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Touching the World

Touching the World

While touring Perkins School for the Blind as seniors last fall,Maeve Jopson 13 ID andCynthia Poon 13 ID were deeply touched by the scrappy ingenuity exhibited by the warm-hearted educators at the institution. Lacking a proper inventory of toys designed for visually impaired children, the staff cobbled together their own sets of instructional games that use touch as the basis for play.

“There aren’t many educational toys for blind children on the market since most are based on visual clues,” explains Jopson. “For those without sight, everything has to make sense in a tactile way.”

Though the games were effective (and fun), the staff found that their homemade playthings fell apart after a couple months of use. Attempts to extend their shelf-life using twine and duct tape proved futile. Clearly, the young designers thought, there was a niche to fill.

After conducting extensive field research and meeting with visually impaired students, Jopson, Poon and teammatesKaran Mudgal 13 ID andDaniel Chang 13 ID came up with PlayMap, an educational toy for blind children that communicates abstract concepts of geography through a textured, transformable model of the earth. Held together with magnetic connections, the icosahedron globe unfolds into a flat map of the world. Each of the continents is a removable piece made from EVA foam that snaps back into place.

“Not only does the map explain the geography of the earth, but the textured quality of the toy helps young children develop motor skills,” explains Jopson. “Plus,it also promotes the understanding of scale, spatial relationships and cause and effect.”

The team developed the imaginative toy inDesign for Entrepreneurship, a fall studio for RISD and Brown students taught by Senior CriticMatt Kressy 88 ID. In the collaborative course, students work in groups to pursue various projects funded by private donors and innovative companies. In this case, philanthropistBill Schawbel of The Schawbel Corporation, an R&D firm that develops consumer products, sponsored the PlayMap project.

“The students came up with a terrific design,” explains Kressy. “By flattening and unfolding a 3D object, blind students learn basic geometry skills through touch. I was very impressed with the group’s ability to address a real educational need.”

The budding entrepreneurs also discovered that the few tactile games available on the market are often shoved aside by blind students in favor of universally popular – albeit less tangible – playthings. With that in mind, the designers worked to makePlayMap appealing to children with sight, too.

“Many toys that are designed for the blind actuallyhighlight the disability,” explains Jopson. “And kids wants what other kids have – blind children are no different. From the start, we wanted to develop a toy that would promote inclusive learning and encourage exploration among kids of all abilities.”

The toy has already gotten noticed in the design world. In JunePlayMap was named Student Runner-Up in the Strategy& Research category of the 2013 Core77 Design Awards. “We just kept re-watching the YouTube clips of the awards to make sure we weren’t dreaming,” says Poon with a beaming smile.

Intent on building on their initial success, right after graduation Jopson and Poon launched Increment, a product design company that specializes in making inventive toys for all children – regardless of ability. This summer the entrepreneurs are hashing out a working business plan to manufacture and distributePlayMap, with plans to market the toy to their favorite clientele: educators.

“Ultimately, we started Increment to create a company that values collaboration, inclusive learning, health, social innovation and play,” notes Jopson. “At the end of the day, we just really want to help people in abig way.”

–Abigail Crocker

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