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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 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 given each item a star rating

UNDER-THREES

Big Bobby Car (32) from e-niko *****

Telephone 01768 2101221 www.e-niko.co.uk

Tested by Impington Village College Workplace Nursery, Cambridge

This is a plastic ride-on designed for children from one year. A number of accessories are available to extend the play.

Tester's report

One of the best things about this is that all the parts are replaceable so it would last a long time, making it good value for money. It's a good quality toy and perfectly safe for very young children. There is lots of learning potential as they practise steering, going fast or slow and round corners. I think it is most suitable for children from around 18 months. We contacted this company as we had some queries and found its service was excellent.

Caroline Jones, manager

Pintoy Happy Xylophone (10.99) from John Crane ****

Customer Line 01604 774949

Tested by The Bungalow Day Nursery, Manchester

This brightly- coloured wooden xylophone has smiling clown faces at each end and measures 190 x 320 x 110mm. Recommended age from one year.

Tester's report

This is a lovely, colourful toy which is well made and able to stand up to lots of daily use. The children obviously found it attractive and liked the cheerful clown faces. It's good for teaching colours - hit the red key, for example - and it was also interesting to hear how different this sounded to metal xylophones. I think it is most suitable for children around two years old.

Sandra Haynes, proprietor

Little Touch LeapPad Learning System (34.99) from LeapFrog ****

Telephone 0800 169 5435 www.leapfrog.com

Tested by Daisychain Nursery, Kirkcaldy, Fife

This features interactive stories, musical rhymes, sounds, word play and orchestral music which are activated by touching each page. It introduces the alphabet, letter sounds, numbers, colours and shapes. Recommended age six months to three years.

Tester's report

I liked this because it grows with the child. There are three levels to choose from so you can choose a book setting which is most age appropriate.

The pages come magically to life by simply touching a picture. However, although it's suitable for children from six months we found our toddlers enjoyed it most. It encourages the beginning of story comprehension and early language development but requires one-to-one attention. It was refreshing to hear a British accent, rather than American, and the sound is of high quality.

Lynn Littwin, officer in charge Bob the Builder Talking Floor Puzzle (Pounds 9.99) from Falcon Games *

Telephone 01707 260436 www.falcongames.co.uk

Tested by Cornerstone Childcare Centre, Tamworth, Staffs

This is an interactive puzzle. As the child fits each jigsaw piece to the central control piece they get a sound reward like 'Muck to the rescue' if they are correct and a comment like 'That's not Muck, that's Roley' if they get it wrong.

Tester's report

This is inappropriate for a nursery of our size as the sound is not loud enough to hear and the talking bit did not work for long, so it was difficult to gauge its full play potential. The self- correcting function is a good idea and our two-year-olds enjoyed the puzzle simply because it's Bob the Builder. The pieces are strong, bend-proof and chew-proof.

Sarah Avery, manager

Tolo Musical Shape Sorter (14.99) from John Crane *****

Contact as before

Tested by Whitecastle Nursery, Ashton under Lyne

Recommended for children from 12 months this plays four different melodies and features shapes which are also individual rattles, a mirror, clicking dial and counting beads. It has a large handle and can be attached to a cot or playpen.

Tester's report

We used this compact activity centre daily over the testing period and it scores highly on play value. The size is just right for small fingers, the shapes fit easily into the slots and are easily removed. In fact, the children found everything fun and easy to manipulate. It's also colourful and chunky, altogether a well thought-out toy. It's suitable for children from 18 months.

Christine Whitelegg, manager

Pintoy Sit On Fire Engine (53.99) from John Crane ****

Contact as before

Tested by The Bungalow Day Nursery, Manchester

A wooden ride-on for toddlers which has a storage compartment under the seat. It measures 240(w) x 490(l) x 330(h)mm and is recommended for children from 18 months.

Tester's report

We thought this was good value for money, given that it is so well made and obviously very durable. A wooden ride-on like this will probably last a lot longer than some plastic versions we have had. It helps the children to develop balance and to learn how to push themselves along. Our one concern is the seat, which is not fixed. Our toddlers spent time lifting it on and off and if it is not replaced correctly a child could fall off.

