Rhode Island School of Design
O-rings: Simple, uncluttered reinterpretation of a classic children’s toy that elevates it to a toy that, while it may have therapeutic benefits, would be great for any child to play with.
The O-rings do not show the same degree of novelty in concept but the simplicity of the product is used to good effect and the execution is clearly viable.
The goal of the product – inclusive play for kids of a range of abilities – is a good one and frequently neglected by elaborate toys. I could see these being used frequently by a range of kids and them being quite useful for disabled ones.
The O-Rings are a full-body, sensory toy for inclusive play, that children of all abilities can enjoy using together. They are a set of four stackable rings of incremental sizes, and each ring is unique in the way it looks and feels. The O-Rings differ in weight, density, color, material, and texture, and can be used as a seating solution, a game, in therapy, and for all types of open ended play. They foster sensory stimulation, gross motor activities, and spatial reasoning, which are particularly important for children with vision and motor impairments, but are also beneficial for all kids.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
There are 2.8 million children in the United States who have special needs, including vision, hearing, cognitive, and motor impairments, and 89% of them have a sibling. Since most kids with special needs spend the majority of their time with other children, their toys should encourage them to play and learn together. However, there is a divide in the toy market: many toys today lack accessibility, educational value, and material honesty, especially for kids with special needs. Yet, toys on the special needs market are often very clinical, highlight disabilities, and create a stigma of being different or sick, further isolating them from their siblings and peers.
The O-Rings were created during our senior year at Rhode Island School of Design as part of our degree project. Our goal was to create a toy for inclusive play and learning, specifically to meet the needs of children with vision impairment. We were researching vision impairment and inclusive learning at Meeting Street School in Providence, RI, where we met a little girl named Megan. She is blind and has other impairments that affect her balance, making many toys inaccessible to her. Her teachers expressed that it is difficult it was to find toys that she enjoys using with friends. She inspired us to create the O-Rings, a full-body sensory toy, that all kids can play with, regardless of ability.
In our mission to bring children together through inclusive toys, we built the O-Rings specifically with Megan in mind. She is able to sit in or pass through the rings, developing her orientation and mobility skills which are necessary to gain balance and learn to walk with a cane. Since each ring is a different density and texture, she can constantly improve her texture sensitivity, which is important for her in learning braille. The O-Rings provide variable support and can be used in many ways during therapy, and as a seating solution where many others have failed for her.
During testing with Megan, we stacked the rings in an inverted pyramid, like a chair. We were able to watch an amazing transformation, as she went from her normal hunched position, to an open reclined position, and began rocking back and forth in the rings independently. It was amazing.
Our user-centric design approach gave us a chance to dive in and create meaningful relationships with teachers, therapists, parents, and of course, children. While speaking with specialists and touring Perkins School for the Blind and Meeting Street School, we became very interested in sensory gyms, which are used for therapy and play of all sorts, by kids of all abilities. We also saw that many of the toys and tools that are adapted for children with special needs are created with materials that simply don’t last. We saw an opportunity to create a product to support the dedicated teachers, parents, and specialists who work with, and adapt toys and furniture for, children with special needs.
We did extensive concept development, and brought our ideas and prototypes back to specialists for validation. Our concept for rearrangeable furniture received the most positive feedback, and we set out to turn our Sculpey models and drawings of the idea into real, live O-Rings.
To translate the scale of our models into a full-scale prototype, we made paper models to estimate sizing, and then sourced different fillings, foams, and upholstery materials to contribute to each ring’s unique sensory qualities. To distinguish each ring’s look and feel, we arranged various combinations of materials to create hierarchy in how the rings feel, to match how the rings look: The extra large ring is the heaviest and densest, and is made of a high density foam, the large ring is made of a medium density foam, the medium ring is filled with polyfil stuffing, and the smallest ring is the lightest and least dense, and is filled with styrofoam pellets. These decisions then act as contextual clues for games, sorting, creating order, and opportunities to learn about color, size, texture, and weight.
Our decisions for the external materials derive from the demands of the teachers, specialists, and kids that we worked with: they had to be durable, easy to clean, non-toxic, and colorful. After ordering enough samples to start our warehouse, we selected four GreenGuard certified polyurethanes that are safety-tested for use by children and in schools. In our market research, we saw that high quality materials are often overlooked in favor of making more profit, but in our case, we saw this as an opportunity to provide a long-lasting, more sustainable product that can be built on as children grow with it.
After building the interiors and patterns for sewing ourselves, we had a custom upholsterer who could handle heavy fabrics assist us with stitching the polyurethane materials. We tested our prototype with Megan at Meeting Street School, and once we saw how we were able to have a positive impact through design, we decided to further our efforts and make the O-Rings even more of a reality. We are currently preparing for a crowdfunding campaign to bring the O-Rings to market for kids with and without disabilities.
The O-Rings foster developmental skills that are vital for children with disabilities, but rather than making them feel different, they help bring kids together. We have tested with children age 0-12 years old, with and without disabilities. Not only have the kids LOVED them, we have seen many benefits for basic childhood development. For example, the rings have been tested in an early intervention program which provides therapy to children age 0-3. Milestones in the first year alone, include learning to roll, sit up, bounce, crawl, stand, and walk. The O-Rings provide stability, protection, texture and color stimulation, and objects to push, pull, throw, and balance on. The rings then grow with the child, and can be used as seating, a game, and for all types of open ended play. They encourage teamwork and social play, while constantly building gross motor skills.