Students design toys to help autistic kids

[attach]4358[/attach]Ten-year-old Mark is on the autism spectrum. He doesn’t talk. He uses a picture book to communicate, and he has trouble with social situations.

Yet Mark is a very good teacher, even though he doesn’t really exist.

He’s a composite of students at Zareinu Educational Centre on Lawrence Avenue West near Bathrust Street, but he’s real enough for grade 8 students at Forest Hill Junior and Senior Public School.

They’ve been busy designing and building toys that would help Mark with skills he struggles with, and in the process, challenging their own assumptions about mental and physical disabilities.

“Basically this really helped us gain a new respect for people with disabilities, and put us on a level playing field,” said Elijah Kamaras-Garland, one of the students participating in the program.

Called Teaching Tolerance Through Toys, it’s in its third year at Forest Hill. Once they’re finished, toy-makers have the chance to visit Zareinu to share their toys with the students there.

The toys will be showcased on June 12 at the Zareinu Moveathon festival. The festival’s coordinator Sonya Budd wants to extend the program to other public schools.

[attach]4359[/attach]Apart from the 60 participants at Forest Hill there are about 300 students in Jewish day schools involved with the initiative.

The program dovetails well with the Toronto District School Board’s efforts to focus on character education and community involvement.

“They just love it,” says Ben Dawson, the science teacher at Forest Hill who uses the program as a project with his students.

Building toys that would benefit other kids provides his students with a more profound motivation than getting a good mark, he says.

The feeling of ownership is also a big incentive. Dawson tries to leave the field completely open to his students as they work on creating the toys.

“They’re so used to being a student,” he says. “Now they’re the ones who are actually taking a leadership role.”

Forest Hill student Seth Kibel overflowed with enthusiasm when talking about what he’s learned from the project.

“We created things that could bring such joy to people,” Kibel said.

It’s clear he and Kamaras-Garland also enjoyed the opportunity to be inventive.

“You can take everything and turn it into anything,” Kibel said.

Items such as scraps of wood, old shoes and skateboard wheels have all been reused to create students’ toys.

The only contribution the boys refused was a lunchbox from the previous year’s lost and found — complete with last year’s lunch.

Kibel used pieces of felt, liberal dabs of glitter and a zipper as a mouth to create a sock puppet that would help the autistic child he was assigned to interact with friends.

Kamaras-Garland painted a wooden box an electric green, printed out web pages and attached them to a crank to form a manual computer that would teach an autistic child about the Internet and email.

Other classmates made toys like an activity board, a matching game, a catapult and a balance board tailored to developing the skills their particular child needed to strengthen.

In the process, they learned more about disabilities and removed any prejudice they may have felt before.

“It helps the students realize children with special needs are beyond just that label,” Budd said. “They are their peers.”