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On behalf of our readers, staff in nurseries and schools around the country have put a wide range of products through their paces to assess their value in the workplace and have given each item a star rating UNDER-THREES

On behalf of our readers, staff in nurseries and schools around the country have put a wide range of products through their paces to assess their value in the workplace and have given each item a star rating

UNDER-THREES

Stackagator price = /Fisher-Price 14.99 *** 01628 500000 www.fisher-price.com

Tested by Daisychain Nursery, Kirkcaldy, Fife

This toy has a space at the back for storing Peek-A-Blocks, each of which features something to discover, from objects and animals to sounds and textures. The four blocks supplied can also be inserted into the croc's mouth. Recommended for children from 12 months.

Tester's report

The children especially loved the blocks which have wobbly bits inside and they spent lots of time hiding them inside other large toys. The babies enjoyed the music and sounds the blocks emitted when used for building. I was pleased to know that further sets of Peek-A-Blocks can be bought separately.

Lynn Stevenson, manager

Learning Magnetic Cookie Puzzle price = /Fisher-Price 12.99 *** Contacts as before

Tested by Little Gems Day Nursery, Bridgwater, Somerset

This 'baking tray' features ten tunes, phrases and light up buttons. Each cookie can be removed from the tray so that the toy becomes a shape sorter.

Recommended for children from nine months.

Tester's report

The tunes were very catchy and our toddlers between 18 months and two years loved the music and would hold up the toy and dance with it. This is certainly a different shape sorter and good for physical skills, but the naming of the shapes and textures is above the age range for which the toy is designed. It has a nice finish and good sized handles. On the minus side, we do not usually buy toys which require batteries and we found the American accent a bit annoying.

Susan Hamilton, proprietor

Farm Four in a Box price = /Orchard Toys 4.99 ***** Telephone 01953 423422 www.orchardtoys.com

Tested by Mayfield Kindergarten, Ilfracombe, Devon

This is a set of puzzles depicting farmyard scenes, each of which measures 21 x 15cm. The number of pieces varies - four, six, eight and 12.

Recommended for children from two years.

Tester's review

The younger children chose these over other puzzles made available to them.

The fact that there are four puzzles in one box means that they can be used for group work or with individuals. They are sturdy, brightly coloured puzzles, depicting easily identifiable objects. I think they would be good for children with communication difficulties who, with adult intervention, could talk about all four. Our older children also enjoyed them. Of course, they found the puzzles very easy, but we adapted them for a memory game, putting all the pieces face down and the children taking turns to choose a piece until they had completed their own puzzle.

Gillian Livings, proprietor

Lil' Movers Motorised Train price = /Fisher-Price 24.99 ***** Contacts as before.

Tested by Bexley Childminders Association, Belvedere, Kent

The set features a train, complete with three figures, which can be pushed around the track or can move on its own. There are four stops along the way -the station, home, garage and farm - each of which has its own sound effects. Recommended for children from 12 months.

Tester's report

This linked perfectly with our current theme on transport and has excellent accessories. I liked the multicultural figures and the fact that one was wearing spectacles. It is a very sturdy toy, with chunky pieces, and would withstand lots of boisterous play. I think it's very good value for money.

Lynn Manning, leader

Tolo Stacking Activity Clown price = /John Crane 8 ** 01604 774949 www.john-crane.co.uk

Tested by Windmills Opportunity Playgroup, Burgess Hill, W Sussex

This is designed to be six toys in one, as each piece can be played with separately. Recommended for babies from six months to encourage grasping and holding.

Tester's report

None of our children realised that this was a stacking toy despite being shown, but they did enjoy the rattle parts and used the clown head as a ball to roll around the floor. I was concerned that the pieces are quite hard and could hurt if thrown at another child. This would be good for a child with visual impairment because of the rattle factor.

Alison Bareham, co-supervisor

Bright Beginners Puzzles price = /John Crane 8 ** Contacts as before.

Tested by Windmills Opportunity Playgroup, Burgess Hill, W Sussex

There are three puzzles in the set; Country Garden, Farm and Field, and Big Outdoors. Each one has six pegged pieces and measures 150 x 250mm.

