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

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

UNDER-THREES

Starta Learning Table (34.99) from Leapfrog ****

Available from all major toy retailers. Customer line 0800 169 5435

Tested by Hopes and Dreams Montessori Nursery, Islington, London This is designed for children from the age of six months and works in two modes, Learning Activities and Musical Discovery. In the first, each instrument on the table teaches a different discipline. The drum is linked to learning shapes, the trombone to numbers, for instance, and the children can also listen to songs teaching shapes, number or colour. In the second mode, the instruments play multiple musical riffs and melodies which should encourage movement and dancing.

Tester's report

The staff were amazed at just how much the children wanted to play with this. We used it daily over the testing period, as they never seemed to tire of it. It features a variety of colours and sounds and encourages gross and fine motor skills in very young children, while the slightly older ones are introduced to number and letters. It's also great for encouraging social interaction. The children found it interesting whether using it as a table or a floor toy. Only one grumble - the purple lid kept coming off.

Arti Baradhi, room leader

Bubble Go (79.99) from Toys 'R' Us ****

Stockist information line 0800 0 38 88 89 www.toysrus.co.uk

Tested by the Daisychain Nursery, Fife

This multi-functional toy is designed for children from six months. It converts from a ride-on to a rocker to a pushalong and features an activity board.

Tester's report

We enjoyed using this both indoors and outdoors. The children loved riding on it and it became a firm favourite. It is made of strong, moulded plastic and there are no small detachable pieces that might get lost or come off easily. Sturdy straps keep the child firmly in place and the detachable pushalong handle means that an adult can help, making it suitable for children with physical co-ordination difficulties. Only the rather basic activity board at the front lets it down - we felt it could be more challenging than it is. It is most suitable for children up to one year.

It's too small for older children to use.

Lynn Littwin, officer in charge

Full of Fun Stroller Trike (69.99) from Toys 'R' Us *****

Contact as before

Tested by the Daisychain Nursery, Fife

Designed as a first trike, this is said to be suitable for children from 12 months. It has an adjustable steel frame and sturdy-looking wheels and comes complete with a safety belt and an adjustable adult handle. It features a plastic tray and a large rucksack on the back to give plenty of storage.

Tester's report

We thought this was an excellent resource to have in the nursery, as it can be used as a play trike or as an alternative to a push chair. Children can master pedalling, steering and so on with a helping push from an adult before the handle attachment is removed, allowing them to cycle independently. It can be built up or dismantled according to the age of the child - we found it useful for every age group in our nursery - but it is surprisingly strong and sturdy. It has a chunky steel frame and the wheels are made of rubber. This is good, because we have had so many trikes in the past where the plastic wheels become warped and cracked. The children enjoyed filling the plastic tray at the back of this trike with toys and transporting them round the garden, which also made it a very useful attachment on trips to the park.

Lynn Littwin, officer in charge

Rainbow People Panels from Galt (99.95 for pack of three) *****

Galt Educational & Pre-School, Johnsonbrook Road, Hyde, Cheshire SK1 4QT

(08451 203005 www.galt-educational.co.uk)

Tested by Kids Korner Day Nursery, Halesowen, West Midlands

The wooden panels (above) come in red, yellow, green, purple, orange or blue, and are decorated with boy and girl images. Each panel, which measures 95(w)x25(d)x60cm, has two wooden feet and can be used singly to create a short partition or pushed together to form a room divider.

Tester's report

These are great! They are colourful, cheerful, easy to manoeuvre and ideal for separating certain areas. In addition they are beautifully made and smooth to the touch and seem really strong. They also brighten up the nursery and can be used as a hat stand. We've been keeping all our hats on top. A very useful product and definitely something we would like to have permanently in our nursery.

Karen Taylor, officer in charge

Rainbow Minihouses (37.95 per set) from Asco ****

Asco Educational Supplies Ltd, 19 Lockwood Way, Leeds LS11 5TH (0113 2707070)

Tested by Sure Start Neighbourhood Nursery, Tredworth, Gloucs

These five stained and varnished stacking houses are designed to help children learn size and colour discrimination. They are made of beech and the largest house measures 13.5x16.5x10.2cm, the smallest 6x8x7cm.

Tester's report

A wonderful product. The houses are adaptable and come in lovely vibrant colours. We've used them in free play and for mathematical knowledge and understanding, and they are also good for language. While the usual age range would be two-years-plus, they could also be used for older children with visual impairment and to develop fine motor skills. They seem very sturdy but are perhaps a bit expensive for some settings.

