Early Waterwalls

Back in 2010, in my previous life as a landscape designer and builder, I was lucky enough to land some contracts to build interactive landscapes for early years settings.

I say lucky as it was amongst the most rewarding work I’d done and an exciting departure from my regular domestic work.  The luck continued as we found several customers who weren’t as risk averse as many settings so we got to do exciting things such as cutting the trees so children could access them, using sticks for dens and building natural structures.

The idea was, rather than clear areas to a blank canvas and add things for kids to play “on”, use the natural features, available materials and recycled materials so that kids could interact and learn with the whole environment.

It was as part of these garden designs that we built really basic waterwalls out of recycled materials such as you see here.

Watching the kids using these blew me away, the fascination and engagement the waterwalls fostered with all the kids was amazing, and the learning from using something so simple was fantastic.

It struck me that this idea could be a fantastic medium for learning.  The properties of water allow children to naturally explore lots of different types of science, but more than this, was the ability of water to engage children.  Nearly all kids have a natural affinity with water and the fascination it promotes, stimulating of all the senses whilst performing simple tasks is unsurpassable.

A parallel life

It was at this time that my personal life ran in tandem with my professional life.  We’d just had our first child and my wife became a childminder gaining level 5 early years education qualification after setting up her practice from our house.  In a few short years my life had been transformed from knowing very little about children to them becoming my main focus in both my private and professional life.

I’d built a rudimentary waterwall on the back of a pallet for the children in my wife’s care and it wasn’t long before she had her first Ofsted inspection.  When the inspector described it as an “amazing water investigation station” the penny dropped – this was something that could really make a difference.

It was from the combination of my private and professional life that the idea for turning waterwalls into a product was born.  There were however, huge challenges ahead and thousands of questions to be answered, but with blind optimism we pressed on knowing we were on to something good.

Challenging times

The first of our biggest technical challenges was making these basic waterwalls more interactive.  The initial versions were essentially fixed products with only a couple of choices available to children, through observation, and academic literature such a “theory of free parts” we knew this had to change.

We went through a few ideas, pin and hole attachment – didn’t really make it that easy for children to manipulate. Velcro – was ok but soggy and messy.  One day however, I observed my eldest child (by now our son had been born) playing with the fridge magnets and realised that in a child’s eyes magnets are real life magic!  I’d accidentally stumbled on the answer – the engagement of using water and the magic of magnets had to be a winning combination.

The next challenge was how to get this idea to become a reality – and this meant one thing – Money!  This is not really the right post to go into great detail about the rollercoaster ride that is trying to get a new business funded, but suffice to say, with enough for a loft conversion put aside we decided to defer our gratification (and still are) and go for it with blind optimism, naivety and no real idea of the challenges that lay ahead.

Extending our focus

In the intervening time, from the idea to now, the main stumbling block was finding a funder that shared our vision for Moti-Lab – it was never meant to be a box that just made money – it had to do good as well.  This time consuming search, whilst it had its costs – the leaky garage, rubbish cars, dilapidated kitchen to name a few – it also benefitted us by allowing the concept to develop.

I managed to get some funding to build a prototype and it was trailing this round and getting as much feedback from teachers and kids as possible that I became engrossed in the wider picture and challenges of STEM education as a whole.

Looking back at my education, I can still remember some of the practicals we performed in primary. They were the most exciting lessons we had and they sparked my interest to take sciences and maths further in my academic career.

Until now we had only really seen the waterwalls as early years / SEND equipment for multi-sensory / experiential learning.  I realised that what we were doing, although a very simple idea, had the potential to be used to allow children to investigate more and more complex ideas, exceeding their perceived  abilities.  We’d created something that could be used over a large age range, was engaging and effective for learning – what’s not to like?  Moti-Lab was born.

The dam bursts

The years of frustration, knocking on closed doors, the personal sacrifices made, had all seemed to lead nowhere and many times throughout this journey I seriously questioned whether it was worth it – and my sanity.  The only thing that kept me going was the support from family and friends and the amazing reception we were getting from teachers and children.  Seeing the delight and the learning outcomes that we’d imagined beforehand was what allowed me to keep my nerve.

Once we had come to realise the potential we had with Moti-Lab – and therefore it’s real value we started to make real headway. The past eighteen months has been such a heady rush and gone a million times quicker than preceding years.  With support from teachers and schools we have convinced a funder that shares our values for the project, we’ve gone from ideas on paper through various prototypes, the whole design process and we’ve got academic backing.  The highs have been very high and the lows very low and the learning curve very steep.

But finally here we are, ready to go, ready to make a real difference.  It’s been both the most exhilarating and depressing of times, but has it been worth it?  Only time will tell on that one but we’re now ready  for the challenge.  Exciting times lay ahead!