What toddler doesn’t love the freedom of motion? Whether it’s an awkward crawl, tentative first steps or a fleet-footed sprint on chubby thighs, the result is the same: a gleeful child, giggling as she powers past Mom and Dad. Mobility is an early, and important, step toward independence.
But toddlers with crawling and walking problems have a tough time getting around on their own, which can lead to dependence and frustration. And the wait for a $25,000 pediatric power wheelchair can be five years or longer, even in the United States.
One solution might be a $100 plastic pink Mustang convertible, according to Cole Galloway, director of the Pediatric Mobility Lab at the University of Delaware.
Galloway, a professor of physical therapy, and his research assistants received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and used the funds to stock up on pint-sized riding toys at the local Toys “R” Us.
Next, the do-it-yourselfers jerry-rigged the cars with swimming pool noodles, PVC pipe and switches to customize the toys for kids with special needs. The reconfigured tractors and fire engines not only help kids get moving, they also build motor skills. With the flip of a switch, parents or therapists can nudge riders to shift weight, stand and push forward—strengthening leg muscles.
Take, for example, Xander Brewer-Ley, a Delaware five-year-old with gross motor disability related to a tethered spinal cord. Xander is great with his crutches, but it can be hard for him to keep up with his friends, says his mother Barbara Ley.
She asked Galloway and team if they could customize a stand-up, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for Xander. “I didn’t want him to sit down. Standing on the ATV is a way for him to practice weight-bearing and build leg and core strength.” It also gives Xander an opportunity to be a social leader because his friends have to run to keep up with him, or he can let them ride in a wagon hitched to his ATV.
Galloway has launched a movement, transforming parents and therapists into mechanics with directions for building vehicles. The innovation also empowers kids to steer themselves toward independence.
The secret to the project’s success? “You need the logical brain of a scientist, the creativity of an artist and the patience of a toddler,” Galloway says.