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UNF students make special toys

A physical therapy student helps a child in a toy vehicle as part of the adaptive toy project

It took four-year old Maddex Hart only 15 minutes to learn to maneuver the joystick of the Spiderman riding toy that was designed just for him. Once he got the hang of it, he was off.


The joystick— which was engineered by University of North Florida students — enables Maddex, who was born with cerebral palsy, to move around, steer and accelerate without using the pedals or a steering wheel.


“It was exciting to see him understand what the car does,” said Kristin Ehler, a second year doctoral student who worked with other UNF physical therapy and engineering students to retrofit the toy. “The project allowed me not only to see what I may be doing in the future; but also showed me that we really can change the life of a child.”


The project is part of a Transformational Learning Opportunity that brings together undergraduate engineering students and physical therapy graduate scholars to adapt ride-on toys for children with disabilities.


The GoBabyGo adaptive toy initiative was started in fall 2014 by Dr. Juan Aceros, an assistant engineering professor, and Dr. Mary Lundy, assistant professor in the doctor of physical therapy program. Lundy said the idea came from graduate students working in the field who recognized that young children with disabilities needed more opportunities for play during the critical years of cognitive development, as well as greater access to adaptive toys, which are expensive and often hard to find.


Aceros said there is a huge demand for the toys, which are loaned to children as long as they need them or until they outgrow them. They work with therapists from local healthcare organizations, such as Brooks Rehabilitation, Wolfson’s Children’s Hospital and Duval County Public Schools, to get the toys to children who can benefit from them.


Aceros said it’s a win-win for everyone involved. While the children get a toy that will benefit them, the hands-on learning experience is valuable to both the engineering and PT students. And since the two disciplines approach challenges very differently, the students said working together has been particularly rewarding.


“Potential employers also see that students are building things, not just doing something on paper,” he said. “They are addressing a real problem and making a difference.”


April Hart, Maddex’s mother, said she is amazed by the dedication of the UNF students involved. She said they’ve gotten just as excited about the project as the children receiving the adaptive toys.


“The students faces light up as much as the kids,” she said.


Hart is especially grateful for the new opportunities the program opens up for her son who, for the first time, will be able to maneuver around his environment — and do it on his own.


“It’s a first for him,” she said. “This is a mountain.”


Aceros said they hope to continue to expand the program to reach even more children in the community. Expansion plans could mean including students from other disciplines, such as UNF’s Coggin College of Business, or even creating a fellowship position to manage the lending library of toys and conduct research.


The multidisciplinary, hands-on project serves as a model for other universities, and Aceros said he and Lundy are getting inquiries from other institutions seeking to duplicate it.