Blinky Blocks are a customizable shape sorters that can be tailored to the ability and motivation of special needs children, especially those with motor challenges. They pair a suite of positive feedback choices -- lights, music, or video -- with a classic shape sorter that has been designed to eliminate fixating on overt triggers. The design and software for Blinky Blocks is open-source and relies on low-cost components.
Toys for Special Needs Children: An Overview
My son has a genetic disorder that makes coordination of his muscles extremely challenging. One consequence of this challenge is that he does not play with toys or explore his environment without significant persuasion. Yet, he is so motivated by dramatic visual displays and certain music that we taught him to crawl, and eventually to walk, by constantly enticing him with these highly beloved rewards. Why not, then, incorporate these strong motivators directly into toys to teach ideas or skills?
These Blinky Blocks are part of a broader mission to answer this challenge head-on. I am designing, fabricating, and programming a series of toys and devices that unite the physical and digital worlds in order to motivate learning through customizable, captivating feedback. Not only do these toys augment learning and motor control, but they also solve the long-standing dilemma of commercial toys that provide feedback that is neither customized nor regulated. For these toys, a child can obsessively fixate on a particular element of the toy without experiencing the educational benefits that it might otherwise offer. For example, my son will find the button that activates the lights or musical reward of a toy, which is supposed to be triggered by a ball or a puzzle piece, and will push it repeatedly without ever engaging in the rest of the toy. These sorts of fixations or "restricted interests" are common among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and can make learning through traditional means exceedingly challenging.
The Blinky Blocks are controlled via an Arduino encased within the toy, which responds to magnetic triggers (reed switches) embedded within the wood. A child then receives a reward only for successfully placing a shape through its associated hole, which a parent or teacher can customize to match the child's motivation.
All of my designs and projects are open source.