01.03.2018  10:00

LudoMi, the Polisocial project for a smart, multi-sensory play room

Designing innovative spaces for children with intellectual disabilities to learn, play and socialise

Disabilities in the intellectual sphere affect large numbers of children. They include various symptoms, such as difficulties in learning and communication as well as in social relations, with varying degrees of intensity.

Play is essential for all children, but particularly for children with intellectual disabilities, to foster the development of cognitive, social and sensorimotor skills, to learn to relate to the world, stimulate the imagination and imitative capacities, develop the capacity to cooperate, understand and take into account other people’s point of view.

The action of the LudoMi team has developed from these considerations. The project for the "ludoteca smart multisensoriale per i bambini con disabilità della periferia milanese" (smart, multi-sensory play space for children with disabilities in Milan’s outlying areas) is led by professor Franca Garzotto from the Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering.

Although the project stems from a collaboration with the Municipality of Cornaredo, the aim is to extend it to and replicate it in other areas in order to meet the needs of families in all of Milan’s outlying areas. The consideration from which LudoMi takes its cue is that in these areas there is an almost total absence of places designed specifically for children with intellectual disabilities to learn, play and socialise. This means that it is often necessary for costly, tiring trips towards Milan to be arranged either by the families themselves or by through transport services provided by the municipalities. LudoMi sets out to meet these needs by offering children with intellectual disabilities new, multimedia, multi-sensory spaces where they can learn and socialise, which are closer to the places where they live, and which can also be enjoyed together with educational specialists, family and friends.

But how is this multi-sensory play room structured? It is a room equipped with various technological devices. A vertical projection system creates realistic or imagined spaces and animated characters with whom the children can interact thanks to a gesture and movement sensor. A horizontal projection system projects images and shapes onto the floor, on which “smart” objects and materials are spread out and which can be handled by the children in order to complete the activities suggested. Their senses are stimulated by the sounds, lights and vibrations emitted by the objects, by fixed and portable lights scattered throughout the environment, by the diffusion of music and sounds, by soap bubbles and scents given off by specially designed diffusers.

It is a near-magical space which provides a personalised, immersive experience, helping children to learn different things in an engrossing manner, keeping their levels of attention and engagement high. The activities can be performed individually. However, cooperation between children with and without disabilities, who interact with each other, is encouraged.

Two smart multi-sensory play rooms are planned for Cornaredo’s two schools. It will be possible to use them outside school hours too. The project will initially last six months and will constitute an experimental study that is unique in terms of technological complexity, sample size and duration. During school hours the project will involve 1.340 children – 76 of them with intellectual disabilities – 51 classes and 58 teachers. Outside school hours it will involve 800 children with intellectual disabilities from neighbouring municipalities and from a number of centres in Milan.

The project has several advantages. For teachers and therapists, the smart multi-sensory play room is an opportunity to try out new educational approaches for all children, with and without intellectual disabilities.

Pupils’ experiences in this fun, stimulating space can alleviate learning difficulties caused by intellectual problems, much as a prosthesis can help overcome limitations on the physical level, and offer immense opportunities in terms of strengthening their capacity for autonomy. Through their experiences in innovative learning contexts, children with disabilities reassert their positive status in relation to their schoolmates and to diversity by sharing their play room with their non-disabled schoolmates, reversing the traditional model of inclusion and allowing disabled people to include as opposed to being included.

LudoMi is one of the Polisocial Award 2017 winning projects. The Polisocial Award is a competition funded out of donations made to the Politecnico di Milano through the “5 per mille” or 0.5% charitable donation option included in the income tax return form. The competition fosters the development of scientific research with a high social impact.