Harrison Price in a kiddie car from GoBabyGo! (Photo courtesy Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU)
Harrison Price is not quite 3, and he’s no Speed Racer about his neighborhood just yet, but he’s already got the wheels and he’s learning how to use them, courtesy of a program called GoBabyGo!
Harrison is limited in his mobility from a congenital condition, and the car has been adapted through the program to give help him move about and play outside with his sisters, Sloane, 10, and 9-year-old Piper.
“It’s great,” says his father, Larry Price.
The girls can ride their bikes and Harrison can tool about in his kiddie car, a Power Wheels rendition of Lightning McQueen from the 2006 Pixar film "Cars." Harrison can’t operate it with his feet, so there’s a button that he can press to make it go instead. A boogie board has been added to give him back support, and there’s a frame constructed of PVC pipe and cushioned by swimming pool noodle foam to keep him safe inside, all courtesy of engineering students at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Harrison, who turns 3 in February, got his wheels in early December.
They applied for a grant two years ago through the children’s hospital auxiliary fund, received money in September and started building. Now, they have two cars that they use for therapy and assessment in the clinic in addition to the four that went to the families.
The grant paid for the car and materials. The work was donated for modifying and assembling the vehicles. Modifications were made by engineering students and the modification work was led by Peter Pidcoe, an associate professor and assistant chair in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions’ physical therapy department.
The target age for the cars is 1 to 3 years, but they may be available to older children, depending on the need, says Katy Smotrys, a physical therapist at Children’s Hospital.
Each adaptation is customized to the child, costing about $50 to $150, and most of the materials are everyday items to keep costs minimal and assembly easy. Some items are customized via a 3-D printer, but most of the customization is within the capabilities of anyone with a mechanical aptitude, according to Lucille O’Neil, manager of VCU’s Glen Allen Therapy Center and a physical therapist at Children’s Hospital.
A child who can manipulate her feet may have a weight-bearing model, while others, like Harrison, may have a hand-controlled version, or there may be some adaptation in between. The children have to be capable of some mobility; the vehicles are not yet at the point where they can operate by where a toddler looks.
GoBabyGo! is a national program that seeks to improve mobility options for children with special needs. It was begun in 2006 by Cole Galloway, a VCU alumnus and a professor in the physical therapy department at the University of Delaware, working with Columbia University’s Sunil Angrawal, director of the robotics and rehabilitation laboratory.
Mobility has been a challenge for Harrison. He has arthrogryposis, his father says, and came into this world with a hip dislocation and legs limp, like spaghetti. Life has since been a series of medical procedures and therapies. He has leg braces and needs assistance when he tries to walk, but relies on another form of mobility every day.
“He kind of scoots around to get where he needs to go,” says his father.
Any sort of mobility is a key to cognitive development, according to O’Neil. Children learn by manipulating the environment, and they need to be able to move themselves. “We want them exploring their environment and moving around,” she says.
Harrison initially had no movement at all. But when he was 1, his father says, VCU made him a little wheelchair. “His entire world completely opened up,” says Price.
And then he got the car. Since he can’t push down on the pedal, he pushes down on a big button with his hand to make himself go, his father says. Ever since he’s gotten the car, Harrison wants to go outside and get mobile, says his father.
Mobility has also given him a boost in his linguistic development, and he’s become a pretty good problem-solver, too.
Price said he was playing on the floor with Harrison, who wanted a large dragon toy that was across the room. His dad said he’d help him with it later and turned around, but Harrison devised his own plan, making his way into the living room and taking a blanket off a couch, placing the dragon on the blanket, and dragging it over to where he wanted it.
Powered wheelchairs are frequently used for older children and adults with movement impairments, but they just wouldn’t work well with toddlers. The controls are hard to learn, it’s hard to find a toddler-sized model and O’Neil notes it’s hard to find funding for a powered wheelchair that is appropriate for a little one. Insurance carriers frequently balk at the price because the children can’t operate them by themselves, she says.
The modified cars give the children some freedom to move around, and are affordable. It’s supervised independence, according to O’Neil — they’re toddlers, after all.
Car play is also a way for these toddlers to be just like their peers, to be at eye level and enjoy some active fun and interaction.
O’Neil and Smotrys want to expand the program in the coming year and will seek a larger grant. There are 12 children on the wait list for a car, and the list is open to expansion.
“We anticipate this growing,” says Smotrys.
You can donate or lean more about the GoBabyGo! program here. The website offers information and resources to parents and professionals, including tips on how to modify a car. There’s also a YouTube channel with instructional videos.