Justine Everrett, learning support worker

Wooden Animal Set (28.95) from Asco ****

Contact as before

Tested by Sure Start Neighbourhood Nursery, Tredworth, Gloucs The set consists of 72 wooden animals, figures and trees. The trees are approximately 11cm high.

Tester's report

These are really good for sorting and matching and for small world play, although I think they are a bit expensive. I would have preferred to have more of the same shapes, for instance, horses, instead of having lots of different things.

Kate MacDonald, daycare manager

FOUNDATION STAGE

Eco Fishing Game (57.50) from Asco ****

Contact as before

Tested by the Marigold Day Nursery, Merseyside

This fishing game may seem familiar but the difference is that the children have to remove all the pollution from the pond and return it to the dump before they can catch any fish. It comprises a pond measuring 40x40cm, eight fish, two rods and a rubbish dump inset tray.

Tester's report This game has plenty of learning potential and covers a number of learning areas: developing an understanding of how to keep our environment clear of rubbish, using new language and playing by the rules and group participation. It is expensive, so might be considered a luxury item in some nurseries. However, it's made of wood and very sturdy and would be useful if you were doing a particular topic on caring for the environment.

There are no sharp edges and the magnets are firmly fixed to the rods. It would be good if there were four rather than two rods, as we found four children could play the game but had to swap rods.

Vicki Maher, deputy manager

Alphabet Centre Pocket Chart from Learning Resources (22.95)JJJJJ Learning Resources, 5 Merchants Close, Oldmedow Road, King's Lynn, Norfolk PE30 4JX (01553 762276)

Tested by St John Fisher Primary School, Erith, Kent

The chart measures 28x34in and has three rows of clear pockets for card display, 26 letter pockets and an extra storage pocket. It comes complete with 156 picture cards (picture on one side, word on the reverse), 52 upper case and lower case letter cards, four blank cards and an activity guide.

It's designed for letter practice, sound identification, word building and spelling. The chart is made of wipe-clean nylon.

Tester's report

This is fantastic for Reception. It has proved one of the most popular activities and the children often chose it for themselves. I think this was partly because of its colourful presentation. Although the more able children found it easy to work with, they still found it stimulating, while the less able children were challenged but didn't give up as they sometimes do if they find something difficult. We kept it propped on an easel rather than hanging it on the wall so that we could move it easily around and take it outdoors, too.

Mary Ryan, reception teacher

Counting Cookies (12.95) from Learning Resources *****

Contact as before

Tested by RAF Boulmer Nursery School, Alnwick, Northumberland

This set of ten cookies is designed to support early maths learning. Each cookie has a number from one to ten on the bottom and the corresponding number of counting chips on the top. They measure 2in and are made of soft plastic. They are stored in their own cookie jar.

Tester's report

They are a simple idea and yet have so many uses and proved very popular in our nursery, partly because they represent such a familiar item.They are excellent for ordering numbers, finding the missing cookie, counting and matching numerals and good for sharing, too. To develop further learning the children made their own matching cookies. I did think that the 'Smarties' would fall off after a while but they have remained in perfect condition over the testing period. They also survived 50 three- and four-year- olds 'munching' on them. In addition we used them with a Year 1 child with SEN who is just learning to count, and they added interest to an activity she normally finds tedious. We will definitely be buying more of these.

Audrey Jamieson, head teacher

Story Starter Picture Cubes (9.95) from Learning Resources ****

Contact as before

Tested by St Michael's Nursery, Barnstaple, Devon

These are designed to support children at the pre-writing stage. There are six picture cubes: two blue character cubes, two orange setting cubes and two green situation cubes. Cubes are combined, after the children have rolled dice, to give the elements they need to start a story. The cubes are made of foam and measure 15/8in square.

Tester's report

We used the story cubes at circle times to involve the children in creating their own story. This was popular with our four-year-olds. They encouraged them to use their imagination and work on skills to link sentences and story building. They would also be suitable for children with EAL to help with vocabulary and sentence structure. Some of the pictures on the cubes were confusing (such as firefighter) so help was needed to interpret them.

Pamela Willerton, kindergarten teacher

Clipitz (9.95) from Learning Resources ***

Contact as before

Tested by St Michael's Nursery, Barnstaple, Devon

These are plastic, multi-purpose, hand-shaped hinged clips. A set comprises 100 clips in four colours plus a storage bucket.

Tester's report

We are looking forward to discovering the full potential of these clips over a longer period of time. They provide a really attractive way to peg paintings on a 'washing line' type display. The children loved them and enjoyed naming the different colours.The clips are quite small, so are not suitable to be used with children under three.

