On a recent Saturday afternoon, the hallways of San Antonio’s Children’s Rehabilitation Institute (CRIT) temporarily took on the look of a mini racetrack. The cheers coming from the spectators could have come from a racetrack, too, as parents and volunteers clapped, cheered and encouraged the young drivers. Bright red and shiny blue battery-powered toy cars zoomed around corners as their drivers mastered the course.
All the children behind the wheels of the toy cars were under the age of 5, none able to move independently. The little cars give a new sense of movement to children who can’t easily get around because of mobility impairments.
“My daughter can’t bear weight on her legs,” said Carlos Sanchez, father of 2-year-old Emery Lynn. “This car is going to help her get around more and gain a sense of independence.”
The fun she is likely to have in the car is a big bonus, too.
“Just to see the smile on her face is amazing,” added Sanchez.
Emery Lynn and several other children are participating in Go Baby Go, a community-based research and outreach program that modifies off-the-shelf, plastic toy cars for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome or muscular dystrophy.
“For many children, this is their first experience moving independently without being pushed in a stroller or carried by a parent,” said Ana Allegretti, Ph.D., OTR, ATP, assistant professor of occupational therapy at UT Health San Antonio.
Go Baby Go was created in 2006 by Cole Galloway, Ph.D., PT, professor of physical therapy and infant behavior specialist at the University of Delaware. The group’s mission is to get nonambulatory children on the move to help with crucial development skills like hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, communication and cognition.
“Independent mobility for young children is very important,” said Dr. Allegretti. “They learn by exploring their environment—they scoot, crawl, walk, reach for toys, interact and talk with other children. They are constantly learning by simply moving around.”
After attending a Go Baby Go workshop in Nashville, Tennessee, Dr. Allegretti was inspired to bring the program to San Antonio. In 2015, she partnered with the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute, a pediatric rehabilitation center, to start the local chapter.
With a team of medical specialists from CRIT, Dr. Allegretti and occupational therapy students from UT Health San Antonio host workshops to teach others how to transform toy cars into a low-tech, low-cost source of power mobility.
Basic modifications are made to the seating area of each car using pool noodles, PVC pipes and kickboards to meet each child’s specific posture and stability needs. A large, red on/off button is added to the steering wheel and is used instead of pedal accelerators.
Azalya Hernandez, second-year occupational therapy student, said it just takes some creativity to adapt the cars to fit the needs of each child.
“As occupational therapists, we strive to help our clients achieve their best occupational performance through the use of their own environment,” Hernandez said. “For kids, their occupation is to play, learn, explore and be social.”
Costing around $500 each and paid for through an internal seed grant, each car takes about an afternoon to customize. The modified toy cars are a smaller and cheaper alternative to power wheelchairs, which can often cost several thousand dollars.
The toy cars are not medical devices, but are a way to make basic power mobility accessible to children who need it the most. Families who participate in Go Baby Go workshops can take the cars home free of charge. The team has purchased, modified and given away 20 cars to date.
In addition to hosting build workshops, Dr. Allegretti and her team are conducting research to measure the effectiveness and therapeutic benefits of the adapted toy cars.
“We are looking to see how the ride-on toy car influences social, language and motor skills in the children and will assess the improvements using standardized tests such as the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales and the Battelle Developmental Inventory, along with interviews with parents,” said Dr. Allegretti.
Recently, the team finished up a four-month study with their first cohort of 10 children. The results have been promising.
One family reported that their son’s head control improved after using the car for 30 minutes a day in addition to occupational and physical therapy.
“Her son loved being in the car and in order to drive the car, he has to keep his head up,” Dr. Allegretti said. “Now, his head and neck control has improved, he is eating solid food. His first word was car—he just loves it.”
Another family reported that they have seen a significant increase in their daughter’s self-esteem since she received her car.
“It is very rewarding to see a child go from waiting for others to ask them to play to initiating play with their peers,” Dr. Allegretti added.
Because of Go Baby Go, Jacob Ledesma, a 3-year-old with cerebral palsy, now has a way to keep up with his twin brother, John.
“For me, the car is about Jacob playing and feeling normal,” said John Ledesma, father of the twin boys. “It will help him feel like he is part of the group instead of behind it.”
Cynthia Ledesma, Jacob’s mother, added she is looking forward to seeing her son work on fine motor skills while using the car.
“He has some trouble with hand-eye coordination so I can’t wait to see him learn to use the buckle, get in and out of the car and begin to correlate that when he pushes the button, the car will turn,” she said.
The goal of Go Baby Go is to reach as many children with limited mobility as possible. Videos are posted on YouTube by Dr. Galloway’s team and instructions on how to adapt toy cars are available online. More than 40 chapters in the United States and abroad host workshops for families, teachers, clinicians and community members.
Brian Zita, a second-year occupational therapy student, believes the project is truly making a difference.
“Go Baby Go gives children a means to participate in many purposeful activities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do without wheeled mobility,” Zita said. “The children aren’t seen as a ‘child in a wheelchair’ but as a child with a really cool toy.”
Go Baby Go is just the first step in providing mobility and a way to let kids be kids, added Dr. Allegretti.
“Imagine if all kids with mobility impairments could get a Go Baby Go car—their lives would be changed because of this project,” she said.