by Elizabeth Adams
of giggles, bouncing balls, choo choo trains and musical chimes could
be heard echoing in the halls of the University of Delaware’s Laboratory
These joyful sounds of play were the result of toys designed by an interdisciplinary team of students in UD’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) and theDepartment of Mechanical Engineering (MEEG).
This year’s theme for the sophomore mechanical engineering design
project was to create toys for children ages two to four years old. The
engineering students were certainly capable of building such toys, but
would they be functional, safe and educational? Would the children enjoy
playing with them?
That is where the early childhood education students from HDFS joined
the team as consultants, helping the engineers to create
developmentally appropriate toys for toddlers and preschoolers.
Through a guest lecture by HDFS faculty members Myae Han and Lynn
Worden, engineers were exposed to lessons on types of play,
developmental information and learning goals for children of different
Likewise, early childhood education majors visited the Design Studio
in Spencer Laboratory and learned about the tools used to build and
construct products. The project was coordinated among the two programs
between Jennifer Gallo-Fox and Worden (both HDFS), and Jenni Buckley and
Michael Keefe (both MEEG).
In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards were published by the
National Research Council and incorporated engineering into the K-12
science curriculum in the U.S.
“One of the goals of this project was to help teachers learn about
the engineering process so in the future they can bring a stronger
understanding of engineering concepts into their classroom culture,”
said Gallo-Fox, assistant professor of human development and family
“Done right, design is actually play,” said Buckley, assistant
professor of mechanical engineering. “We are all innately designers, you
can see that in kids.”
Students who may otherwise have never worked together learned to
appreciate the knowledge brought by the other team members’ discipline.
“It was nice to show a hard science major what we do as educators.
That this is a toy, but it is also a lesson in a child’s development,”
said Miranda Kale, a junior early childhood education major.
“There was a lot of respect between the education and engineering
students,” said Buckley. “Both groups met in the middle. Engineering
students knew right from the get-go that they were not experts in young
children, and if their project were going to succeed they were going to
have to partner with the consultant embedded in their team.”
This teamwork provided students a glimpse into situations they would
face in their professional careers. Engineers are expected to work with
clients or disparate teams as they develop products. And educators
benefit by learning the process behind creating the materials that will
one day fill their classrooms.
For the initial brainstorming process, engineering students recalled childhood memories of their favorite toys.
“We wanted to make a toy like Mr. Potato Head,” said Grace Ruiz
Cooper, engineering sophomore. “Then we created a wants and constraints
chart. With the help of our consultant, we begin to consider how our toy
could be educational, safe, durable, big enough to manipulate and allow
Throughout the immersive design process, engineers created prototypes
of various toys. This helped them appreciate important design
considerations including safety hazards, sizes and interest.
“Toddlers are imaginative and love using their hands but their
motor skills may not be totally developed,” said early childhood
education student Maddie McGrail. “My role was to oversee the engineers’
ideas, figure out what is safe for kids, what they are interested in,
and what is going to catch their attention.”
The final prototype
On May 17, engineering students displayed their final prototypes at the Department of Mechanical Engineering Design Showcase.
Although students were squeezed into a small room, their toys reflected their vast imaginations.
- Pull toys designed in child-favorite shapes, like animals, castles and trains.
- Building blocks filled with bells and beans to create a musical experience for children as they constructed towers.
- Colorful foam pieces that toddlers could assemble into rocket ships.
- Plexiglas pieces built into coral structures that could be placed in a fish tank.
“I think the engineering students were surprised that even toddlers
could start to learn science concepts like cause and effect,
conservation of mass, and the effect of gravity through play,” said
Worden, assistant professor of human development and family studies.
Based on the reactions of the children and the overall design plan,
some toys have been identified as potential products for a toy
manufacturer, and open-source sites allow daycare providers and parents
to create some of these toys themselves.
“This partnership provided an opportunity to get to see how children
engaged with the toys and integrate many units across campus,” said
"The collaboration between engineering and early childhood went so
well this semester that we're looking forward to continuing and possibly
building upon it next year. It's been exciting bringing our two
disciplines together. We've all learned a lot," said Worden.