Giving the gift of play to children with disabilities

Posted: November 26, 2021

Learning through play is essential to early childhood development, but some children with disabilities can miss out on this important experience. Thankfully, engineers at The Ohio State University are bringing the fun back to playtime.

Students solder wires on a toy elephant.
Engineering students adapt a toy so that children with disabilities can play independently.

“Some kids cannot activate the toy the way it was designed,” said Engineering Education Assistant Professor Rachel Kajfez who co-directs the Toy Adaptation Program (TAP). “So we take these toys that are available on the market and we modify them.”

Electronic toys—like those that light up, talk, move and even blow bubbles—can be difficult for some children with disabilities to play with due to switches or buttons that may be too small or difficult to reach. Adding a jack that acts as a port allows for the use of a custom switch, including buttons of all sizes, pedals and more, which enables kids to operate the toy independently. While there are commercially adapted toys on the market, they can cost four to five times as much as a conventional toy, making it cost-prohibitive for families who often have other expenses such as therapies, doctor’s visits and equipment such as wheelchairs.

Toy adaptation efforts at Ohio State have evolved from a series of workshops launched in 2013 by Senior Academic Advisor and TAP co-director, Elizabeth Riter, into a robust university program that provides hands-on educational opportunities to numerous groups within the community, including engineering and non-engineering students, teachers and therapists, companies, and families. Adaptive toy labs have also been integrated into the first-year engineering scholars and honors curriculum over the years.

All of those workshops and labs help supply the toy inventory for the program’s biggest event of the year, Toys for All Tots. Held at Nationwide Children’s Hospital during the holiday season, the event donates previously adapted toys to families and includes a hands-on workshop that teaches them how to modify a toy. When COVID hit in 2020 and ruled out in-person gatherings, organizers had to figure out how to adapt the program.

“A lot of the toys for that event are supplied through our workshops and the student labs, so when we weren’t meeting that quota, we needed to get them from somewhere else,” said former TAP intern Kara Flint (’21, biomedical engineering).

Thankfully the program was able to secure $5,000 in funding from the College of Engineering Priority Fund. The college’s most popular fund with 1,000 donors annually, the Engineering Priority Fund provides unrestricted dollars that can be used at the dean’s discretion.

The support not only helped TAP purchase the toys and supplies needed to modify them, it paid for the labor of Flint and a fellow intern who adapted all 100 toys themselves. Additionally, the funds helped provide interested families with an at-home adaptation kit.

“We had 50 families participate in Toys for All Tots in 2020, so we were able to send each family home with two toys each,” said Flint. “The priority funds were so helpful because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do anything for those families, so I was very glad that we could still give them something.”

TAP aims to return to in-person workshops and teaching again soon, although the pandemic year did encourage the program to increase its online presence, potentially expanding its reach. Organizers compiled a number of instructional videos and how-to documents—many of which were already in existence—on its website so that the information is accessible to anyone at all times.

TAP has donated more than 1,500 toys to children over the course of its existence and has served as a model for similar programs at a number of other institutions, including one at the University of Washington founded by Ohio State and TAP alum, Molly Mollica (’14 biomedical engineering, ’16 mechanical engineering).

“This program has grown and expanded in ways we could have never imagined based on the heart and passion of our students,” said Kajfez. “We hope others will continue to be involved so we can reach engineering students and families all across the nation through this work."

Make a gift to the College of Engineering Priority Fund.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |