Creative Play Station: Assisted Imaginative Play for Children with Hypotonia

Client Coordinators: Lynn Carswell, SLP
Designers: Weixin Lin, Whitney Stewart, Lin Yang
Supervising Professor: Kevin Caves and Richard Goldberg

‘Josh’ is a bright 2 year old boy with an active imagination. He has an undiagnosed metabolic condition, leading to severe hypotonia. As a result, he lacks the ability to pick up or maneuver the toys precisely. He loves to pretend play with stuffed animals or other toy figures, and he can do this with the assistance of a parent or therapist. For example, she moves his inanimate toys into position and makes sound effects, telling stories accordingly. When she offers more than one toy to him, he will look at the preferred toy.

The goal of our project was to develop a creative play station where the client can engage with animals or people in common daily activities. We designed this for independent use and simple interaction. It is designed around a “puppy theme”. Josh spends a lot of time with his pet beagle, Lulu. The play station offers Josh three choices of activities with a stuffed animal dog that resembles Lulu: 1) feeding Lulu (a spoon moves up and down in front of a toy beagle’s mouth); 2) grooming Lulu (a yellow brush moves in circular motion to “groom” the toy beagle); and 3) Lulu watching a squirrel at play (a toy squirrel moves in a circular motion around a “tree” in front of the toy beagle). The device has bright colors and provides audio feedback to motivate active participation. He can use the device while seating in his “Kid Kart” chair. It is relatively small and light so that an adult can easily put it away when it is not being used.

Once the client became comfortable with the Creative Play Station, he chose to engage with each of the three activities frequently. Our play-station will allow our client to think about and affect the pretend-play actions. This will provide him with a fun and entertaining way to achieve important developmental milestones while giving his parents more freedom to leave him alone and engaged. Our clinical advisor, Lynn Carswell, SLP, told us “I believe many children with physical limitations, who presently have no opportunity to engage independently in imaginative play, would enjoy using this toy.” His mother added, “I think he loves this! I think it’s perfect!”

Motions of all three activities are controlled with the Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics kit, including a programmable controller, motors and gears. The client starts an activity by pressing one of the three commercial pushbuttons. This activates the corresponding motion from the Lego Mindstorms controller. In addition, the system starts playing an audio track, using a programmable uMP3 module (Rogue Robotics, Toronto ON). Each sound track consists of music and speech appropriate for the particular activity and it plays on two battery-powered speakers. To further stimulate our client’s imagination, we included a free-standing acrylic trifold which features colorful outdoor and living room scenes.

The device has three mono audio jacks, so that any commercial switches can be plugged in to activate the device. They are connected directly to the three input jacks on the Lego Mindstorms NXT controller. They are also connected directly to the uMP3 player to activate the corresponding songs. The controller outputs are connected directly to Lego servo motors, which operate the motions of each activity.

The software is written in LabView, using the LabView Toolkit for Lego Mindstorms, and stored in Flash memory in the Lego controller. The device is programmed so that a single press of the button starts the activity for a period of time. When that period is over, Josh must release and press the button again in order to restart the activity. The controller can run off a rechargeable battery or from wall power. The controller also powers the uMP3 player.

The play station is divided into an indoor section and an outdoor section partitioned using acrylic “walls”. The toy beagle (elevated on a stand) surrounded by the feeding and the grooming stations, is located in the indoor section. The squirrel station is located in the outdoor section. The “tree” is made of a PVC pipe decorated with textured color paper. Decoration of the play station is done with colored foam, textured paper and fabrics. The acrylic stand is collapsible for easy storage; and the pictures are laminated for durability. The mechanical and electronic components are located inside a large plastic enclosure, so that they cannot be easily accessed. The activities are mounted on top of the enclosure.

Total cost of the device is $685, including the full cost of the Lego Mindstorms robotics kit.

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