Sandra Haynes, proprietor

Tolo First Friends Scooter (14.99) from John Crane *****

Contact as before

Tested by Whitecastle Nursery, Ashton under Lyne

The scooter is a new addition to the First Friends range and is recommended for children from 12 months. It comes complete with a girl and her puppy, both of which have clicking, movable parts.

Tester's report

It's just the right size for small children to carry around and the moving limbs and the noises they make fascinated them. An excellent product for small world play and it would also be suitable for children with special needs as it is chunky and easy to hold. I scored it highly on play value and a practical point is that it is easy to clean.

Christine Whitelegg, manager

Giant hand puppets (23 each) from e-niko *****

Contact as before

Tested by Smarty Pants Day Nursery, Plaistow, London

There are three of these hand puppets: Paco the Crow, Toufou the Wolf and Oscar the Fox, all made of velvety fabric and measuring 50cm high.

Recommended from birth upwards.

Tester's report

These proved a good addition to our range of puppets and can be safely used across the age range from birth to five years. The children became excited when we introduced them and enjoyed making up their own stories. They are well made, washable and there are no small parts that a child might swallow. The learning potential is good as they encourage language and imagination.

Jennifer Lewis, proprietor

Discovery Cube (39.95) from Hope ****

Telephone 08451 202055

Tested by Sure Start Day Nursery, Gloucester

The cube consists of five fabric squares which are fastened together with Velcro to form a floor base playmat or activity mat. It features detachable animal discs with sounds, squeaks, rattles, crinkles, a removable mirror, fabric shapes with matching pockets, and removable teddy clothes.

Recommended age from birth to two years.

Tester's report

The cube is good for exploratory play alongside other things such as treasure baskets and textured books. We actually took the panels apart and Velcroed them to the walls of one corner of the room as we felt that as a cube it was not sturdy enough to withstand the children and collapsed when they climbed in and out or jumped on it. It's good for encouraging language and the development of fine motor skills. Although I concur with the recommended age range our older children did show some interest in it.

Kate McDonald, manager

Frog-in-a-Box (14.95) from NES Arnold *****

Telephone 0845 1204525

Tested by Sure Start Day Nursery, Gloucester

A frog bean bag character hides inside a lily pad and will jump out as soon as the 'lid' is lifted off. The lily pad has crinkle texture petals and the frog squeaks and rattles. Recommended for babies and toddlers.

Tester's report

This is fantastic! It's funny, exciting and surprising, so buy one as the children really enjoyed it. It's very good for learning about cause and effect and trial and error. Perfectly safe as long as only the frog goes in - no cars. The frog is very soft and one of our babies often fell asleep stroking it.

Kate McDonald, manager

Sweet Sounds Home (approx 25) from Fisher Price ****

Telephone 01628 500303

Tested by University of Teesside Day Nursery, Middlesbrough

This accommodates characters from the World of Little People range and comes complete with a mother, father and baby. The house can be opened up to reveal lots of different rooms with furniture and accessories and there are also sound effects. Recommended age from one year.

Tester's report

Although the recommended age is from one year I think our very young children did not benefit fully in terms of role or imaginative play although they did enjoy the sound effects. Older children, three- to five-year-olds, would need the rest of the series to get the best out of this toy. We did have lots of enjoyment from it. The children liked putting the people to bed and spinning the mobile and it held their attention for long periods of time. They became frustrated when they tried to open the windows and couldn't. A robust product which should stand up well to constant use.

Janet Graham, manager

Baby Studio (19.99) from Toys 'R' Us **

Telephone 0845 786 9778

Tested by Welwyn Hatfield YMCA Day Nursery, Herts

An activity table with detachable legs which has a musical theme, featuring lights and sounds. It is also a shape sorter and there is a pretend microphone and a squeaker. It requires two AA4 batteries.

Tester's report

This is brightly coloured, very eye catching and has lots to explore and discover but I think it would work best in a home environment or in a one-to-one activity session. Our children played for a short time but soon got bored and tried to find other uses for it. It's quite strong - although the legs fell off occasionally - and all the pieces are a good size and safe.

