Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute

Toys and Games with a Healing Purpose

Most children regard toys and video games as sources of fun and play. But Karen Kerman, MD, and Joseph “Trey” Crisco, PhD, are working to develop toys and games with a healing purpose: ones that will allow children with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy (CP) to return to more independent, everyday lives and reach their full potential.

CP is a neuromotor impairment that leaves children struggling with movement and postural dysfunction. It affects approximately 3.6 out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. Each year, more than 10,000 infants and children are diagnosed. Currently, the majority of patients receive one hour of physical and occupational therapy per week at a clinic—but there is growing evidence that progress and outcomes are improved with additional therapy.

Kerman, a pediatric neurologist and director of pediatric rehabilitation at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, cares for children with CP, movement disorders and developmental disorders affecting the nervous system. Working closely with a multidisciplinary team of physical and occupational therapists, computer scientists, engineers, orthopedic specialists, developmental and behavioral pediatricians, and fellow child neurologists, she aims to provide the most advanced care to improve functional outcomes.

“In my research, I am seeking methods to improve recovery, which in many cases is much slower or less complete than the child, the family or I would like,” said Kerman. “My research is aimed at enhancing recovery of function. Our team is working on several projects, one is designed to provide structured, motivating therapy in the form of video game play, in order to enhance recovery of function for children with paralysis.”

The Toy and Game Controller Project

Crisco, Kerman and their fellow researchers have developed methods to increase the amount of therapy for children with CP and to promote greater movement of their impaired upper extremities. This enhanced level of play therapy is accomplished cost effectively, through the creation of home based systems in which the child uses the affected limb to play with a toy or video game. The team is producing toy and game controllers that operate popular toys and games sold by established companies.

“Our approach capitalizes upon the primary learning and motivating avenue for children: play,” said Crisco, who is the Henry Frederick Lippitt Professor of Orthopedic Research and director of the bioengineering laboratory in the department of orthopedics at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital.

Crisco’s team was recently awarded a two year grant of more than $400,000 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institute of Health. “This award is the culmination of a five year effort and would not have been possible without the previous financial support of Innovation Providence Implementation Council (IPIC) and The Rhode Island Science and Technology Council (STAC), as well as the generosity of Hasbro, Inc.,” said Crisco.

The project proposes to provide neuromuscular therapy to children with impaired muscle function by designing, fabricating and evaluating novel play controllers that are actually hidden rehabilitative devices. These play controllers will operate remote controlled toys and computer games produced by established companies to maximize the child's engagement and to provide cost-effective therapy.

The projects are currently in the early stages. “Our long term goal is to provide scientifically based interventions through combined therapies, as we believe that these will lead to the best outcomes,” said Kerman. “These strategies may not only benefit the pediatric population, but may offer new ways to enhance functional recovery in stroke and brain injury in adults.”

For more information about this project or clinical trial participation, please call 401-444-4231 or email