Back in 2015, with her son’s third birthday just around the corner, Hannelore Blaauw knew what she wanted to get him as a present. The problem was, she couldn’t seem to find it.
“There were these old rocker boards, from the 1960s or 1970s, made in the US, and I emailed the company that makes them, but I never received a response,” says the Dutch mother of three, who lives in the Netherlands.
Blaauw wanted a balance board, similar to the wooden rocker boards originally used by teachers in Waldorf Early Childhood Classrooms to help promote open-ended play. The curved boards help children develop their balancing abilities and stimulate the vestibular system and proprioception, which is the awareness of one’s physical body and its parts.
'Children are such honest customers'
Blaauw needed something exactly like that to help her youngest son, who, like his brother before him, had some problems with his gross motor skills and with development of movement. Despite turning 3, her son was still falling over easily, having difficulties balancing. He was generally clumsier than children his age.
“My eldest son experienced the same problems; they both didn’t crawl when they were younger. Babies crawl at around 9 months, and the use of their left and right hands to move forward helps develop the right and left sides of the brain. My sons didn’t do that. They went straight to standing and walking, so it affected their motor skill development later on,” explains Blaauw.
Therapy sessions as well as left and right brain exercises at home helped her older son. For her younger, Blaauw knew that a balancing board could make all the difference. So she logged on to Facebook and posted a question on her feed: was there anyone out there who could build her this gift?
A former skateboard-maker came to her rescue. Wouter Haine, father of a young girl who happened to be good friends with Blaauw’s daughter, said he’d happily make her a board, but it would be cheaper if she could find five other friends who wanted a board as well, so he didn’t end up making just one. “I posted a question on a Facebook group for natural parenting, which I am a part of, and in no time, I had 500 orders for a board before I even had one for my own son,” says Blaauw. And with that, the Wobbel Board was born. Dreamt up by Blaauw and Haine, and made of European beech wood, which is tacked and pressed under high pressure, the board is shaped along a simple, gracious curve, with the option of fitting one side of it with wool, felt or cork.
The first 200 boards were ready by the beginning of December 2015, and within nine minutes, all 200 sold out. The duo kept making them, and for 22 months, they kept selling out. “We love so much seeing children from all over the world interacting with it,” says Blaauw. “Children are such honest customers. When they first get it and they don’t know what it does, they just figure it out and start playing. That’s the magic of the board; it can be used for as many things as you can dream up.”
'It's an invitation to grow'
Today, the Wobbel Board is considered the most revolutionary toy of the year, and is available in more than35 countries, including the UAE. “It’s not a perfect toy, but it’s an invitation, that’s how we see it,” explains Blaauw. “It’s an invitation to grow, and it reflects the personality of the child using it. There’s no right or wrong way to use it. It’s sturdy and can be passed on. It’s a bridge between ages, because even older people want to use it.”
And they can: the original Wobbel holds 100 kilograms of weight and the XL version can hold double that. It has even inspired a new form of children’s yoga – Wobbelyoga – developed by Rianne Roodbeen in Amsterdam last year. Her classes have now spread worldwide and are practised from the United States to Singapore.
“Rianne developed a teaching programme using the board to enhance strength and balance during her children’s yoga classes,” says Blaauw. “She has now certified more than 150 teachers in this form of yoga, and children love it. It’s super for strength, mindfulness, balance, and we hear back from yoga teachers that when they add a Wobbel Board to their classes, it makes it easier for children to get involved because they have something solid to hold on to.”
Katy Rice, founder of EcoSouk.me, contacted Blaauw and Haine this year to ask about bringing the Wobbel Board to the UAE. “I pick products based on what I would want to purchase for my own kids,” explains the British mother of two, with one more on the way, who is a Dubai resident. Her first order of 100 Wobbel boards arrived in October and sold out immediately; the second batch will be here any day now, in time for Christmas gifts.
“It’s a product people are curious about it. It looks interesting, but what does it do and how does it work? The best way to answer that question is just to give it to a child and let them figure it out.” This is one of those toys that can be anything or do anything, adds Rice. “My 3-year-old will use it very differently from my 5-year-old, but they will both get fun out of using it.
Helen Farmer, founder of the UAE blog and Instagram account The Mothership DXB, concurs with Rice. “I have two daughters under the age of 4 and they use the Wobbel Board in completely different ways,” she says. “It’s a bridge, a den, a slide, a ramp for cars, a bed for dollies and loads more, plus, of course, it’s a way to wobble.
“Everyone comments on it when they come to our house and we’ve had more than a few friends have a go. Luckily it takes up to 200 kilos.”