Kelly Hossell, nursery nurse

The Track Town Railway (approx 40) from Geotrax ****

Telephone 01628 500303

Tested by University of Teesside Day Nursery, Middlesbrough

This has four interactive activities - a command centre, pipe works, coal loader and a loader gantry. It also features electronic sound effects. The track comes in 20 pieces which can be reconfigured in a variety of ways and the children can either use the remote control to operate the train or push it around the track by hand. Recommended age from two years.

Tester's report

It took us an hour to unpack, but was then easy to set up. The children were very eager to use the remote control so one set would not be sufficient in a nursery setting. It encouraged them to work together, to take turns, and to respond to simple instructions. It's also good for imaginative play, positional language and basic IT skills and we noted that it was used equally by girls and boys. It's a bit overpriced. I think around 30 would make it good value for money.

Janet Graham, manager

FOUNDATION

Colour Doodle (15.99) from Flair *****

Telephone 020 8643 0320 www.flairplc.co.uk

Tested by Bexley Childminders Association, Kent

This is a colour magnetic drawing board which comes complete with a fine-line drawing pen which is connected by chord to the main unit and three stamps in the shape of a circle, square and triangle. A sliding eraser clears the picture. Recommended age from three years.

Tester's report

The children queued to have a turn with this. It captured their imagination and encouraged creativity and we found it useful for circle time when they took it in turns to tell a story and draw a picture. It's completely safe and well designed and proved a big success with our group.

Lynn Manning, co-ordinator

Character Floor Puzzles (6 each) from Falcon Games ****

Contact as before

Tested by The Column Nursery, Shrewsbury

The puzzles have 15 pieces each and are available in the following characters: Tractor Tom, Bob the Builder, Engie Benjy, Rubbadubbers, Noddy, Maisy, Disney Princess, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Piglet.

Tester's report

A very bright, colourful set of puzzles which the children found a real treat to play with. They encourage independent play, although they are suitable for both solo and group activities for children around three years old. The pictures on the boxes are good to copy from.

Kay Rogers, officer in charge Gazillion Bubbles Machine (9.99) from Flair ****

Contact as before

Tested by Bexley Childminders Association, Kent

The battery-operated machine comes complete with a 115ml of Gazillion Bubbles solution. Pour the solution into the machine, switch on and produce lots of colourful bubbles. Recommended age from three years.

Tester's report

We had a bubble disco and the children loved dancing and trying to catch the bubbles. It is probably best used out of doors. I used it inside, but my wooden floor quickly became very slippery and some children fell over.This activity needs close supervision and a big towel!

Lynn Manning, co-ordinator

Star rating

***** Excellent

**** Very good

*** Good

** Satisfactory

* Less than satisfactory

Enjie Benjy Play Set (16.99) from RC2 ***

Stockists information 01271 336172

Tested by Marigold Day Nursery, Wirral

The cast of the television programme is featured in this play set, which includes Engie Benjy, his intelligent van, Dan, dog Jollop, Fisherman Fin and his boat, Pilot Pete and his aeroplane and Astronaut Al and his spaceship. Recommended age from three years.

Tester's report

We didn't think this was suitable for our pre-school room because, although the children enjoyed the toys, the play value is limited. The doors on the vehicles don't open and the people do not fit into them. The pieces are quite heavy and younger children needed supervision. The children could act out one of their favourite television programmes using this set, but it is probably better for home use.

Vicki Maher, manager Nursery Rhyme Soundtracks (6.99) from Living and Learning **

Telephone 01223 864894

Tested by Stakes Hill Infant School, Waterlooville, Hants

This is one of a range of listening games and each pack contains game boards, a CD and counters. With this pack the children have to sing along to the nursery rhymes while they try to find the characters on the game board. The recommended age is from two to five years.

