Tinkering with toys: Employees, volunteers make the holidays accessible to all

December 4, 2019  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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Part of the allure of the holiday season is ripping open wrapping paper to unveil whatever goodies lay inside.

But for some kids, receiving toys that they can play with and use effectively isn’t always possible. Fortunately, a team from Michigan Medicine and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) came together to create a happy holiday season for everyone.

“Many children with disabilities aren’t able to play with so-called ‘regular’ toys,” said Seong-Hee Yoon, a rehabilitation engineer at Michigan Medicine. “They may not have the fine motor skills or cognitive ability to play with the gadgets the way they are initially designed.”

So Yoon, along with Michigan Medicine speech language pathologist Rebecca Ankeney and WISD assistive technology coordinator Jamie Mayo, came up with the idea of Tinkered Toy Box, a new program that adapts toys so they can be universally used.

Switching it up

This past October, the trio — as well as a number of volunteers — came together to modify 42 toys for area children. The toys were donated by community members from an Amazon wish list.

“We chose four popular toys on the market that we knew we could modify, including a music-making toy and a race car track,” Yoon said. “We did that because kids typically want the most popular or coolest toys — so it wouldn’t be fair to a child with a disability if we only adapted specialized toys that their peers may not be playing with.”

The team added a switch to each device, meaning the toys could be turned on and played with using a simple light touch or movement.

The toys were delivered to families at the end of November.

“We put each toy back in its original packaging so that the child would never even know it was adapted,” Yoon said. The toys were wrapped and included in a gift bag with information about other services and programs that each child may find beneficial.

Join the tinkering team

The first iteration of the Tinkered Toy Box program was funded through a grant from U-M’s Dance Marathon. And while the team will once again seek funding from Dance Marathon next year, other donations are being accepted, including donations of toys for next year.

Additionally, the program is always looking for volunteers who are interested in helping modify toys.

“The rehab engineers provided instructions on exactly how to modify each toy, so it was easy for us to add a switch, even if we had no engineering experience,” said Ankeney. “Because of that, we’re hoping to attract even more volunteers who want to help knowing that anyone can jump in and make an impact.”

More volunteers will allow more families to benefit from Tinkered Toy Box in the years ahead.

“Every child deserves a holiday full of gifts that they can independently use,” Yoon said. “Their functional level should never get in the way of them having a happy holiday — and that’s what our team is here to ensure.”

If you want more information about Tinkered Toy Box and how you can volunteer or donate, email Yoon at seonghee@med.umich.edu.