Standing in a small classroom filled with children’s toys is an unexpected find: a wooden tunnel with three thousand blue zip ties attached. At five feet, each side lined with eight beams of hand-strung zip ties, it’s especially striking as the light from the window illuminates the color. Named the Zipper, it serves as a sensory tool for the patients at the University of Tennessee’s Pediatric Language Clinic (PLC) and was built by seven eighth grade Girl Scouts. Annabella, Celestina, Dee Dee, Marie, MJ, Molly, and Shelby spent the summer of 2018 designing and building the Zipper, now a popular tool amongst all the patients.
The story of the Zipper started long before it was ever built, beginning with a Girl Scout Breathe Journey about the senses and how humans experience the world. The year-long Journey needed to be completed with a sustainable Take-Action project. Christina Pint, one of the girls’ troop volunteers, learned through a Facebook post about a PLC field trip to the Muse, a children’s science museum in Knoxville, Tennessee. One exhibit stood out from the rest to its patients and staff: a spikey tunnel the children could walk through and touch.
“I thought [the PLC patients] would hate it. Light touch is more arousing and uncomfortable for them,” said Libby Beidelschies, Clinical Instructor at the PLC. “But they loved it! Suddenly they would make eye contact and respond to others. I couldn’t believe the response.”
The PLC is an early intervention center and University of Tennessee training site serving autistic children and those with significant communication delays under the age of three. The children have trouble processing all the information around them and are unable to regulate all their senses at once. Because they often don’t understand where their body is in space, the museum exhibit helped them determine that, which led to improvement involving the other senses, like eye contact.
The Girl Scout troop, who have been together since kindergarten, decided it was the perfect project: recreate a smaller design of the Muse tunnel so the clinic could have the tool in their own facility. They agreed to use almost $400 of funds they earned during the Girl Scout Cookie program to purchase the materials.
The summer-long project started with field trips to both the Muse and PLC, studying the original structure and determining the dimensions and ratios. Using tools from Christina’s garage, the Girl Scouts all learned to drill, cut, sand, stain, and seal the wood, each earning the wood-working badge. Originally, they wanted colorful and bright zip ties, but after researching, the troop decided on blue, a calming color. Each girl agreed they really enjoyed this hands-on project, though it felt daunting at first.
“It felt overwhelming,” said Jennifer Spezia, one of the troop volunteers. “We made a mistake early on and had to redo the measurements. Amazingly, we finished on time!”
Delivered in August, the staff was shocked how similar it was to the original Muse exhibit. Originally, the Zipper was created just for those with sensory issues, but all the patients have been captivated by it! Therapists have now begun to incorporate the Zipper for everyone at the PLC, challenging the staff to get creative through interactive games and decorations.
The troop made sure to save their plans and dimensions for the uncommon sensory tool, so it could easily be replicated and hopefully serve other clinics in the future. The Girl Scouts haven’t slowed down on making an impact in their community since completing their Take Action project; they’re now finishing up their Silver Award projects!
“It feels good to do something big, knowing how the people felt,” said Molly. “All the hard work paid off.”
Marie quickly added, “We make a
difference. We don’t just sell cookies!”