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A physical therapy companion for children with juvenile arthritis.

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Awarded Honorable Mention in the 2020 GIA Student Design Competition by the International Housewares Association.



Industrial Design



5 Weeks


According to the American College of Rheumatology, approximately 300,000 children in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of chronic arthritis.


The Problem

Arthritis refers to the swelling and tenderness of one's joints, often times due to wear-and-tear of joint cartilage over time or various autoimmune disorders.

Exercise is crucial for those with arthritis, as it increases muscle strength and flexibility, thereby reducing strain on their joints.

However, for children, the idea of exercising their already stiff and painful joints can be scary and overwhelming, and so motivating them to manage their condition is a challenge.


How might we...

motivate children with juvenile arthritis to overcome their fears and build healthy, long-term exercise habits? 



The Process


“It’s a misconception that one should rest their joints if they have arthritis. If one does not exercise or stretch, their joints will be frozen stiff in place.”


“Children are usually anxious about their treatment, and their parents are even moreso. The kids sense that.”



Dr. Zhao

  • pediatrician, researcher on rheumatoid diseases at Seattle Children’s Hospital

  • both he and his children have rheumatoid arthritis



  • seventeen-year-old student

  • diagnosed with spondyloarthritis at fifteen


“When I am under a lot of stress and anxiety, my body reacts by getting even more inflamed.”

“The best way I manage my pain is through physical exercise. I find it very important to be fluid so my joints aren't as swollen.”



“My morning routine is a lot slower due to physical pain — sometimes it can take 20 to 30 minutes just to get out of bed.”

“On really bad days, I can’t even put my hands into a fist small enough to hold my toothbrush.”




  • a senior university student

  • her lupus symptoms commonly manifest as arthritis


Market Analysis

There is a distinct lack of products that not only meet these children's physical needs, but also the needs of their emotional development, active lifestyles, and aesthetic preferences.


for seniors


for children


improve accessibility but do not promote exercise

​a child is unlikely to look for these products, especially when in pain


stress balls and finger stretchers promote exercise but are repetitive and boring 

​a child is unlikely to look for these products, especially when in pain


Current solutions for juvenile arthritis focus on teaching children to exercise correctly, which is less of a problem than actually motivating them to exercise.

(After all, when a child is in pain, the first thing on their mind is likely not going to be playing learning games.)

So then, what’s our first instinct when dealing with fear and pain?


We seek comfort.


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Pets & Comfort Objects

Pets love unconditionally, and so naturally we seek out their presence for comfort and positive interactions.

  • pet care routines add structure and calm to one’s everyday life

  • responsibility is a great incentive to build and maintain healthy practices

  • sensory stimulation helps to lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety



Like pets, stuffed animals both “protect” and are protected by children, and fulfilling both roles provides children with comfort and helps to lessen anxiety.

Stuffed animals, however, are less stress and mess and can be brought anywhere at any time.


The Insights

  • Exercise is key to alleviating arthritic joint stiffness and pain.

  • Exercise, medication, physical limitations, and social factors are consistent stressors.

  • Emotional well-being significantly impacts the severity of arthritis symptoms.

  • Caring for a pet not only brings comfort but also motivates routine-building and maintenance.

Design Guidelines

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Can be carried and used to facilitate exercise at any time, in any place.


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Helps to establish healthy, long-term pain management routines through engaging interactions.


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Integrates the pet care/comfort experience with exercise facilitation.




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bright, colorful

round, soft

commonly animals 

interactive toys light up, move, make sound

Rough Sketches

According to Dr. Zhao, general stretching motions such as finger presses, finger lifts, and making a fist are effective exercises for those with arthritis. Additional research pointed to soft goods as the most promising type of solution for children.

Thus, I focused on ideating soft, squishable products that could facilitate these exercises.


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I wanted to design a product that could be easily integrated into a child’s morning routine, as that is when their joints are usually stiffest. The working concept was a cuddly, squishable alarm clock to get children in the habit of morning warm up exercises. 

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User Feedback

Initially, we felt that the alarm function was important for building healthy morning routines.


However, we realized that limiting children’s choice of time of interaction reduces the lifespan of the toy — after some time, the novelty of the wake-up experience wears off.


If the product is a toy like any other in that children have more choice of interaction, then they will be able to play normally while receiving the additional benefit of joint exercise.


Next Steps?

  • rethink alarm function

  • resize for more comfortable hold

  • refine locations of buttons and indicators of interactions



SQUISHI is an interactive toy for children (ages 4-6) with juvenile arthritis in their hands that encourages them to stretch and exercise their fingers and wrists.



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Children can take care of SQUISHI by completing certain interactions with it, such as squeezing or pressing the spots that light up on its body.

Different parts of SQUISHI’s form target different aspects of joint care and pain management, from finger exercises for improving muscle strength and flexibility to heat therapy for relieving stiffness.


While you take care of SQUISHI, SQUISHI is also taking care of you!



displays SQUISHI's mood

Heart Level

displays SQUISHI's health



has back plates like other dinosaurs for finger pressing exercises


spots light up to show areas of interaction on SQUISHI



soft body for squeezing exercises


provide audio feedback during play


provides heat therapy for stiff fingers

“I’m so hungry! Feed me!”


“I’m bored, play with me!”


“Thanks for taking care of me!”



The fewer the interactions with SQUISHI, the lower his heart level and the worse his mood. Caring for SQUISHI entails feeding, cuddling, and playing with him until his heart level, heat level, and happy face are restored.

To feed, cuddle, and play with SQUISHI, children must complete certain actions such as squeezing or massaging the areas that light up on his body. SQUISHI responds to interactions with lights, sound effects, animated expressions, and warmth.


User Flow

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The care aspect of this toy brings comfort and incentivizes children to use it even though their joints are painful and build a routine for pain management.


Human Factors

Toy proportions were determined using anthropometric data of children age 6 for comfortable and secure gripping.


Hand Length

Male: 4.6 – 5.7 inches

Female: 4.4 – 5.7 inches


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Hand Breadth

Male: 2.1 – 2.6 inches

Female: 2.0 – 2.7 inches


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circuit board


battery pack


heating core




lit membrane switch




Squishi is...


comfort and fun anytime, anywhere



an adorable companion to alleviate the stress of physical therapy



helps to build healthy, long-term pain management routines


Thank you!

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