LAND O'LAKES — Librarian Nancy Fredericks picked up a bucket filled with Mr. Potato Head and his eyes, noses and ears. The colorful parts looked like the Mr. Potato Head familiar to most young children. But this one's different. He talks. Push an eye into place and the potato says, "eye."
He names other parts as they are added.
Joanie Miesner and Jason Epler, from the Rotary Club of Keystone Sunrise, laughed as they activated Curious George and watched him wiggle and chuckle gleefully.
Mr. Potato Head and Curious George Tickle 'n Giggle are two of 30 toys recently added to the Land O'Lakes Library as part of the Pasco County Library System's growing collection of adaptive toys. The toys, games and puzzles are "adapted" for children with specific needs in vision, speech, language impairments, motor skills or sensory perception. Credit goes to the Keystone Sunrise Rotary Club for making the toy purchases possible.
The first toy collection began at Hudson Library three years ago with the goal to expand the program to other library sites. The Land O'Lakes Library is the second to house a collection and the items at Hudson and Land O'Lakes are available to all Pasco County residents.
Fredericks spread the toys over counters and tables for an open house recently. Touch the textured pads of a carousel and the reward is a vibration, melody or rainbow lights. A soft barn-shaped puzzle has removable animal figures. When placed in the right spot, each gives the appropriate animal sound. On one counter, familiar bright red Elmo sits in his wheelchair.
He answers questions and can be checked by pressing buttons on a panel in front of him.
Included in the collection are switches and easy-to-operate devices that cause toys to light up, make noise or vibrate – the types of responses that help children learn things such as cause and effect or provide entertainment in response to touch.
At the open house, Sara Abukhdeir, with help from her daughter Aisha, guided her son's wheelchair to toys on a low table. She gently placed his hands on a flexible rollup piano, pressing it to produce sounds.
Izzy, 11, liked the keyboard but what really caught his eye was a black and white fuzzy penguin with an orange beak and big yellow feet. He reached for it and when the penguin danced and made noises, Izzy hugged it tightly with a big smile on his face.
Hefty price tags
For Izzy and hundreds of children like him, toys adapted for specific needs make learning easier and fun. For parents, the free use of adaptive toys helps financially. With special designs, the toys range from $50 to $300 each.
Mr. Potato Head is priced at $142 and Curious George is $60. Such prices put the toys out of reach for many families.
This is where Miesner, Epler and other members of the Rotary Club of Keystone Sunrise enter. As committee co-chairs, the two oversee toy purchases. A few years back, Miesner, a speech language pathologist, heard about a collection of adaptive toys in a Pinellas County library. Miesner turned to the Rotary Club for funding. The club responded and the Pasco toy collection continues to grow.
Epler is passionate about the program.
"I saw a mentally disabled little boy's face just light up at these toys," Epler said. "I saw a child who was only able to activate a toy by touching her head to a pillow on a metal bar. The look on her face — it moved me to think of things we take for granted."
He nodded to the children enjoying the toys: "I would give up every weekend for this."