Robots across Europe help children with disabilities play

A network of 100 practitioners and researchers from 32 European countries is promoting the use of robots and other assistive technologies that help children with disabilities play on their own or with other children.

Educators, psychologists, therapists and engineers teamed up to achieve a common vision: changing mentalities and creating the right conditions for children with disabilities to simply be able to play. They have also set up a database of assistive technologies  used in hospitals and homes across the continent.

For instance, 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 (KROG project, Politecnico di Milano)

Humanoid robot Kaspar, a product of the University of Hertfordshire, helps children with autism socialise with others through playful interactions; the robot can help them develop their communication and social interaction skills.

Kaspar has worked with children in rehabilitation centres across the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and has inspired 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, is now transferred to clinics in Bulgaria.

Children with disabilities can also learn how to manipulate objects like LEGO robots, which makes them active participants in play and academic activities. A team at the Catholic University of Portugal ran this project.

This video was made during a pilot study at the Cyprus University of Technology, exploring the unique characteristics of humanoid robots (NAO) to support deaf or hard of hearing children with cochlear implants

GIODI project included another trial where children with severe motor impairments enjoy unmodified, commercial games (University of Aosta Valley, Politecnico di Milano, “L'abilità” NGO).

Thanks to this widespread network, these robots are now known in the research and clinical fields.

A world where all children can play

Researchers in the group are now developing links with companies like Outfit7, the creators of the Talking Tom, a popular app, in order market toys depending on their accessibility, usability or on 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.

It’s all about accessibility and usability”, says Dr Serenella Besio, leading the network. “Our dream is a world where any child can play with any toy, no matter if they have an impairment or not.” This is why 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.

In 2014, Dr Besio, Professor of special education and an expert in assistive technology (University of Aosta Valley), and Dr Pedro Encarnação, a specialist in robotics for rehabilitation (Catholic University of Portugal), set up the network in an attempt to bring out the role of play and stress how life changing interdisciplinary research solutions can be for children with disabilities.

Multidisciplinary research where engineers and social scientists would work together to help children with autism only started ten years ago. Network LUDI attracted experts from very different backgrounds from the very beginning”, Prof. Ben Robins (Uni of Hertfordshire), LUDI member, commented. 

Network members from all over Europe and Israel have done short research stays abroad trying to increase the benefits of the robots in the videos by sharing different practices. 

Children’s families are directly involved in the studies and trials, which ultimately helps the Action’s main goal: seeing children take control of their own lives, avoiding getting excluded from society.    

Our efforts are part of a global move to change the current policy on play for children with disabilities. Research agendas should now focus on all children, including those with disabilities”, added Dr Encarnação. 


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Last updated: 12 June 2017 top of page