Moti-Lab water play benefits SEND children of all abilities

Education For Everybody editor Victoria Galligan speaks to Moti-Lab founder Richard O’Neill about his invention and how the resource is ideally suited to children with additional needs.

If you’ve ever seen children playing outside with water, you’ll know how hard it is to tear them away from their work – they’re fully engaged, enjoying the sensory experience and learning how the water flows, exploring how it affects objects and how they can change its effects and generally having a blast splashing and pouring.

This is exactly why Richard began making makeshift water features from plywood and guttering – with his childminder wife’s charges as the product testers. Richard, who has a background in designing interactive landscapes for early years, says: “I made the first water equipment with scraps of 8x4 and just screwed the guttering on. The children loved it and their physical and cognitive engagement was great even at that basic level of design – but this was a fixed product and quite limited in terms of how the children could use it.

“When OFSTED came to inspect my wife’s childminding service, they loved the equipment and praised it as an ‘amazing water exploration centre’. It was then that I thought I could develop the product further and I took the idea forward. 

“Since the inception of the idea a few product have arisen made from wood or mesh but all remain fairly limited in their interactivity.  It was then we struck upon using magnets to maximise interactivity and intuitiveness of the system.”

The magnetic nature of the Moti-Lab enables children to move the equipment – such as gutters, wheels and switches – with complete freedom to carry out experiments, and the teacher can set an open-ended learning objective such as “Explore how we can we make the wheel spin faster”. And Richard said these objectives can be differentiated to suit children of any ability, from Early Years right up to Year 6. Moti-Lab in action with a child

He says: “When children move the fittings they realise how to make the water move faster or slower, how to make the wheel spin for longer and how using different materials like balls, mud, rice and even ice, in the winter months, has an effect. 

Moti-Lab combines science and maths learning within an engineering format that can be accessed by all children.  From basic sensory use to using Pi to work out the speed of a wheel in metres per second.  This versatility means it can be accessed and benefits from the least to the most able learners – great for SEND settings with with a range of abilities.

Moti-Lab partnered with Sheffield Hallam University to develop the product, and produce a learning guides for teachers. It was trialled in Holbrook Specialist School for Autism in Derbyshire, where it had an unexpected effect.

Richard explains: “There was a pupil in the class who was hydrophobic. So at first he stood on the sidelines and watched the other children use the equipment. Then he started to get involved and used the water. 

“His 1:2:1 teacher was left in tears – it was a really emotional moment and the first example of how the Moti-Lab can have success on a profound level.”

Currently we have over 80 curriculum focused lesson plans covering EYFS right up to year six from simple investigations into materials, shapes and properties to more complex learning about angles and speed.  All the lessons are designed to adapt to ability of the individuals or group, are hands on, and, most of all, fun!

Richard said: “With engineers, they use maths to predict how physical objects or systems will perform whereas with Moti-Lab we use engineering to understand the maths giving it real life context. We essentially work backwards.” 

As well as the STEM learning which takes place, Richard said the PSHCE skills shown are additional benefits: for example, children on the Autistic spectrum can work side-by-side with pupils rather than face to face, and the Moti-Lab develops teamwork, resilience, turn-taking and learning through trial and error – all the time making the children the masters of their own learning.

Richard said: “Some teachers in mainstream schools have told us their SEND pupils have become leaders during Moti-Lab sessions because they engage with the equipment so well.”

The product range is set to expand in the future, with Richard currently developing different coloured boards especially for children with visual impairment. The Moti-Lab is wheelchair accessible as the children can easily reach over to use the board to use the fixtures, and to write down their findings. And its “pop-up” nature means it can be moved around the school.

The explorative nature of the Moti-Lab is what really underpins its success, and Richard says: “In traditional science lessons, there is a process to follow which will result in a right or wrong outcome. This can have a negative effect on the children who have engagement issues. But with our Moti-Lab, there is no right or wrong. It’s risk-free working, using trial and error and building resilience. There is no pressure on the learner.”

For more information, visit the Moti-Lab website.


Testimonials from Moti-Lab users:

“One child who really doesn’t like water enjoyed playing with Moti-Lab, this really changes things for him.”

 – J Brush, Holbrook Specialist School for Autism


“I can see the benefit that children would get from ‘playing’ with this wall.  They were experimenting without fear of failing. The child I was supporting investigated the problems intensely – sheer joy on his face!”

–  L Jackson, MSI specialist, Y1 Teacher


“Lots of learning outcomes recorded, such as – teamwork, challenge, observation and reasoning, especially engaging for some SEN students who find recording difficult.”

 –  K Dunning, Deputy Headteacher for Inclusion, Sheffield


“Children with significant SEND took on leadership roles – if they can take that confidence into the classroom who knows what might happen.”

–  D Meeds, Y4 Teacher, Woodseats Primary

December 5, 2018

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