By design: Creating toys for kids with cerebral palsy


animal face toy
Alex shows off his winning toy.

At first glance, it was a science fair: Teams of middle schoolers proudly presented their projects as judges milled about the room. But a closer look revealed that what the students had constructed was far more meaningful than a classic paper mâché volcano.

At one table, a group of tweens — their leader clad in a “Girl Power” t-shirt — explained the thought process behind their project, a racetrack with lighted sensors. At another, students demonstrated a set of colorful maracas. Meanwhile, a boy showed rapt onlookers how to lock two halves of expressive animal faces together using magnets and pegs.

activity cube for cp

These projects had something in common: They were all part of the Mass Stem Hub Design Showcase, in which students shared their models of adaptive toys for children with cerebral palsy (CP). The event — which took place on June 8, 2018, in partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital — provided an opportunity to put science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to the test while allowing for some friendly competition.

bowling for kids with CP
Dr. Shore gives “Bowling in a Box” a try.

Fun and games

As the students learned in the months leading up to the showcase, symptoms of CP can vary from child to child, ranging from muscle weakness and poor motor control, to muscle tightness (called spasticity), to movement disorders (called dyskinesias). “There are so many unique challenges for kids with CP,” Dr. Benjamin Shore, co-director of Boston Children’s Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity Center told the showcase participants. “The toys you’ve created help address these challenges.”

For instance, many of the showcase entries involved activities aimed at increasing arm and hand strength, improving sensory control or developing fine motor skills. But as with any toy, the main purpose was fun: Attendees, from kids with CP to clinicians and other industry professionals, were all smiles as they tested puzzles, mazes and even a portable bowling game before casting their votes for their favorite toys.

The event also included a talk by young inventor Sadie McCallum, who described how her CP diagnosis inspires her ideas, including the Curb Climber, an all-terrain walker. “Inventing allows me to solve my unique challenges in my own way, which is really cool,” she said. “I’m crazy about it now.”

mass stem hub event

Working together

Following mini-presentations on different aspects of CP care from Dr. Shore and his co-directors, Dr. Elizabeth Barkoudah, Dr. Scellig Stone and Dr. Laurie Glader, it was time to learn the four winning teams. “We love the idea of students presenting their ideas to real-world professionals,” Mass STEM Hub’s director, Katherine Skrivan told the students. “I’ve been bragging about you for weeks, and you’ve delivered.”

The awards went to students at Morton Middle School in Fall River, for their toys Shape Mania (“Excellence in Presentation”) and Rolling Slides (“Engineers’ Choice”), while a team from Leicester Middle School took home the “Practitioners’ Pick” prize for their Activity Dome. The showcase winner: the teen from Collins Middle School in Salem, whose whimsical Animal Faces puzzle charmed both adults and kids.

adaptive toys
The winning teams pose with Governor Baker and Boston Children’s clinicians.

Yet the judges stressed the importance of working together to find solutions. “Life is a team sport. That’s what you did today,” said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who helped announce the winners. “You want people on your team with different perspectives and ideas.”

The Boston Children’s clinicians agreed. “Keep brainstorming ways to make things more inclusive for kids with disabilities,” urged Dr. Stone. “We all just want to be a part of something — whether we have CP or not.”

Learn about the Cerebral Palsy and Spasticity Center