Tester's report

This will develop listening skills and awareness of nursery rhymes. After using once with an adult our children were able to use it independently - although they do have to be confident handling a CD player. However, I don't think it works very well in a setting like ours. More game boards are needed for a group activity and there should be longer pauses between the rhymes to allow the children to talk and find the matching character. It all seems pretty durable as the boards are plastic coated and wear well. It could be good for some special needs - it does hold a child's attention and the matching pieces are large and easy to manipulate.

Louise O'Shea, early years teacher

Alphabet Soundtracks (6.99) from Living and Learning ***

Contact as before

Tested by Stakes Hill Infant School, Waterlooville, Hants

This is designed to help children learn letters and their sounds. The task is to listen to the tongue twister and match each one to the appropriate picture or letter. Recommended age four to six years.

Tester's report

The children learned quickly how to use this independently. It helps develop listening skills and letter shape and sound recognition and also teaches alliteration. The children enjoyed the game and the amusing tongue twisters made them laugh. There was lots of conversation about the pictures, too. I was concerned about the counters being so small as this could be a safety issue.

Carolyn Wilson, early years teacher

Hand Painting Mittens (19.99) from TTS Early Steps *****

Freephone 0800 318686

Tested by Castle Montessori Nursery, Berkhamsted, Herts

A set of six assorted mittens with which the children can create swirls, ripples, crinkles and dots by dipping into paint and pressing. They have finger loops on the back, making them usable for the smallest of hands, and they are also machine washable.

Tester's report

This is an innovative product which has been enjoyed by all the children in our nursery. Some of our younger ones do not like having paint on their hands, and by using the mittens they really enjoyed the activity and participated happily. Even those children who have limited fine motor control found them easy to use. The staff had lots of fun, too. An added bonus is that they wash very well. This is a great way to raise interest in a planned activity.

Jan Weall, manager

Active Worlds Farmyard Play Mat (19.99) from TTS Early Steps *****

Contact as before

Tested by Castle Montessori Nursery, Berkhamsted, Herts

This is a PVC waterproof play mat measuring approximately 860mm.

Tester's report

The mat was invaluable, not only in our small world area with our farm animals, but also as a wall frieze to initiate discussion at circle time about our topic on animals. It gave our farm set a new lease of life and sparked lots of imaginative ideas; in fact, it worked well for all areas of the curriculum. We have a child with a physical disability and because the mat can be used on the floor or on a table it was very accessible to him. A further advantage is that it seems hard wearing and is easy to store.

Jan Weall, manager

Holding Streamers (11.95) from TTS Early Steps ****

Contact as before

Tested by Castle Montessori Nursery, Berkhamsted, Herts

This consists of six Streamers. Each Streamer has six different coloured nylon ribbons attached by stitched webbing to a handle. They are designed to be used for dancing and swirling out of doors, especially on windy days.

Tester's report

They are very good for physical activities and for encouraging interaction between the children. They proved to be an interesting, enjoyable product.

They are best used for a set activity rather than for general play. Some children did try wrapping them around their necks and they also got frequently trodden on so I'm not sure that they would have a long life expectancy.

Jan Weall, manager

Junior Scrabble Giant Floor Puzzle (9.99) from Falcon Games ****

Contact as before

Tested by Cornerstone Childcare Centre, Tamworth, Staffs

This puzzle has 49 pieces depicting a Scrabble board, plus a jigsaw piece for each letter of the alphabet. The children must build the puzzle and then work out where each letter fits. There are clues on the board to help them work it out. Recommended age from four years.

Tester's report

We used this several times a week over the testing period. The children enjoyed completing the puzzle and then there is the added value of matching letters or pictures. It aids letter recognition and encourages concentration.

Sarah Avery, manager

Playmais School Box (55) from e-niko ***

Contact as before

Tested by Sandiacre Childminding Group, Nottingham

This is a complete arts and crafts set containing hundreds of Playmais pieces, including ten wetting cloths, ten child-friendly art knives, ten craft containers, 20 joining sticks, 30 craft cards and instructions and food colourants. Recommended age from three years.

Tester's report

This teaches children about colour, texture and construction, helps them develop co-ordination skills and encourages imaginative play. However, small hands do not find it that easy to cut and mould and they did get dye all over their hands - and other things. Be prepared for lots of cleaning up afterwards. I also think it is quite an expensive resource, given that some of the items are not reusable. Most suitable for four-year-olds onwards.