Recommended age: from 18 months.

Tester's report

These are not something I would particularly recommend. The children had difficulty in grasping the knobs to pull out the pieces and we felt the puzzles could be improved if there had been a picture under each shape and if the pieces were a little bit thicker. With these improvements the product would fulfil more learning goals.

Alison Bareham, co-supervisor

FOUNDATION

Lace and Trace Pets price = /Flair 6.95 **** Telephone 020 8643 0320 www.flairplc.co.uk

Tested by Mulberry Bush Nursery, Halesworth, Suffolk

This wooden lacing panel kit comes with its own co-ordinating laces and is stored in a wooden box with a see-through sliding lid. There are seven lacing panels in the kit. Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

We really liked this. We were impressed by the bright, colourful pictures of real animals and, because the panels are wooden, they are very firm - not something always found with lacing cards. The colour-co-ordinating laces and the realistic pictures also opened up a wide range of other learning areas, such as colour recognition and talking about animals. They are, of course, excellent for developing hand/eye co-ordination.

Jill Douglass, manager Basic Skills Board price = /Flair 19.99 *** Contacts as before

Tested by Mulberry Bush Nursery, Halesworth, Suffolk

This board measures 25 x 35cm and is designed to teach six dressing skills activities. There is also artwork underneath the pieces. Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

Although this is an attractive wooden toy we felt that the fastenings were too small for our age group of three-to-five year olds. We also found that it showed the children how to zip up other people's clothes rather than their own and the zip does not seem very durable. We did like the associated pictures under the removable pieces. It is good for basic skills but the learning potential is limited. It's a rather expensive item so not something we would consider buying.

Jill Douglass, manager

George Luck Double Layer Weather Puzzles price = /John Crane 14.99 **

Tested by Harwich Community Primary School, Harwich, Essex

There are two layer puzzles available, each with weather symbols - Mild and Wild and Freezing and Scorching. Recommended age: from five years.

Tester's report

The puzzles consist of 17 odd-shaped pieces and have no pictorial support.

We tested them with the more able children in our reception class but they found them difficult to complete, although one child did manage after much determination and in 30 minutes. They could, however, be beneficial for KS1 as they are suitable for promoting discussion around the climate due to the contrasts in the pictures, with the potential for supporting both geography and science. The puzzles are well made and should prove durable in the right setting, as long as no pieces go missing.

Serena Lindsay, Foundation Stage teacher

Around My School price = /Active Designs 32.50 ***** 01327 858522 www.activedesigns.co.uk

Tested by Harwich Community Primary School, Harwich, Essex

This has 14 printed name tags and 17 colourful pieces depicting familiar sights likely to be seen near a school, whether urban or rural. The wall chart is designed to help children to plan the local area and all the landmarks they have observed. Recommended for Foundation Stage.

Tester's report

This is a must for early years settings. We used it daily, with different children, in groups, one-to-one and whole class. The children also used it independently. It has excellent play value and the children really enjoyed it. It has great potential for developing early geography skills, helping the children to identify features in their own environment and build imaginary towns. The children played collaboratively, sharing their experience and giving each other directions to different places. Clear labels for the features are available to match word to picture, supporting literacy development. This is a great interactive resource that we would definitely like to have permanently. It is good value for money considering the learning potential.

Serena Lindsay, Foundation Stage teacher

Big Racing Car Floor Puzzle price = /Orchard Toys 8.50 ***** Contacts as before Tested by Mayfield Kindergarten, Ilfracombe, Devon

This is one of a range of big floor puzzles made from thick, durable recycled board. The Big Racing Car has 45 pieces and measures approximately 62 x 42.5cm when completed. The scene includes 'talkabout' points.

Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

This is a brightly coloured, strong, challenging puzzle and a bit different, too. The children found lots to talk about and it appealed to the girls as much as the boys. It's a convenient size - not too big to use on a table. I would strongly recommend this and found it excellent value for money.

