Daniel Chang, Maeve Jopson, Karan Mudgal, Cynthia Poon
Rhode Island School of Design
Interesting and beautifully executed multi-function globe/map toy that brings a tactile/interactive approach to learning about the world and it’s geography. Would be great to see elaboration on tactile patterns and use of Braille to identify information. – Jesse
Nice use of shape and texture to teach special relationships. Appreciated the notes on future feature development. – Kate
Well conducted research, showing a fairly good understanding of the needs of the user—good range of prototypes, and a very good solution that incorporate volume and texture, and already acknowledge all the features that would improve in the future. – Susana
The PlayMap is an educational toy for blind children that communicates the abstract concepts of geography through a textured, transformable model of the earth. Held together with magnetic connections, it is an icosahedron globe that unfolds into a flat map of the world. The PlayMap promotes the understanding of scale, spatial relationships, and cause and effect, allowing children to explore and gain independence through tactile play. Each continent is a removable piece that snaps into place with magnets, enforcing the development of motor skills. Made from EVA foam, the PlayMap is lightweight, durable, and easy to clean.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?
This project demanded consideration of the entire product development process from conception to manufacturing. Our specific challenge was to explore the needs of the blind, and create a meaningful product to improve an aspect of their lives. After our initial research, we recognized that many challenges for blind adults could be eased by addressing them during childhood. In response, we focused on creating a fun, educational toy for blind children. Throughout our project, we had the opportunity to work with Perkins School for the Blind, which informed much of our process. With their help, we discovered specific problems to address. Through interviews and observation, we noticed three recurring points that became our basic constraints: 1. Blind children have difficulty grasping abstract and visually dependent concepts, putting them at risk for delayed childhood development when compared to their sighted peers. Scale and other visuals-based ideas can become more accessible with physical models to learn from. 2. There are few educational toys designed for blind children as they get older, since most toys rely on visual cues. This becomes a growing issue as there are 1.4 million people who are legally blind in the US, and it is estimated that the number will increase by 50,000 each year. 3. Kids want what other kids have, and blind children are no different. Many toys that are designed for the blind highlight the disability, and if it is not appealing to a sighted child, it is not appealing to a blind child.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
As designers, we spend a lot of time researching and observing to determine where needs lie. We are able to draw connections between what our stakeholders say and what improvements can be made. One of the most obvious indicators of room for improvement, is DIY projects. In many schools and homes of blind children, we found toys that were adapted or entirely fabricated. This helped us to narrow down where we fit into the processes, to critically look at areas of learning that are difficult to grasp as a blind individual. In addition, being sighted as well as being designers, we understand the importance of an appealing product. It became clear that responses from people who can see, directly influence how the blind user considers the product. This is particularly important when designing for children, who are strongly affected by negative comments. Therefore, one important aspect we needed to include was an appeal to sighted children, to open up positive interaction between the blind and the sighted. In this way, we also address the issue that blind children are often isolated at school--not only because kids can be mean, but also because many sighted kids just do not know how to interact with those who are different. The PlayMap brings kids with varying levels of vision to a shared understanding through play and learning.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
The basis of our work is heavily focused on direct observation and primary research through relationships with blind individuals and their circles. We began by familiarizing ourselves with blindness through interviews with blind individuals, their families, and teachers. Individuals’ reflections on personal experiences with toys gave us insight into valuable sensory play opportunities. We were able to meet with occupational therapists and visual impairment specialists to understand methods of learning as well as important skills necessary for a blind individual to become independent. We also observed special needs classrooms that included blind and visually impaired students, to further our comprehension of what blind education is like. To understand the experience of blindness, we performed various activities while blindfolded. Playing with toys was particularly informative, as we had difficulty identifying many features, even with prior knowledge of what objects look like.This provided first hand evidence of the importance of tactility, intuitive features, and movement, reinforcing many concerns we had learned throughout the interview process. At the same time, we conducted research on current products, both blind specific and toys for the general public, and we located gaps in the market for the needs we were exploring. Based on this research, we engaged in a rapid iterative design process to develop as many concepts and models as possible, and we pushed them in different directions to maximize the potential of our project. To determine which concept to choose, we took the user needs collected in our research phase, and prioritized them in order of importance. From this, we created a concept selection matrix with weighted criteria and narrowed it down to three concepts, which we then developed individually and determined where crossover of concepts was applicable. Ultimately, through the same selection method, we focused in on one concept that held the most value to our stakeholders. After deciding on a concept, we maintained the iterative approach to create a range of working models in different materials to determine proportions, geometry, texture, hidden hinging mechanisms, and other functional details. Our final model and ultimate material in manufacturing is EVA foam. It is a lightweight, recyclable but durable material that is particularly fitting to our project for its ease of cleaning and ability to be locally manufactured. With our goal to have the PlayMap brought into schools and homes, for use by teachers, therapists, and parents with blind children and their peers, we are continuously forming relationships with our stakeholders and making improvements to the project. Our most recent development has been acquiring clearance to test our prototype with blind children at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, as well as at the Meeting Street School in Providence, RI. The project has been met with much excitement by teachers and therapists, and we have been assured that there is a place for the PlayMap to be used and played with in their classrooms.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
As an educational multi-tool for blind children, the PlayMap provides texture stimulation, practice in fine motor skills, and spatial thinking. These principles are communicated through the subject of geography, which is often difficult to describe to a child without sight. Land and sea are differentiated by texture and color, which is important to maintain appeal for the sighted, and to enforce color associations necessary to understand societal contexts. The continents are slightly raised, removable pieces and strengthen skills in shape recognition. To address the more abstract concept of the earth as a planet, the PlayMap easily transforms from two to three dimensions and shows how a flat map is a representation of the world. Magnets along the perimeter of the map snap together when the globe folds up and when a continent fits into place. This reinforces the action and encourages the user to continue playing. It becomes an introduction to other topics such as scale, space, and geometry. These degrees of learning can be revealed over time, so that as the child grows, the PlayMap gains more meaning. Through exposure to these concepts, the individual develops a greater understanding of the world, and is able to become more independent and explorative. Although interaction with the toy may be slightly different, these concepts hold equal value for a sighted child, and the PlayMap can be used by children regardless of their clarity of vision.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
Our journey started out as an exploration of needs among blind adults in their lifestyles. After conducting several interviews and witnessing the technology and products that they have available to them, we found that analog solutions to challenges can promote independence without relying on technology? The problems that we did identify, we were able to trace to childhood education. Independence, an eagerness to explore, and the willingness to speak up--these are the qualities that the blind value in living on their own and in teaching the younger blind generation. All children learn through play. For blind children especially, the opportunities for play are limited, with most toys on the market catering only to the sighted with flat graphics, making it more difficult for them to learn with the toys that sighted children use. We explored various types of learning that benefit blind children, such as the development of gross/fine motor skills, mobility, social interaction, spatial reasoning, systems of cause and effect, and sensory stimulation. We modeled variations of ideas in clay, and constrained our selection with criteria we gathered from our reviews with our stakeholders. The feedback we received led us to designing for the extremes and for longevity. The PlayMap is a platform toy that can be enjoyed by high-functioning blind children, those with multiple disabilities, and their sighted peers as well--it is an educational toy and tool that children can grow with and continue to learn from.