Students turn toys into life-changing devices
Jessie Aull, an occupational therapy student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, turns on a toy bubble machine that she reconfigured to work with a plastic switch.

December snow falls outside the workshop where radio-controlled cars and a chicken-dancing Elmo toy sit next to coils of wire and a drill press.

Don’t look for any elves. Instead of Santa’s workshop, this is where St. Ambrose University’s occupational therapy students tinker on toys.

Jon Turnquist, assistant professor in the school’s occupational therapy master’s degree program, shows off the gadgets and toys he and his students make for adults and children afflicted by traumatic brain injuries or paralyzing diseases. A stuffed lion and a little green man with one giant eye look on from side shelves.

“As a child, your occupation is playing, so we use toys for their therapy,” he said. “They don’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but to learn a skill.”

Occupational therapy builds motor skills that can provide a person with limited mobility or motor skills a level of independence. In the program, students also learn about assistive

technology that can provide tools for independence. These tools can help a person operate lights, televisions, telephones or other household items.

Factory-made therapy toys and devices can be expensive. Turnquist and company’s handmade devices, often including hand-crafted boxes, are provided free of charge. They often get clients referred to them from Genesis Medical Center where several St. Ambrose graduates are employed as occupational therapists.

“Products can be thousands of dollars,” Turnquist said. “We can do something for about $400.”

Each student in the program must adapt a toy for motor-skill therapy. A bubble machine in Turnquist’s workshop has been adapted to teach children to hold their heads up, rather than lolling on their chest. The Elmo toy requires a button to be pushed in a certain way before it will do its dance.

“They have to work real hard to make ‘Chicken Elmo’ dance,” Turnquist said.

Students in the occupational therapy have adapted more than 100 toys in the past year, with most sent to the Peoria Easter Seals program.

“This is fun, plus it is a good community service,” Terry Schlabach, assistant professor of occupational therapy, said.

Schlabach has taken several students to Ecuador to deliver toys and teach students there how to adapt toys, too. She enjoys working with the toys and showing children how they work.

“You have the same wonderment in their eyes as you would with a child who is getting a regular toy,” she said.

Jessie Aull, a second-year student who is a graduate assistant for Turnquist, pointed to the green man with the giant eye and said it couldn’t be adapted for a therapeutic use without destroying it. That isn’t uncommon.

“Some toys are more frustrating than others, but there have been a lot more complex toys,” she said.

Some devices are so important to people they become like a part of them, Schlabach said.

“I think the adults appreciate a device more because they are getting something they lost, while children are getting something for which they were never equipped,” Turnquist said. “It is neat to watch.”

At a glance

St. Ambrose University Occupational Therapy Program facts:

St. Ambrose is the only registered occupational therapist degree in the state of Iowa.

The program, which offers a master’s degree, has graduated 565 occupational therapists since its inception.

Demand for occupational therapists is expected to increase between 21 percent and 35 percent before 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Kurt Allemeier can be contacted at (563) 383-2360 or Comment on this story at