Gillian Livings, proprietor At the Stables Floor Puzzle price = /Orchard Toys 8.50 **** Contacts as before

Tested by Abacus Nursery, Pinderfields General Hospital, Wakefield This is another floor puzzle made from recycled board. It has 75 pieces and measures approximately 61.5 x 42cm when completed. There is an activity guide on the box base to help to stimulate discussion. Recommended from age four.

Tester's report

It has plenty of learning potential and proved a valuable resource for promoting both language and mathematical skills. The children were very eager to talk about the picture and which food each animal would eat. There was also plenty of interaction between groups of children as they worked together on the puzzle. It is useful for children with language delay.

Carole Hill, deputy manager

FloatiT price = /Doodle World 9.80 ***** 0191 510 0188 www.doodle-world.com

Tested by Whitecastle Private Day Nursery, Ashton under Lyne

This is a new modelling material designed to float on water and which should not dry out. It comes in a box of eight pieces with a selection of four colours. Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

The children made great use of this; it sustained their interest and inspired plenty of experimentation. It was in and out of the water and we had lots of discussions on floating and sinking. It was pulled and stretched constantly, but still remained usable. Unlike other modelling materials, it does not crumble and get trodden into carpet so is easy to clear away. Because it seems that it will last a long time I think it is reasonably priced.

Tina Whitelegg, manager 3-D Sorting Game price = /Touch of the Orient 10 **** 0845 222 0298 www.touchoftheorient.co.uk

Tested by Holy Cross Playgroup, New Malden, Surrey

This is a sorting and matching game designed to help develop fine motor skills. Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

Our older children enjoyed this most. It does require fine manipulative skills and is good for hand/eye co-ordination. The children also found plenty to talk about in the pictures. Because it is made of card it will have limited durability in a playgroup setting.

Pat Pain, leader Threads Drawing Game price = /Touch of the Orient 8 **** Contacts as before.

Tested by Holy Cross Playgroup, New Malden, Surrey

This is designed to help children develop skills in problem solving, sorting relationships, and matching colours, shapes and sizes.

Tester's report

It has plenty of learning potential - counting the holes, threading - encouraging language, and knowledge and understanding of the world. It is a colourful product which appealed to the children. The card is strong, but is likely to wear with constant use in a playgroup.

Pat Pain, leader

Movin' Monkeys price = /Learning Resources 29.95 ***** 0845 241 0484www.learningresources.co.uk

Tested by Hill Primary School, Reading

This product features plastic gears, cranks, connectors and base plates on whichchildren can build. There are 136 pieces in all and the set comes with instructions. Recommended age: from four years.

Tester's report

It proved a very popular toy, especially with the boys, and kept them engrossed for quite long periods. The learning potential is good. It encouraged plenty of thinking and talking through what would happen and how to alter parts to make improvements in the movement. They particularly enjoyed setting up the cogs and then discovering if they moved. It had a great deal of use throughout the testing period, and survived!

Katy Weatherill, Foundation Stage teacher

Healthy Snack Foods Set price = /Learning Resources 14.95 **** Contacts as before

Tested by Hyde 'n' Seek Nursery, Glasgow

There are 18 plastic foods designed to encourage the children to make healthy choices. The set includes fruit and vegetables, milk, cheese, yogurt, pretzels and crackers, all packaged in a vinyl lunch sack. The milk carton measures 7 x 8cm.

Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

There is a good range of healthy foods here to promote healthy eating and encourage discussion with the children. The set is suitable for the home corner, but can also be used as a science resource. Everything appears to be very safe and durable. The pieces do have a strong smell, though.

Charlotte Guy, manager

Sorting and Patterning Pocket Chart price = /Learning Resources 25.95 **** Contacts as before

Tested by Frederick Bird Primary School, Coventry

This has 182 cards which can be sorted into the clear display pockets by colour, shape, animals, transportation, food, clothing, insects and sports, or alternatively simply by colour, shape or animal. The wall chart measures 72.5(w) x 109(h)cm and comes with an activity guide, bottom storage pockets and grommets for hanging.

Recommended age: from three years.

Tester's report

After an introduction by an adult, the reception children were able to access the resources independently and they often chose this activity over a variety of other options. The chart is well designed and includes long pockets for making and following patterns and small pockets for sorting.

