A makeshift scooter similar to a Segway has babies driving before they can crawl.
It's called the WeeBot, and it was built by researchers from a motorized base, a booster seat and a Nintendo Wii balance board. It lets infants explore their environment by shifting their weight.
"They learn that when you lean, you make things happen," said Carole Dennis, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College. "The learning seems to be almost intuitive."
Dennis teamed up with physical therapist Hélène Larin and computer programmer Sharon Stansfield to develop and test the pint-size scooter, which moves slowly and uses sonar to prevent collisions. They hoped giving infants more mobility would create new opportunities for learning.
"Learning doesn't seem to depend on age; it seems to depend on the ability to move freely in the environment," said Dennis, who uses toys to teach babies the WeeBot basics. "We call it driver training. They develop the expectation very early on that if they lean they're going to get a toy."
After five WeeBot training sessions, 5-to-8-month-old infants were able to make their way to the toy they wanted 88 percent of the time, according to a study published in the September issue of the journal Physiotherapy. Infants trained on a joystick-operated scooter, on the other hand, only made it to the toy 24 percent of the time.
"Using a joystick is a complex cognitive operation for children. There's something between you and the movement that you've got to figure out," said Dennis. "We're quite convinced that the WeeBot doesn't require a great deal of cognitive ability."
The group also tried training two babies with developmental disabilities on the WeeBot. One of them, a 7-month-old boy with Down syndrome, showed little interest in the toy and got it only 9 percent of the time after six training sessions. But the other, 15-month-old boy with profound physical disabilities from cerebral palsy, was able to get the toy 85 percent of the time.
"He took to it right away," said Dennis, adding that the boy later used the WeeBot to explore his community daycare center. And even when he didn't use the WeeBot, the boy's eagerness to explore seemed to stick.
"After the fifth training session, I got an email from his parents that said he'd just begun to drag himself on the floor using his elbows," said Dennis. "He hadn't done that before. We'd like to think the ability to explore his environment gave him the impetus to try to move."
Dennis said she's currently recruiting babies with disabilities for a WeeBot clinical trial, hoping to uncover whether the added mobility can help boost cognitive, perceptual or language development.
"Even babies that may some day walk may be missing critical opportunities in their early years," she said. "We'd like a little more research behind us, but we think the WeeBot has a lot of potential."