Sarah Sexon, nursery manager

Flexitable (2.20 for a single table) from Flexitable ***

Telephone 01604 648111 www.flexitable.org.uk

Tested by Oakington C of E Primary School, Cambridge

This product is designed to teach basic maths skills to the four-to-nine age group or those with special needs, such as dyslexia. Our tester was supplied with two grids covering the four maths disciplines. There are accompanying teachers' notes.

Tester's report

These are not really appropriate for children under seven, except for looking for and identifying patterns. Children need to grasp the concept in maths before they require the symbols! They are good for work with older children, say the nine-to-11 age group and perhaps even early secondary, and especially for those with dyslexia and other special needs.

Anne Williams, reception teacher

Simon Brownhills Chest of Letter Bags (85) from TTS ****

TTS Group Ltd, Nunn Brook Road, Huthwaite, Sutton-in-Ashfield, Notts NG17 2HU (01623 447800 www.tts-group.co.uk)

Tested by Coston Primary School, Greenford, Middx

This is designed to give children a clearer understanding of letters and contains over 100 tactile letter shapes and images. In each kit there are letter socks, dabbers, sandpaper letters and initial sounds fabric objects.

Tester's report

All the items are well thought-out and are good for independent use by nursery and reception classes. My favourites were the initial letter sound objects, which are made of padded fabric and are very bright and appealing.

They can also be used on a felt board. The children enjoyed using them for sorting games and for matching with letters. The letter socks are a useful addition to the early years classroom and have unlimited potential. They are great for learning initial sounds - for example, the 'a' puppet only likes things beginning with 'a'. They are all the same apart from the letter, so I was tempted to add a few extra features such as hair to extend interest. The sandpaper letters are good for children who need tactile activities to help learn letter formation. The letter dabbers are useful, but I found that with reception children I had to use a marker to identify each one, as the children couldn't see when the dabber was face down in the paint.

Carole Ives, reception teacher

PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) Object Bag (69.99) from TTS ****

Contact as before

Tested by Coston Primary School, Greenford, Middx

This has been developed as an aide to teaching initial letter sounds and blends for the listed words in the PIPS document.

Tester's report

I really like this. It seems the perfect solution to the constant problem of finding objects for PIPS games. However, it took me ages to sort out my huge bag of objects. I spent hours looking through my PIPS book and trying to sort the objects into zip-up wallets. It's good that the majority of objects are easily recognised and the children were able to sort them and play sorting games. I find them less distracting than real objects. If the manufacturer could provide more information about sorting the objects and providing some duplicates, this would be an excellent product.

Carole Ives, reception teacher

Pat Francis's Glove Gang (16.99) from TTS *

Contact as before

Tested by Coston Primary School, Greenford, Middx This is designed to teach long and short vowel sounds with characters such as Jack Black and Drew Blue. Each vowel is made into a character and has a name and colour that reflects the relevant phoneme. A long and short glove are supplied for long or short vowels.

Tester's report

I think the idea is basically good but the gloves would be better without the added features on the letters and with letter shapes that were easier to see. For example, a black 'a' and a blue 'u' on the black glove cannot be clearly seen. By the time children reach the stage of learning vowel sounds they do not always need novelty gimmicks if it detracts from their learning. The Glove Gang could perhaps be used with one or two children at a time more successfully. It isn't something children can use without an adult, especially as the small pieces of felt that make up the features on the letters come off very easily.

Carole Ives, reception teacher

Kid K'Nex Bug Eyed Buddies (9.99) from Hasbro ****

From leading toy retailers. Customer line 00800 22427276

Tested by Uxbridge Centre Playgroup, Uxbridge, Middx

This is a new construction toy for the three- to five-year-old age group.

The large pieces come with eyes, ears, feet and wheels so children can create their own toys. It comes with its own storage case which can be used for building on.

Tester's report

We thought this was good for children over the age of three- and-a-half.

Our children needed help to put the pieces together at first, but were able to manage on their own after being shown. Our parent helpers were particularly impressed with it. It's definitely something we could continue to make good use of.

Pat Annis, playgroup leader

Pancake Maths (45) from Asco ****

Contact as before

Tested by Vicars Green Primary School, Alperton, Middx

These are designed to aid number recognition, counting and matching. The set comprises a soft filled vinyl griddle, ten pancakes showing numerals one to ten, ten pancakes showing a set of one to ten berries, and four spatulas. Everything is contained in a zipped carry bag.

Tester's report

The children loved tossing the pancakes and pretending to cook. With adult help they quickly grasped the game and moved on to independent use. They are excellent for the four- year-olds to play pairs with, but they can be differentiated for lower developmental sequencing, counting and matching, which means they can also be used by three-year-olds. You need to keep an eye on the pancakes, which often end up in the home corner - I would have appreciated a few spares. The pancakes are a good size so the children are not tempted to try to eat them.

