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A Ukrainian Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Design Research Hub has designed a new toy for children with special educational needs (SEN) that is drawing industry attention with the support of GM Business Growth Hub.

Dr Ganna Borzenkova, 34, came from Ukraine to study in the UK and designed the Octopush Olly toy as part of her thesis to create toys for SEN children that help them develop their social, physical, sensory, emotional and cognitive skills.

Olly is a creature-friend and a facilitator of children’s communication, creating a level playing field for early years children with different special needs and encouraging peer-to-peer social interactions. Its design was underpinned by research in design for health and education, including theories like play affordances, ergonomics theory, emotional theories and inter-sensory approach.

“Early years is a critical time, when children develop foundational skills for building healthy social relationships and learn roles that will prepare them for adolescence and adulthood,” said Ganna. “It is recognised that children with special educational needs, including cerebral palsy, often have reduced social engagement, yet socialisation plays a fundamental role in development.

“They have an increased prevalence of mental health problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety or depression, because of reduced social engagement and isolation. Many of these children, therefore, would benefit from help with bridging their differences and finding ways to learn from and enjoy the company of others. In spite of this need, there are few toys specifically developed for children with disabilities which support peer socialisation.”

After concluding the research, Ganna created a concept toy and it was tested out by children with cerebral palsy from a special needs school at the National Institute of Conductive Education in Birmingham. It received very positive feedback with significant change observed in the children’s social skills and verbal communication while playing with the toy.  

She has since received support from Chris Manka, a Manufacturing Advisor from GM Business Growth Hub, to commercialise the Octopush, and has started working with PlayLearn, a Greater Manchester-based specialist in SEN toys. They have developed the Octopush as a commercial product that has been taken to an educational toy exhibition, promising a bright future for Ganna’s concept.

“The Growth Hub provided a huge support for me,” said Ganna. “I approached them with the idea and the prototype underpinned by research, but with minimal business knowledge and information of how to proceed. Chris helped me to find PlayLearn, who specialise in sourcing and developing equipment and sensory toys for children with special needs. They immediately became interested in manufacturing the toy, and now we are working on this, hopefully soon it will be ready for commercial circulation.

“Chris supported me through the whole process, attended all the meetings with PlayLearn, provided advice, and he keeps supporting me. Also, the Growth Hub helped me with understanding of the relevant IP (intellectual property) protection, as well as providing training in this area.”

The future is bright for Ganna and Olly, and she already has plans to expand the range.

Ganna added: “Ideally, I would like to see Olly in special schools, rehabilitation centres and special educational provisions, so a lot of children can play and interact with their peers through playing with him.

“Olly is part of a thematic play environment of Undersea Friends where each toy in the play space is an active creature, a friend and a central point of interpersonal interactions between children.

“Therefore, producing the other toys - Hexapush Hetty and Larry Long-Legs - will be my next aim. Such specialist toys help to create a level playing field for children with different special educational needs and physical abilities by enabling them to develop their social skills intuitively.”

Janine Smith, Director of the GM Business Growth Hub, said: “I’m very proud that GM Business Growth Hub is able to support and empower talented and dedicated women like Ganna to take their innovative concepts and turn them into commercial products and services that will make a real difference in the world.

“The evaluation process has proven that Olly is a toy that can really help children with SEN develop their emotional and social skills, which is testament to the work that Ganna has put into the research behind it. Combining that with the industry knowledge and experience our Manufacturing team has brought means that children across the country will be able to benefit from playing with the toys she develops.”

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