Educators, psychologists, therapists and engineers teamed up under COST Action, ‘LUDI – Play for Children with Disabilities’, a network seeking to achieve a common vision: creating the right conditions for children with disabilities to simply be able to play. This post explores their work, set up by Serenella Besio, Professor of Special Education and an expert in assistive technology at the University of Aosta Valley, and Pedro Encarnação, a specialist in robotics for rehabilitation at the Catholic University of Portugal. [Header image credit: Z. Frailey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

More than 100 researchers and practitioners from 32 European countries are involved in LUDI, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of play for children with disabilities, studying the barriers these children face and how play can be facilitated for them, to bring out the role of play, emphasising how life-changing interdisciplinary research solutions can be for children with disabilities.

People with disabilities, families/carers of children with disabilities and representatives of associations for children with disabilities have all been contributing to the network, actively participating in LUDI meetings and taking part in the LUDI Advisory Board, ensuring that all the work is in the best interests of children with disabilities.

The following video links explore examples of past projects developed by members of the network.

KROG project

This project from Milan (2013–15) aimed to develop a number of games with a Kinect Robot interaction paradigm, and is mainly concerned with children with autism disorders. In this YouTube clip, robot Teo plays with a girl with Down syndrome. She makes up a game to interact with the robot, then shows it to other children – she had never interacted with others prior to this session. Teo won the Kazuo Tanie Award in 2016.

 

Kaspar project

Kaspar is a child-sized humanoid robot designed as a social companion to improve the lives of children with autism and other communication difficulties. By interacting and behaving in a child-like way, Kaspar helps teachers and parents support children to overcome the challenges they face in socialising and communicating with others. Kaspar has worked with children in rehabilitation centres across the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and has also inspired the research and design of other toys in the Netherlands. The experimental methodology adopted with NAO, the first humanoid robot, to support the play of deaf children, has been transferred to clinics in Bulgaria.

 

Uarpie project

This project aimed at developing an integrated, augmentative manipulation and communication assistive technology (AT) system for academic activities. A physical and virtual augmentative manipulation system was devised, allowing children to manipulate physical or virtual educational materials on a computer screen and to simultaneously communicate about their experiences.

 

Don’t read my lips: Assessing listening and speaking skills through play with a humanoid robot

This study investigated the potential of using the humanoid robot, NAO, as a playful tool for assessing the listening and speaking skills of seven hearing-impaired students who use cochlear implant(s) and sign language as their main communication modality.

 

GIODI project

This project tested the ludic use of some robots in the mainstream market with children with severe physical disabilities, to verify their recreational potential and the playfulness of possible ludic activities with them. The aim of the project was to elicit suggestions for further studies and for the development of new tools to support the play of children with disabilities.

 

Looking ahead

Thanks to the widespread LUDI network, these robots are now known in the research and clinical fields, and a database of assistive technologies used to support play has been set up.

Researchers in the network are now developing links with companies such as Outfit7, the creators of Talking Tom, a popular app, Chicco, PlanToys, Miniland and Trefl to discuss the accessibility and usability of toys, and how engaging they are in inclusive environments. Two of the leading institutes in the field, the Technological Institute for Children’s Products and Leisure (AIJU) and Lekotek, are also part of the network, while enfantoys, a French, recently established initiative in the field, that brings together experts from the previously well-known FM2J and Quai des Ludes, has announced its willingness to collaborate with LUDI.

LUDI members are working towards a world where all children can play with all toys, regardless of whether they have an impairment.

The network is now working on a series of guidelines on the accessibility and usability of toys, tools and devices like tablets or smartphones that are used for playing. Its key ideas are that:

  • Play for children with disabilities is not an insignificant or marginal issue.
  • Play matters for all children – and for humankind – and consequently for children with disabilities, since primarily they are children. Play matters for human development in society – growing, learning and socialising – because this is what play supports during childhood.
  • This ultimately concerns the future of us all, because happy and well-rounded children will go on to be the best citizens we can envisage for the future world.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.