Leo Alger, early years manager

Jungle Animal Tabards (34.95) from Step by Step ****

Step by Step, Lee Fold, Hyde, Cheshire SK14 4LL (08451 252550

www.sbs-educational.co.uk

Tested by Chuckle Bunnies Day Nursery, Burton upon Trent, Staffs These are part of a range of animal tabards. Each set includes four tabards with matching animal heads and corresponding tail - there was a giraffe, a monkey, an elephant and a lion in the set tested.

Tester's report

Animals are always a favourite. The tabards can be used for a variety of purposes - to get the most use out of them they can be used to accompany songs and stories as well as in general play. They are made of strong material and are machine-washable. The children did need to be supervised, as the elasticated tails can be difficult to put on.

Emma Cotton, manager

Changing Weather Jigsaws (24.95 for set of six) from NES Arnold ****

NES Arnold, Findel House, Excelsior Road, Ashby Park, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leics LE65 1NG (0845 120 4525)

Tested by Woodford Rascals Nursery, Plymouth

Each illustrated jigsaw focuses on a different type of weather and they feature two families who are shown in several everyday situations.

Tester's report

These proved very enjoyable and good for language development, as there is plenty to talk about in the pictures. I used them with a child with sight impairment and she made lots of observations. They are suitable for a variety of age groups - two-year-olds can complete them with assistance, and three- and four-year-olds need only limited help. It would be better if the pictures were laminated for strength.

Kathy Cooper, deputy manager

Splat That (14.95) from Hope ****

Hope Education, Hyde Buildings, Ashton Road, Hyde, Cheshire SK14 4SH (08451 202055 www.hope-education.co.uk)

Tested by Chadwell Primary School, Romford, Essex

This is a word recognition lotto game which can be played on two different levels - matching word to word and word to picture. The first player who can cover all their words with the counters provided in the game shouts 'splat that'.

Tester's report

We would definitely buy this. It's a brilliant game and there are lots of way to play so that it can be adapted to all abilities. It's excellent for literacy and colour and picture recognition and can be used as a matching game for the less able. Altogether it's a very useful resource. I would prefer it if it were supplied in a box rather than a plastic bag, and the boards are a bit too flexible. Tougher cardboard would be better.

Janet Lambert, reception nursery nurse

OUT OF SCHOOL

Super Bouncer Trampoline (699) and Bounce Arena (279) from Super Tramp *****

Active Toys, 5 Priors, London Road, Bishops Stortford, Herts CM23 5ED

(Stockists information 0800 1971897 www.activetoys.co.uk)

Tested by Welwyn Hatfield YMCA After School Clubs and Playschemes, Herts The Super Bouncer is 4.3m in diameter and 0.92m high. The Bounce Arena consists of eight padded supports and a 6ft high netting which totally encloses the bouncing area, making it impossible for bouncing children to fall off. Entry and exit to the arena are provided through an overlapping section of the netting.

Tester's report

We had loads of fun with this. The trampoline is big enough for an adult to be on it with a child. Having the arena, which we found a bit difficult to put together, means that the younger children (those from five years plus) can use it. Without the arena the trampoline is suitable for children from age eight.

Danielle Macer, playwork manager

Super Tower (approx 99) from Super Tramp ***

Contact as before

Tested by Welwyn Hatfield YMCA After School Clubs and Playschemes, Herts The Super Tower is one of a range of giant garden games. To play, participants first build the tower together, using the limewood pieces, and then each player takes turns to remove a piece and place it on top of the tower. The player who topples the tower loses a 'life'. Each Super Tower comes complete with a rope-handled oak and limewood box for storage, which can also be used as a step to enable smaller children to reach the top of the tower.

Tester's report

This provides plenty of fun. It's suitable for children from age five, but you do have to be careful that when the tower falls, it doesn't fall on them. It would be better if the box had wheels as it is very heavy to carry - the children certainly couldn't manage it.

Danielle Macer, playwork manager

***** BEST OF THE BUNCH

The products most highly recommended by our testers in this issue are:

* Full of Fun Stroller Trike from Toys 'R' Us

* Rainbow People Panels from Galt

* Rainbow Minihouses from Asco

* Alphabet Centre Pocket Chart from Learning Resources

* Counting Cookies from Learning Resources

* Trampoline and Bounce Arena from Super Tramp

MANY THANKS to the companies which provided the products for assessment and to the testers for taking time to write thoughtful reports.

PLEASE NOTE not all the prices quoted here and throughout the magazine include VAT, so do check prices again before ordering.

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