Brenda Aston, co-ordinator

Botany Shaker Set (75) from e-niko *****

Contact as before

Tested by Woodford Rascals Day Nursery, Plympton, Plymouth

The set consists of a selection of musical shakers in the shapes of fruit and vegetables all packaged in a basket. There are 18 shakers in all and each one produces its individual sound. They can be used in the home corner. Designed for a wide age range.

Tester's report

The life-sized, realistic set of fruit and vegetables was instantly popular with all the children in the nursery. They liked the attractive basket it came in and were easily able to identify the fruit and vegetables. The shakers encouraged group interaction, participation and concentration. They are easy to handle and, therefore suitable for very young children. The under-twos could use them with supervision. Members of staff suggested that they might be made to include a variety of sounds/pitches or that the fruit or veg might be 'cut in half' to see what they look like inside.

Kathy Cooper, deputy manager

Dotty Ladybird (39.95) from NES Arnold ***

Contact as before

Tested by Oakington Primary School, Cambridge

This is a large circular smiling ladybird made of Velcro receptive fabric measuring 65 x 65cm. The smile can be rotated to become a sad mouth when a task has been unsuccessful and a happy mouth for success. It features Velcro dots for counting or Velcro numbers for more advanced skills.

Addition and subtraction are designed to help simple processing at any level.

Tester's report

I think the Dotty Ladybird is most suitable for children from five years as it worked best with our older children. It's not something that can be used to great effect independently. It really needs constant adult supervision and without that the children found it a bit boring. I think the Ladybird has good learning potential when used with an adult.

Mary Carnell, reception teacher

Modular Panels Puppet Theatre (58) and Display Panel (45) from Asco *****

Telephone 0113 270 7070, www.ascoeducational.co.uk

Tested by Linden Nursery, Thetford, Norfolk

The panels are made of vinyl sheets attached to a plastic frame. They are available in rectangular 120 x 78cm or square 78 x 78cm. The puppet theatre can be used alone or as part of a set of panels and the rectangular display panel has three clear plastic display pockets.

Tester's report

These panels offer lots of play value in the areas of creativity and communication, language and literacy. We used the display panel to house the puppets although, of course, it is suitable for books or pictures. The children loved the puppet theatre and were happy to be the audience waiting for their turn with the puppets. There is lots and lots of learning potential both through adult input and subliminally by free play. A lot of negotiation took place with the older children while they worked out what they would say. These panels will tip if pushed, but because they are so lightweight there is no safety issue. The puppet theatre would be good for children with special needs to help develop confidence, language and motor skills and their imagination.

Ann Aunins, proprietor

Pottery Wheel (14.99) from Toys 'R' Us ****

Telephone as before

Tested by Welwyn Hatfield YMCA Day Nursery, Herts

This is designed to enable children to make their own vases and then decorate them. Recommended age from three years.

Tester's report

We used this daily over the testing period and the children had a lot of fun trying to make pots. They found it very amusing when the clay went everywhere. It's good for a one-to-one activity, but in larger groups the children have to wait ages for their turn. It does require good co-ordination so I think the recommended age range isn't very realistic. I would say it's far more suitable for seven-year-olds.

Danielle Macer, playwork manager

I Can Write a Story Pre- Literacy Picture Cards (37.50) and Magnetic Whiteboards (24 set of four) from Asco ***

Contact as before

Tested by Great Milton Primary School, Oxford

This is a set of 135 plastic cards showing pictures of different places, people and actions. Magnetic disks are supplied allowing them to be used on magnetic boards. They are designed to help children to tell a story, firstly from the pictures and then by using words and phrases. The whiteboards are magnetic and suitable for dry wipe markers. They each measure 54 x 19cm and can hold five of the picture cards.

Tester's report

The children found the pictures quite odd and I think I agree. This is not one of my favourite products but I did like the whiteboards. Those who need support when writing, for whom this should be really useful, would need adult support to play with it. The whiteboards are a very good size and I would definitely buy some of these.

