A gym in Newark, Del., is a brightly-colored study in motion as pre-school aged kids chase each other across gymnastics mats, bounce giant rubber balls, and crumble playfully to the floor in heaps.
The scene at the University of Delaware's Early Learning Center isn't simply chaos. It's brain food.
"We know that movement and mobility drives developmental change in the first three years," said Cole Galloway, a physical therapy professor and infant behavior expert at the University of Delaware. "You learn your cognition, your language, your social skills, through embodiment, through movement."
For children unable to run around with their peers, or even crawl easily, Galloway said, that exploration is hindered, as are opportunities for socialization.
"When you're immobile, an adult often has to remind a typically developing kid to come play with you," Galloway said. "And likely I won't have the same type of friendships that a mobile kid will have."
Galloway's mission is to get kids with disabilities that impinge mobiliy on the move.
He started several years ago with a robotic electric wheelchair that six-month olds controlled with a joystick.
Parents clamored for the machines, but they cost about $20,000 each and Galloway's team only had two.
Inspiration from an unlikely place
Searching for a more accessible option a few years ago, Galloway left the high-tech robotics lab and took a field trip to Toys 'R' Us.
"We had gotten down all the toy cars and had the manager come out and say 'excuse me, can I help you?'" Galloway said. "And we told him basically, um, 'we're good, we're having a lab meeting.' That started us toward this very different way of looking at things."
Instead of building a whole new machine to give young children mobility, Galloway's team started retrofitting off-the-shelf ride-on toy cars.
A more affordable alternative
Back at the Early Learning Center gym, three young children with cognitive or physical disabilities played on the cars, zooming around in a hodgepodge of models — a mini coupe with a cartoon face, a larger black luxury SUV, and a rugged looking stand-up ATV.
The cars sported a similar hodgepodge of modifications: big red "on" and "off" switches instead of pedal accelerators, homemade roll bars made from PVC pipes, and on the SUV, a tall, supportive back rest.
Other children watched jealously for a moment, then played around the perimeter of the gym.
The toy cars and the materials for modifications cost well under $200, according to Galloway, and he thinks the cheap fix is working.
"Instead of sitting by yourself in a sandbox and having kids rotate around you like a planet," Galloway said, "I'm able to steal your (toy) and run away — and you have to chase me."
Electric wheelchairs are usually reserved for children who have tried walking and can't, and aren't typically used until age three. These smaller, cheaper, lighter cars can get kids moving independently in the critical early years of development, and can be used by children who will eventually walk.
Local families first test subjects
"The first thing I thought was 'holy cow, this is the coolest thing I ever read,'" said Ashley Moore, a Pennsylvania mom who saw the toy cars in a University of Delaware alumni magazine.
She quickly asked the team to build one for her son, Joey, a cherubic-looking 13-month-old with spina bifida who is paralyzed from the waist down. She said Joey has been vocal and motivated since he got the car months ago.
"Just today, he was playing on the floor, and I had gotten up to go do something, and I came back, and he was not where I'd left him," Moore said. "He never did that before we got the car."
Taking the effort global
Last summer, the University of Delaware team posted how-to videos on YouTube, so parents can learn how to add on-of switches and PVC supports to toy cars themselves.
Galloway said the cars have popped up from Toronto to Los Angeles County, and he's given presentations on how to build them in Chicago and Utah. The "Go Baby Go" Facebook page has likes from as far away as Japan.
"You start to believe that from our home base in Newark, Del., you can impact kids all over the planet," Galloway said.
It is too soon to tell if the cars can live up to Galloway's lofty goal of helping brain development and socialization in young children. Studies following more children will be necessary to determine the toys' longer-term impact.
"We know that there's a link between restricted movement and learning," said Christiana Hospital's Dr. David Paul. "What we don't know is if on a large scale, if by providing this intervention, it's going to make a big difference in the long term."
Right now, Galloway is building the next generation of cars that will only go when kids are standing up, or practicing walking — so they can serve as a stepping stone to independent mobility later on.