Spurring cognitive development through mobility

Babies and Robots, University of Delaware, photo by Evan Krape
Babies and Robots, University of Delaware, Early Learning Center

When Cole Galloway was conducting research with robotics, he witnessed the developmental and cognitive benefits of introducing young children to technology – and helping them to discover and experience motion and movement in new ways using modern innovations like robotics. Today, he uses that same premise to help children born with limited mobility to experience those same developmental gains.

Galloway, professor and associate chair in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware, leads Go Baby Go, an interdisciplinary initiative focused on extending and facilitating opportunities for independent mobility.

Presently, much of that effort involves creating wearable tech and adapting off-the-shelf, ride-on toy cars for children with differing abilities. Materials like PVC piping and padding are used to help ensure safety and comfort for children, while making crucial adjustments to allow them to use toys that were previously inaccessible due to a disability or mobility limitation.

“When babies crawl and walk independently, there is an explosion of development,” says Galloway, who emphasizes the importance of that cognitive development at a young age.

Galloway has been interested in the connection between the development of motor skills and cognitive skills, and in determining whether such developmental gains derived from movement can also happen with the assistance of technology – be it a joystick to move a robot, or an adapted ride-on toy to help a child become mobile on his or her own. In short, he found a sense of empowerment derived from such activities.

“Babies very quickly learn they actually have a role in the world, and they start to manipulate their social and physical environments,” he explains. Providing babies the opportunity to manipulate their surroundings, then, addresses the curiosity they are born with.

Mobility in the first years – and even months – is crucial

In his present research through Go Baby Go, Galloway is extending opportunities for mobility and exploration to children who might otherwise go years without such stimulation.

Often, he notes, a child with mobility limitations could begin using a power wheelchair around the age of five, if not several years later. That means that the development of motor skills and cognitive gains tied to independent mobility can be significantly delayed.

“You should be getting these in the first years of life, if not in the first months of life,” he says. “You gain most of the important things you learn in the first years of life.” “Mobility and play are human rights,” Galloway believes.

Go Baby Go speeds up that timeline by offering adaptations and customizations to help make mobility-enabling toys accessible to children with disabilities or limitations, with the understanding that independent movement is critical to development more broadly.

Such research harkens a mention of Jean Piaget’s research in the 1930s, particularly his study of the role of environment in contributing to such development.

How all children can benefit

Today Go Baby Go has resulted in some 6,000 customized cars being created, and now Galloway’s research and service efforts are being duplicated in 60 chapters around the world. And while each child Galloway and his team have worked with is different, there have been some key commonalities his team has spotted.

“If you put a child of any flavor into an enriched environment, they will make gains,” he says, noting the research implications for all children, even those without disabilities or mobility restrictions. “It is risk and benefit, it is danger and excitement. There is so much learned.”

Galloway describes the typical reaction seen across the thousands of children when they first move on their own.

“We get to look at the very first time humans get to move, and they are so young, they are not instructed how to act,” he says. “When they get the cause and effect reality that ‘I am moving this thing on my own,’ it is the same feeling that an athlete gets, or a 15-year-old driving for the first time – it is that pure joy of determining one’s own fate.”

Whether through his prior research with robotics or in his present efforts with Go Baby Go, Galloway has worked to demonstrate the connection between motor skills and cognitive development – with gains possible not only through traditional, independent mobility, but also through leveraging robotics and technology.