Speech-language pathologist and Assistant Professor Julie Feuerstein and pediatric physical therapist and Clinical Associate Professor Jennifer Tucker share a passion for improving clinical care and the quality of care for children with complex communication and motor needs. Feuerstein leads the Early Communication and Play (ECAP) Lab and Tucker the Early Mobility and Play (EMAP) Lab — both designed to address access, engagement and communication among special populations.

The two joined forces to create the Mighty Knights program — a unique, community-based enriched play experience for infants and toddlers with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome and other complex medical conditions. In the program, Feuerstein and Tucker use communication and mobility supports to offer inclusive playdates that include art, music, movement and sensory exploration at local parks, playgrounds, a local family-fun farm and inside UCF’s Rehabilitation Innovation Center. Since starting the program in Spring 2022, there have been eight play sessions held, with five to 10 families attending each event.

The Mighty Knights name draws from UCF’s mascot and reflects a recognition of the unique strengths and abilities of the young children who participate. “We like to think of this program as empowering our littlest knights to learn and grow,” Feuerstein says.

The Mighty Knights program is made possible through a philanthropic gift from the Bailes Family Foundation.

“We know that children’s development doesn’t unfold in silos,” Feuerstein says. “Their motor communication, social emotional and cognitive skills are integrated such that development in one area influences development in other areas. Our philosophical approach is that we need to treat the whole child.”

Assistant Professor Julie Feuerstein uses visual aids to communicate with a child enjoying the splash pad at Peppa Pig Theme Park.
Assistant Professor Julie Feuerstein uses visual aids to communicate with a child enjoying the splash pad at Peppa Pig Theme Park.

The most recent playdate in October included a visit to the Peppa Pig Theme Park, in partnership with Merlin’s Magic Wand Foundation. While there, children and their families were able to enjoy the park with the help of specially designed assistive equipment. Supports like a 10 foot-by-10-foot mobile harness system gave children who aren’t yet standing on their own the opportunity to play in an upright position in the sand area, and both high- and low-tech augmentative and alternative communication supports like adaptive switches encouraged children to communicate with their parents and other children in the program.

“We provide an environment where we can support children in both exploring and learning so they can engage like all other children,” Tucker says. “The work we are doing is as much about advocacy and inclusion as it is development.”

The Mighty Knights Program also serves as a rich, hands-on learning experience for undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Health Professions and Sciences. Students connect across disciplines, problem solve, and learn new skills for working with special populations, helping to prepare them to be both creative thinkers and clinically competent in their healthcare careers.

The Peppa Pig Theme Park playdate was the second event in partnership with Merlin’s Magic Wand, with the first being a playdate at the SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium.