As a youth, Sandra Turner had what she now calls “attention benefits.”
“I remember being told to sit still, and I was fidgety,” Turner recalls. “I lost focus very easily.”
Decades later, Turner has developed a seating product for youths who have the same “benefits” she had as a child. The Vidget Organic Seating System is one of two products offered by Viggi Corp., a company Turner founded in 2015 with Christalyn Duff.
The Vidget is a 3-in-1 patented seating system designed primarily for classroom use. The antimicrobial, plastic seating can be used as a chair, a stool or a desk, and the lightweight pieces easily stack together to save space.
The seating encourages movement of both the body and the chair to help children with sensory processing issues. Allowing movement helps them stay seated longer when more concentration is needed, Viggi’s leaders say, and students stay on task longer.
The chairs can be used in classrooms in place of or in addition to exercise or stability balls, which have been used in schools for years to help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.
“I wanted to model the movement very similar to the stability balls, so I was out researching classrooms using the ball,” said Turner, who serves as CEO and blue sky explorer. “I wanted to design a seat that would allow movement but be safe for kids.”
She likens the movement to that of Hasbro’s Weeble, the roly-poly toy that wobbles, but does not fall down. Using handles built into the side of the chair, children are able to wiggle on the chair and rock it slightly side to side. And inside the handles are bumps to help children with sensory issues.
“The problem with exercise balls is children fall off of them, they roll around, they get really dirty,” said Lora Pepper, a kindergarten teacher at Fairport Dudley Elementary School. “Teachers such as myself have been using them for years because they meet the needs of the kids. These chairs that Sandra invented give the same sensory input yet they are not balls, so they’re not rolling all around. Five- and 6-year-olds, they see a ball and developmentally they are hardwired to pick that ball up and throw it.”
The seating comes in five sizes and a number of colors. The product is ideal for inclusive classrooms by providing freedom of movement for all students. The Vidgit allows a discrete and non-disruptive outlet based on individual need.
“We’re living in an age where everybody’s exploring new classroom environments and how to integrate movement and student choice,” said Dan Sepka, a special education teacher at Webster Spry Middle School. He noted some classrooms allow students to sit on the floor, and his class includes standing desks as an additional student option.
Sepka has a set of Vidgets for his classroom of students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The students have special needs, and he has found the chairs are advantageous for kids with disabilities.
“I have a couple of students with autism who really enjoy the sensory input that is allowed in the chair,” he said. “There are some movement options with the chairs, without being too distracting.”
Turner designed the Vidget as part of her thesis for her master of fine arts degree in industrial design at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was there she met Duff, who also was working on a product for children for her senior thesis project.
Duff’s design, the Digit Widgit, is a math learning tool that uses weighted blocks and a balance beam to help children explore numbers and relationships. Each block contains a number, the spelling of that number, colored dots representing that number and items totaling that number. The wood blocks are weighted according to their digits: a one-block would weigh less than a two-block and a two-block would weigh less than a three-block, for example.
When a child places a three-block on one side of the scale or balance beam, they can balance the other side by placing three one-blocks or a one-block and a two-block. In this way, the child is learning addition and subtraction, as well as weights and simple algebra.
“A lot of it was that I wanted a way to help the school I attended when I was pre-college,” Duff said of her design. “I was talking with one of the teachers and I said give me some of the issues that you’re dealing with. She said kids count on their fingers. I said, OK, I can run with that one.”
The Digit Widgit encourages children to talk about math and play around with math, without actually knowing they are doing math. The product is patent-pending.
“How we communicate the Digit Widgit to people is that it’s a visual, tactile, exploratory way of teaching math that is play-based as well,” Turner said.
Both of Viggi’s products are universally designed, Turner added.
“What that means is that they’re designed for anybody,” she explained. “The Vidget I designed for all kids so that we’re not stigmatizing kids that do have special needs.”
Pepper’s Fairport kindergarten class was used as a pilot program for the chairs, and she has used the math tool as well.
“At first I was thinking I’m going to use them for a month or so, then I’ll share with other people, because surely I don’t need a whole class set of these. Just some kids need them, not everybody,” Pepper recalled. “Then I got them and within the first day there was a very noticeable difference in my classroom.”
Within a couple of minutes some of the children had flipped their chairs to the higher position for comfort. They were naturally changing their positions as needed, Pepper said.
“When we’re comfortable our work output is so much better,” she said. “My kiddos who behaviorally struggle a little bit because their sensory needs are not being met—they can be in these chairs all day and their sensory needs are being met. So I saw (with) many of my kids a decrease in calling out behaviors when they were supposed to be using quiet voices.”
Viggi’s products also are being used in Rochester City School District’s pre-K classrooms. The district’s executive director of early childhood, Robin Hooper, purchased more than 400 Vidgets and 166 Digit Widgits for the classrooms.
Hooper has received positive feedback on the products from a number of teachers. The Digit Widgit is a big hit in some of the classes.
“They love working with them in small groups to practice their numbers, number sequence and to build towers,” Hooper said of one teacher’s feedback. “They like that they can touch and manipulate them. Almost every single student enjoys working with them.”
Turner and Duff received funding for their business after presenting their ideas to Richard Kaplan, CEO of CurAegis Technologies Inc., in 2015. Turner had met Kaplan as an adjunct instructor at RIT and had hoped he could get the Viggi founders in front of Rochester Angel Network, where he is vice president.
“So we met him for breakfast and he said, ‘I want in’,” Turner said.
Kaplan now serves as chairman of Viggi’s board of directors.
Turner and Duff received their Certified Women’s Business Enterprise designation, which also helped with funding. The Viggi team presented to the RIT Venture Fund and the group came in as an investor.
The investments allowed Viggi to move its workspace from dining rooms and cars to an office on Brighton Henrietta Town Line Road in Brighton, as well as hire someone to handle the day-to-day operations of the growing company.
Viggi began selling Vidgets in 2015 and Digit Widgits became available the following year. Turner and Duff said that while they have yet to turn a profit, the company has sold more than 2,500 Vidgets and 300 Digit Widgits.
“Our projections show that we will turn a profit this year,” Turner said. “And that’s what we’re pushing for.”
Viggi has three full-time staffers, and the company’s products are manufactured in the U.S. They are being used in 39 states and Canada.
Turner has lofty goals for the company.
“Our vision is within 10 years every classroom will have Vidgets, or something like the Vidget. Because research proves that movement is beneficial,” she said. “Within five years we hope to have many more products.”
The duo has several products in the pipeline, and they think of themselves as inventors for learning and well-being. Turner said what keeps her day exciting is that she loves the impossible.
“I love to find the possible through the impossible,” she said. “I enjoy the unpredictability of it and the openness—the flexibility and creativity that comes with it.”
For her part, Duff said she enjoys seeing the children smile.
“When they start using products and you see the light in their face,” she said. “It’s absolutely fascinating. And some of it’s because you’ve helped them address a need.”
RCSD’s Hooper said Viggi’s founders have put their focus where it belongs.
“We have to start thinking more about the kinds of things we create for children and their uses, and are we really catering to their needs,” Hooper said. “With these products that is what they did; they put the focus on children and their needs and tried to create products that really cater to those needs.”
(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email [email protected].d