!” And I look forward to it every year.