There is a good selection of categories to sort. The cards are of good quality, thick card and the pictures are clear and attractive. It's a good size for displaying on the wall and can be easily folded up for storage. We extended its use by making cards, eg matching high frequency words from the National Literacy Strategy.

Vivien Mitchell, reception teacher Trampoline price = /Asco 550 ** 0113 270 7070 www.ascoeducational.co.uk

Tested by St John Fisher RC Primary School, Erith, Kent An innovative product -an inflatable trampoline which the company claims can be inflated in four minutes with the foot pump supplied. It measures 150(d) x 30(h)cm and weighs 10kg. Designed to be used by one or several children simultaneously.

Tester's report

This is quite a useful piece of equipment and the children certainly loved it. It's very stable and too heavy for the children to move on their own, which is a plus point. It was also easy to inflate but we only did this once. However, we were very surprised to find that it was not suitable for outdoor use! It would work well in a playgroup because it is something for younger children -certainly no one over six - and because it is so easy to store when deflated. However, I can't imagine that many playgroups would be able to afford it. I think it is very expensive - around the 250 mark would be much more realistic.

Mary Ryan, deputy head

Time to Talk Game price = /LDA 29.99 *** 0845 120 4776 www.LDAlearning.com

Tested by Whitehall Infant School, Uxbridge, Middlesex

This is designed to encourage essential language in small groups of reception and KS1 pupils. By rolling the dice and moving around the board the children are encouraged to participate in role play, practise actions and share information about themselves, in the company of a small ginger bear. Time to Talk includes a board, 96 question cards, a ginger bear toy, four ginger bear jigsaws, four playing pieces, dice and teacher's notes.

Tester's report

It is very teacher/adult led but the children enjoyed playing with it and it covers a number of skills in one game. All the components were easy and safe to handle and the board and the jigsaw pieces seemed very tough. The ginger bear toy was very popular. It worked well when the children had more than one session with it - they gained in confidence each time. Some children with poor language skills or who were shy found it difficult to participate on their own, but it was excellent for children who were able to copy others who have higher order language skills. The game takes a long time to play and causes some impatience. However, overall it is something which would suit most settings, particularly as it can be easily adapted for different abilities.

Barbara Scorer, deputy head

Happymais price = /Ecotoys 33.97 **** 01728 663395 www.peterridley.co.uk

Tested by The Daisychain Nursery, Kirkcaldy

This is an ecological modelling material made from a natural, GM-free corn starch material which is totally biodegradable and compostable and coloured with non-toxic food colourings. By moistening one piece of Happymais it will stick to another piece, so no glue is required, and all sorts of models can then be created - the company's suggestions include flowers, animals, planes, boats and dinosaurs. For every box of Happymais sold the company makes a donation to the Earth Fund Association which protects and conserves large areas of tropical rain forest.

Tester's report

It's a great new medium and an exciting alternative to creating with the usual clay or dough. We have a few children who are reluctant to use glue so this was very good for them. One of our favourite activities was making boats which we could use in our water play sessions. And, yes, the boats did float! There was some slight staining of the children's clothes, which a few parents complained about, but, otherwise, it was no messier to work with than any other creative material.

Erin Littwin, manager

First Experiments Magnetism Set price = /Reflections on Learning 24.99 ***** 01732 225850 www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk

Tested by Oakington Primary School, Oakington, Cambridge

Designed for first magnetic explorations, the set contains four wands, 20 magnetic marbles, two plastic cased magnets, a super magnet, a set of floating ring magnets, a small horseshoe magnet and a compass magnet. It is supplied in a moulded storage tray.

Tester's report

I would definitely buy this if I were ordering science resources. Magnets can be tricky to keep and often lose their magnetism but these seemed very good quality and were smooth and pleasant to touch. They were also brightly coloured -we have another magnet set which looks utilitarian in comparison. The carrying box was appreciated and the children enjoyed loading up and putting away. It is not something to be used for free play, only for science experiments. I found the instructions and accompanying booklets rather wordy, but that is because they are intended to support the teacher as well as the pupils. I think it unsuitable for children under five - it would fit well into KS1 maths.

