Engineering, Health Sciences

Marquette engineers, occupational therapy students and local high school students modify over 240 adapted toys for children

Power drills and elf hats are becoming a regular sight on Marquette’s campus thanks to a growing collaboration to serve local families.

This November, the Opus College of Engineering and Penfield Children’s Center hosted two build days to support Inclusive Play: Toys for All, a collaboration between Marquette, Penfield Children’s Center and Kohl’s Building Blocks to provide adapted toys to children with varying abilities in the Milwaukee area. This is the second year of the collaboration, and organizers expanded their build day operations to adapt over 240 toys, surpassing last year’s total by over 100 toys.

The volunteer-driven build days resembled a pizza party at the North Pole. Donning elf hats, undergraduate engineering students, graduate occupational therapy students and local high school students involved with FIRST Robotics teams spent the day collaborating at tables filled with toys, drills and soldering irons. Together, they worked to make electrical modifications and add therapy switches to as many toys as possible.

The therapy switches – large, easy-to-press buttons connected to an AUX cord – allow for children with differing abilities and limited mobility to engage with toys that might otherwise be too difficult for them to play with.

Similarly adapted toys are sold online by specialty retailers but are often marked up to a price that is inaccessible to many families in need. Through the Inclusive Play: Toys for All project, toys are adapted in bulk for just a few dollars of materials and then donated at no cost to those in need.

These adapted toys also allow families and therapists to introduce the concept of cause and effect, which may be the only form of communicating for many children.

“The toys give parents an opportunity to see their children in a different light as they make a new sound or do a new movement for the first time,” says Vladimir Bjelic, a speech language pathologist at Penfield Children’s Center who helped launch the collaboration. “For me, the most gratifying feeling is seeing the social interaction that happens between the child and the parent. For some of our families, this is the first time they have laughed out loud and smiled with their child in a long time.”

In addition to serving children and families who will use the toys, the build days also provide valuable, hands-on learning experiences for a variety of students.

“When brainstorming how we could produce the large number of toys we wanted to provide to the greater Milwaukee area, we realized this was a great opportunity to work with talented groups that already exist in our own communities,” says Molly Erickson, a research engineer at Marquette who leads the technical side of Inclusive Play and organized this month’s build days. “The high school students, engineering students, and OT students all bring unique talents and perspectives to the build days, and they each walk away with a new experience to help their own development.”

Local high school students gained hands-on experience with electrical modifications, using soldering irons and drills, collaborating with a team and serving communities, while also getting a chance to meet current college students across a variety of majors in a casual setting.

Meanwhile, graduate students studying occupational therapy found an opportunity to engage with the types of adaptive technology that they may be using and advocating for in their future careers. New to the cohort this year, these students helped expand the total number of toys adapted while bringing a new perspective to each table.

“Our OT students gained first-hand experience using technical skills, so they can identify when a switch adaptation can increase access for clients to a meaningful occupation – or even apply the skills when practicing as an occupational therapist to create novel adaptations for clients,” says Katie Powell, clinical instructor of occupational therapy at Marquette. “This event also helps them see opportunities for occupational therapy and engineering to collaborate, as there is great potential for these two fields to work together to improve the lives of clients with disabilities.”

For engineering students, the build days offered more hands-on experience to supplement their course work and another opportunity to serve their community as engineers. Working alongside OT students also provided experience with the interdisciplinary collaboration and communication that they will find in their engineering professions.

With the 2023 build days complete, each toy will now be tested and reviewed by Erickson and then given to Penfield Children’s Center to use in therapy sessions and to distribute to families in need at no cost. Additional build days will be scheduled as the program expands to serve more children and families.

Learn more about Inclusive Play: Toys for All here.