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Spalding, enTECH unveil ‘stunning’ Virtual Immersive Playground for kids with special needs

Steve Jones

A major renovation, an array of new assistive technology and a commitment to helping children resulted in the unveiling over the past week of a key community resource at Spalding University.

Spalding’s Auerbach School of Occupational Therapy (ASOT) and the Kosair Charities Enabling Technologies of Kentuckiana (enTECH) assistive technology resource center debuted the new Virtual Immersive Playground for children with special needs. The room of high-tech toys and video and sensory devices – located on the third floor of Spalding’s College Street Building, 812 S. Second St – was made possible through the support of Kosair Charities.

An opening reception was held Wednesday, April 11 – attended by many members of Spalding’s faculty and staff and the Kosair Charities board – and the room was in use for first time last week at the year’s first five-day Kosair Integrated Technology Experience (KITE) camp for children with special needs.

The Virtual Immersive Playground is the finished product of a renovation project started last winter to transform what had been an old band room. Risers and carpeting were removed, and a sleek, open space was created with assistive equipment, including touch-screen and gesture-recognition devices, along the walls.

“The transformation from the old band room is stunning,” said Dr. Cindy Quake-Rapp, chair of ASOT. “I think this is going to be a real showpiece for anyone at Spalding to show people what we’re doing for the community and the kids we’re serving, thanks to Kosair Charities.”

The equipment in the Virtual Immersive Playground is meant to engage children in positive physical, cognitive and sensory experiences. The devices are designed to be therapeutic, educational and fun, and many are intended to teach the concept of cause and effect by using gesture-recognition and motion-sensing technology.

“I’m just ecstatic about the fact that we have this amazing space, and all this equipment is therapeutic,” said Dr. Josh Skuller, enTECH director and ASOT faculty member. “It’s another avenue that we can provide occupational therapy, speech therapy; even physical therapists could come in here with a child. It’s just something to help increase kids’ potential.”

KITE ‘truly a multisensory experience’

A couple dozen children attended last week’s KITE camp.

A young boy with physical and cognitive challenges stemming from a severe brain trauma suffered as an infant could be seen smiling as he experienced the light and sounds of the gesture-recognition equipment.

“The children realize that if they want to uncover something, they have to step on it. To move a ball, they have to kick the ball,” Quake-Rapp said. “They learn how to interact with their environment. The touch-screens have interactive games that teach them everything – shapes, body parts, colors, numbers, letters.

“It’s truly a multisensory experience for them.”

Though the Virtual Immersive Playground is new, KITE camps have been an ASOT and enTECH staple for years.

The five-day camps are held three times a year for any children 2 1/2 to 9 years old with special needs. The kids make stops throughout the day to the Virtual Immersive Playground, to the gym space with games and exercise equipment in the College Street ballroom and to art and sensory rooms on the first floor of enTECH.

Skuller said he has enjoyed seeing the same children come back to KITE year after year and watching how they progress.

“It’s wonderful knowing that the parents value this program so much,” Skuller said, pointing out a 9-year-old boy who’d been coming to KITE since he was 3. “He learned to ride a bike here.”

Speaking of enTECH and its resources more generally, Quake-Rapp said that in her previous teaching stops, she had not encountered a university with an assistive technology center like the one at Spalding and enTECH.

“We help evaluate people for technology, so they get the best piece of technology. We loan equipment out, we give equipment away,” she said. “And it’s amazing for our students to see what OTs can do by helping people with special needs use technology.”

Academic component

Spalding’s master of occupational therapy (MSOT) students are required to participate in a KITE camp once during their curriculum, and Quake-Rapp said many students and alumni volunteer over and over.

Skuller teaches a pediatrics class in which students spend the final week working with kids at enTECH.

“They have to figure out how to work with the kids, figure out interventions, figure out how can they utilize the equipment in here to help the child progress,” he said. “It’s been a great hands-on experience. Being able to apply what they’re reading and their classroom knowledge with this facility really helps firm up what they’re doing.”

The Auerbach School is transitioning to a doctor of OT program starting in January of 2019, and Quake-Rapp said she expects students will pursue enTECH- and KITE-related Capstone projects.

“Those students will be very much woven into enTECH,” she said “We’ll have some very good clinicians in here.”

ASOT master’s student Rico Thomas, who is set to graduate this summer, said he expects the Virtual Immersive Playground to draw more children to KITE and enTECH and more OT students to Spalding.

“You can use this area to learn about different disabilities and what each of these pieces of equipment does for a child,” Thomas said. “It gets your mind thinking about how to incorporate technology along with meeting your client halfway and finding the best outcome for them.

“When I’m looking at OT schools, I’m looking at what benefits me but also what benefits the population that’s around it. Spalding has that.”

In the darkly lit enTECH Immersive Playground, a young girl sits and interacts with the animated video display projected onto the floor beneath her.
A young girl uses one of the GestureTek gesture technology video devices at enTECH’s new Virtual Immersive Playground.
A look at the old College Street Center band room with bright red carpet and wooden risers before it was converted to the Virtual Immersive Playground
Before being transformed into the Kosair Charities Virtual Immersive Playground, the third-floor room at the College Street Center was an old band room with risers and carpeting.
Overhead view of the Virtual Immersive Playground during its opening reception - a large open space, dimly lit, so as to show various video projections on the floors and walls; people mingling about
The transformed Virtual Immersive Playground, shown at its opening reception on April 11, 2018.