Anne Williams, class teacher Sometimes I Feel.... price = /Speechmark Pounds 27.95 *** 01869 244644 www.speechmark.net

Tested by Great Milton Primary School, Oxford

Designed as a tool for promoting emotional literacy, it consists of a card set featuring a boy and girl who express and share their different feelings, both positive and negative, using the language of metaphor. The aim is to demonstrate to the children that they are not alone in feeling as they do. There are 48 colour-illustrated cards and an instruction book.

Recommended age range: four to eight years.

Tester's report

I don't think this is suitable for Foundation Stage children, because they still take things very literally and couldn't grasp the idea of translating the metaphoric pictures. However, it did make the children think of different words to describe feelings and some interesting things came out of the testing. I asked three children each to use a different word to describe how the person in the picture was feeling, which meant that we got away from the usual 'sad' and 'happy'. While I wouldn't use this much in my own class, I think it could be a really effective resource with children from Year 2 plus.

Sarah Peregrine, reception teacher Foundation Steps price = /Clever Clogs Educational Games 34.95 per set, 90 for three ***** 01823 327836 www.cleverclogsgames.co.uk

Tested by Coston Primary School, Greenford, Middlesex

There are three packs of themed resources available: Three Little Pig Tales, Story Steps and Just Like Me. Contents of each pack differ but include masks, puppets, photocopiable resources, materials for games, suggestions for further activities and the sources of the poems, songs, rhymes and stories. A Foundation Stage objective sheet and a pupil record sheet are also supplied.

Tester's report

It is a well thought-out product. It comes with a number of resources which can be used in a variety of ways. The ideas booklet provides excellent suggestions, some of which are quite open ended and allow the children to decide how they want to use the resources. Too often, games/activities are very prescribed. You do need an adult present to encourage speaking and listening and to observe what is happening. I particularly liked the part of this product where children are encouraged to make up their own story using the lolly stick puppets or finger puppets. The Just Like Me puppets are jungle animals so we read some jungle stories first to stimulate ideas and then the children worked in small groups with an adult, thinking of their own story ideas. Some really struggled with this thinking, which emphasised to me how important it is to get children to think for themselves. It could be used through from nursery to Year 2 and would definitely be of great benefit to SEN and EAL children.

Carole Ives, reception teacher

OUT OF SCHOOL Volleybird price = /Volleybird 9.99 ** 020 7193 1245 www.volleybird.com

Tested by Whitecastle Out of School Club, Ashton under Lyne

In Brazil people have played with a hand shuttlecock for centuries and the game Peteca is now a national sport in that country. The shuttlecock, known as Volleybird, was recently introduced into the UK. The aim of the game is to keep the Volleybird in the air, using any part of the body.

Tester's report

The children had no problem understanding what they had to do, but they soon lost interest in this game. A bigger base would make it easier for the children to hit and we felt that the feathers were likely to become tatty over time.

Tina Whitecastle, manager BEST OF THE BUNCH

The products most highly recommended by our testers in this issue are: UNDER-THREES Farm Four in a Box from Orchard Toys Li'l Movers Motorised Train from Fisher Price

FOUNDATION Around my School from Active Designs Big Racing Car Floor Puzzle from Orchard Toys First Experiments Magnetism Set from Reflections on Learning FloatiT from Doodle World Movin' Monkeys from Learning Resources Foundation Steps from Clever Clogs Educational Games

NURSERY WORLD EQUIPMENT AWARDS

Products which testers decide should have five stars for excellence will be assessed for one of our prestigious 2006 Nursery World Equipment Awards.

MANY THANKS to companies which provided the products for assessment and to the testers for taking time to write reports. If you would like to join our panel of testers please write to the editor at the address on page three, giving the ages of the children with whom you work and full contact details of your establishment, including an e-mail address if possible. We are seeking people from early years settings and primary schools.

PLEASE NOTE that the prices quoted here and elsewhere in the magazine do not necessarily include VAT and postage charges. Please check before ordering.

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