Increment Studios: Inclusion and open-ended play for kids of all abilities

What if toys inspired inclusion and empathy for children of all abilities to play together?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Our collaborative degree project began in our spring semester of our senior year at Rhode Island School of Design, in 2013. We conducted our initial research at Meeting Street School, where we met a little girl named Megan, who is blind and has several impairments including low muscle control, which severely affects her balance. Her parents told us that she didn’t like many toys and her teachers said that it was difficult to find toys that Megan could use with her friends, so they challenged us to create a good looking toy that could be used at home, in school, and in therapy by any kid, regardless of ability.­ Seeing how inaccessible and isolating many mainstream toys are for kids with disabilities was pivotal in how we thought about play and inclusion. Anything from toys to furniture might need to be adapted.
When we first completed our prototype of our first product (O-Rings) for her to play test with, we saw that Megan could develop her orientation and mobility skills which are necessary to gain balance and learn to walk with a cane. The varying density and textures can improve Megan’s texture sensitivity which is important for her in learning braille. During testing in therapy, we were able to watch an amazing transformation, as Megan went from her normal hunched position, to an open reclined position, and began rocking back and forth by herself in the rings. After graduation, inspired by Megan,with a vision for a more inclusive world through play, we started Increment.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)

Website

www.incrementstudios.com

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Rhode Island

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Providence

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Rhode Island

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Providence.
Products have shipped nationwide.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Out of 2.8 million kids in the US have disabilities, 89% have a sibling, and 67% regularly attend school. Often treated differently and excluded from play activities, they often can’t use the same toys as their friends because inclusion rarely exists in toy design. We see it in education, but what about in play--a critical time for childhood development? Most mainstream toys today are inaccessible, neglecting universal design--therapists/parents resort to spending valuable time adapting and making toys with materials that can’t last. Toys/tools specifically for children with disabilities are often clinical, isolating kids from their peers. As a result, existing products/opportunities for play become divisive, rather than inclusive. Parents, teachers, and therapists facilitating inclusive play, struggle to find appropriate products.

Increment creates playthings to encourage inclusion, independence, and exploration for kids of all abilities to play together. By creating durable, beautiful, and locally made products that foster social interaction among all children, we can foster more inclusive and educational play experiences. We aim to set a new standard, create a bigger market of inclusive and open-ended toys, and establish universal and human-centered design in the toy world as a priority, rather than an afterthought.

Using inclusion as a design standard for play, we made our first product, the O-Rings, in collaboration with Meeting Street School to serve kids’ needs in therapy, at school, at home, and in any opportunity for open-ended play: a set of four large, soft rings, each with a different texture, color, and filling for open-ended play; manufactured in the US. We use highly durable and easy to clean materials, specifically selected for superior performance, tactility, and aesthetics. Providing a varied sensory experience for kids with needs such as texture stimulation, weighted feedback, or seating support, it is also beneficial for typical childhood development for all kids 0-12.

Our vision is to promote inclusion through play with a line of universally designed toys, spreading awareness for inclusion through collaborations and partnerships. We aim to set a new standard, create a bigger market of inclusive toys, and establish universal/human centered design in the world of play as a priority with high standing value.

We work collaboratively with educators, specialists, parents, and kids to ensure that our toys are truly designed for all children. Beginning with O-Rings as our first product, we create more opportunities for inclusive play and learning. Partnering with children’s museums, schools, organizations, and networks of families, institutions, and therapists, we show that Increment represents inclusion through play, for all, and that we have credible support. Developmental benefits of our product have been recognized by KaBOOM, Partnership for Providence Parks, Meeting Street School, Boston Children’s Museum, the Wolf School, and more.

Increment is a public benefit corporation with a focus on inclusion and open-ended play. We are proud to be a team of women social entrepreneurs creating playthings that offer positive social impact, therapeutic value, playful potential, and beautiful aesthetics. We aim to bring positive change and empathy to the toy industry, and we believe that one of the simplest ways to change society is to become more accepting of people’s differences, to start with empowering kids, and to create opportunities for kids of all abilities, ages, genders, and backgrounds to play and learn together.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Children who are differently abled

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Toy and play design

Year Founded

2013

Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Megan is a 12 year old student at Meeting Street School. She is blind and has several impairments, including low muscle tone. Her parents had a difficult time finding toys that Megan could play with with her friends/siblings.However, by interacting with the O-Rings, Megan develops her orientation/mobility skills, the varying densities and textures improve her texture sensitivity, and Megan is able to go from her usual hunched position to an open reclined position and rock back and forth in the rings.Megan can take turns hiding inside of the rings with friends, and they can more fully participate in playing with Megan, gaining a better understanding of how different kids have different ability levels, and that we all can learn through play.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Through grants, prizes, and friends/family contributions, we launched our first production run of 50 units in May of this year and now have 12 sets left in stock. Our customers include the Boston Children’s Museum, the NY Institute of Special Education, the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, daycares, and families. Our plans include expanding our product line of “platform toys” to allow for repeat customers and access to more customer segments.

Over the next five years, we will grow our team, move quickly to expand our reach into new markets, and build out the rest of our product line so that it fully encompasses our vision for inclusive play. We hope to be a leader in inclusive and user-centered design and open-ended toys. Our products will be in classrooms, therapy centers, children’s museums, daycares, and homes, to foster empathy and inclusion.

Organization Type

  • for-profit

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our 3 revenue streams are: product sales of O-Rings as platform products, toy design consulting, and licensing. As RI's 4th benefit corporation, we uphold our social mission as a priority, but recognize the importance of self-sustainability as a for-profit business. With COGS at $200 per set of O-Rings at a low production volume, we have a profit margin of 60%, and aim to accelerate in sales over the next two years to be profitable by 2018.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

The leading organizations addressing the importance of inclusion include organizations such as Kids Included Together, a nonprofit which focuses primarily on training and workshops to educate and create awareness. But they are limited to adapting products and DIY projects when it comes to toys/tools to promote inclusive, accessible play. The status quo remains the same: parents, teachers, etc. struggle to find products for inclusion. Through universal design and human-centered design, as a public benefit corporation, we bring inclusive toy design for kids of all abilities to the toy market.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

We believe that the most important shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing is celebrating play throughout childhood as well as adulthood. The endless possibilities of free play allow for people to make discoveries on their own, to learn about people and the world around them. These discoveries range from developmental skills such as motor skills, physical activity, spatial reasoning, and understanding the sense of touch, to social-emotional skills like conflict resolution, communication, and of course, creating awareness, empathy, & appreciation for differences and diversity in all kids.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

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I loved Megan's story and the personal growth she made with this tool, I would love to hear more anecdotal stories, or qualitative data, that demonstrate the impact of your product in the settings listed.