Sarah Peregrine, reception teacher

Sandscapes Play and Learn Scenery (19.99 per set) from Smartscapes ****

Telephone 01793 432202 www.smart-scapes.co.uk

Tested by St Michael's Nursery, Barnstaple, Devon

These are designed to be used in the sand tray with small world props. They are made of plastic and each comes with a set of activities cards. There are three Sandscapes in each set. Our tester assessed Set 3 which covers Farmyard, Zoo and Seaside.

Tester's report

These arrived at an opportune time as we were working on a farming topic.

The cards are thick and seem longlasting and easy to clean. They come with activities suitable for different aged children. The colourful pictures promote language development. But they are a bit expensive.

Sarah Sexon, manager

Panoramix House (45) from Asco *****

Contact as before

Tested by Great Milton Primary School, Oxford

Panoramix is designed to encourage spatial awareness and positional language. It enables children to reproduce three-dimensional scenes from two-dimensional pictures on assignment cards. The house consists of a box with lid, two wooden stands, 12 figures, 20 plastic assignment cards, a white background plate, a cotton bag and instructions.

Tester's report

This is a great resource, especially for co-operative play. The wooden pieces and boards are good, sturdy pieces all large enough not to be a safety hazard with this age group. The cards are well differentiated, too.

One game staff and children particularly enjoyed was a paired activity. One child has to describe where to put the pieces to match the card, without showing it to the other child. Then the card is turned round and they discuss any pieces that are wrong. The children loved Panoramix; it held their attention all the time and I can imagine it would last for years in the classroom.

Sarah Peregrine, reception teacher

Explore (85) from Asco ***

Contact as before

Tested by Phoenix Nursery, Wolverhampton

This consists of a beechwood balance and a set of balls made of different materials, including polystyrene, foam, wax, stone, rubber, cork, paper, beech wood, limewood, felt, china plus a woollen pompom. It's designed to help children discover what weighs most and what effect is made by moving an item to a different place on the balance. It is all supplied in a wooden storage box. Recommended age from four years.

Tester's report

This is best used for free exploration in a nursery setting alongside other scales, weighing large and small materials. I think the balance set would probably work better in Reception and Year 1 classes. It's good fun and the children enjoyed using the set to make up their own games. They also greatly enjoyed feeling and holding the balls and rocking the balance.

Michala Hoyland, nursery teacher

Pocket ColorCards (5.95 a set) from Speechmark ****

Telephone 01869 244644 www.speechmark.net

Tested by Phoenix Nursery, Wolverhampton

These are sets of language flashcards, comparable in size and quality to a good pack of playing cards. Each set contains 36 picture cards and four instruction cards measuring 115 x 75mm. The selection includes How Many? an introduction to number and How's Teddy? which introduces feelings in a simple way.

Tester's report

The pictures are clear, colourful and modern, and I found them useful for a focused activity in small groups of around four children. They prompted lots of conversation and the children were keen to play the games. They are a good way of reinforcing basic, important skills such as sharing, matching, turn taking, counting and storytelling. Also good for children with speech and language difficulties as the pictures are of a high quality.

Michala Hoyland, nursery teacher

***** BEST OF THE BUNCH

The products most highly recommended by our testers in this issue are:Under-threes: * Big Bobby Car from e-niko * Pintoy Happy Xylophone from John Crane * Tolo Musical Shape Sorter from John Crane * Tolo First Friends Scooter from John Crane * Giant hand puppets from e-niko * Frog-in-a-box from NES Arnold;Foundation: * Colour Doodle from Flair * Hand Painting Mittens from TTS Early Steps n Active Worlds Play Mat from TTS Early Steps

* Botany Shaker Set from e-niko n Modular Panels from Asco n Panoramix from Asco NURSERY WORLD EQUIPMENT AWARDS Those products which testers decide should have five stars as a mark of excellence throughout this year will be assessed for one of our prestigious Nursery World Equipment Awards.

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 throughout the magazine include VAT or delivery charges, so do check prices before ordering.

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