Move to Learn Innovation Lab, Physical Therapy Department, University of Delaware/Kathy Atkinson.

Learning to Move with Move to Learn

University of Delaware researchers are using inexpensive, low-tech solutions to help infants with movement disorders.

Movement is key to a child’s brain development. That’s the idea behind the University of Delaware’s Move to Learn (M2L) Innovation Lab and its Pediatric Mobility Lab and Design Studio. M2L researchers have created the Playskin Lift suit to promote healthy motion and development for infants and children with a variety of muscular difficulties, including cerebral palsy and arthrogryposis.

The stretchy nylon-spandex garment, one of the lab’s “Super Suits,” stays close to an active child’s body, while encouraging and supporting free movement. Concealed bundles of piano-wire cables—flexible and springy—are inserted into channels on the underside of each sleeve. These bundles create an antigravity effect that helps children raise their arms naturally, allowing them to enjoy simple actions, like throwing their toys to the floor over and over! This is vital, experts say, for children developing their spatial awareness and understanding of forces, such as cause and effect.

"It’s sort of like the feeling you would get like you were on a trampoline,” M2L lab co-director and Playskin Lift project leader Michele Lobo told NewsWorks in 2016. “That’s what you can do with your arms. It keeps springing you back up to that lifted position.”

Many children with movement issues are still being fitted for traditional exoskeleton suits made of plastic and metal joint braces. While these are often very effective at promoting healthy development, such suits can cost thousands of dollars, and children can outgrow them in as little as six months. By contrast, the Playskin Lift can be constructed at home, using the M2L lab’s free instructions, for around $30. The end product is a garment intentionally designed for comfort and cuteness, a look strikingly different than its burdensome counterparts.

Distillations Playskin Lyft 2.jpg

One of two Playskin Lift suits created for CHF by physical therapist Michele Lobo and designer Martha Hall.

Science History Institute. CC BY-SA.

The Playskin Lift’s success lies as much in its close resemblance to off-the-rack children’s clothing as it does to its springy cables and stretchy, breathable fabric. Martha Hall, a fashion designer turned PhD student who studies biomechanics and movement science, joined Dr. Lobo’s team to consult on the design and construction of the suit.

When CHF’s museum team visited the M2L lab, Hall brought out the first Playskin Lift prototype, which was made of thick black fleece. Nearly immediately after putting the garments on their infants, parents began to ask if the suit could be more colorful and comfortable. Since then, Hall has designed Playskin Lifts in a variety of colors and silhouettes, including dresses, onesies for very small babies, and even costumes so that, like their playmates, wearers can dress as characters from comics and movies. The idea, says Hall, “is to make it comfortable, make it as discreet as the family wants or as fun as the child wants.”

As Lobo explained, the clunky exoskeletons that the Playskin Lift seeks to replace don’t always have good outcomes because they are so difficult to wear for long stretches of time, and young children become frustrated with them, which in turn frustrates their parents. Conversely, the more a child wants to wear the Playskin Lift, the more she will learn, and the better her outcomes will be.

As one parent told NewsWorks, “Before [the Playskin Lift, our daughter] never used her hands at all. . . . When she has the wires in, she can do almost everything a child her age needs to do.”

The Playskin Lift is on view as part of the Museum at CHF’s exhibition, Second Skin: The Science of Stretch, closing May 13.

Gillian Maguire

is the Institute’s registrar.