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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

Springy Pop Up

Pin Toy 10.99

****

Telephone 01604 774949 www.mailorderexpress.com

Tested by Marigold Day Nursery, Wirral

The function of this toy is to push down the coloured coded pig, rabbit and cow characters into their holes and wait for them to pop up again. It's made from quality rubber wood, measures 145 x 50 x 165mm and is recommended for children from 12 months.

Tester's report

This is a good pop up toy, which is easy to use and has kept our toddlers, aged 12 to 18 months occupied for up to five minutes at a time. It has had plenty of wear and tear in our busy toddler room and has been chewed a few times but seems none the worst for wear. A durable and enjoyable toy for the youngest children.

Vicki Dickinson, manager

Goblin TruckHolz Toys 19.50 ****

Telephone 0845 1308697 www.holz-toys.co.uk

Tested by University of Teesside Day Nursery, Middlesbrough

This wooden toy features a goblin who can be taken in and out of his car.

The car can be hooked up to a trailer and it also functions as a mini shape sorter.

Tester's report

In general we felt this was a nice piece of equipment which the children really enjoyed. Our two- to two-and-half-year-olds spent quite long periods of time playing with this toy. It is very good for developing hand/eye co-ordination and offers excellent opportunities for learning basic colour and shape and positional language. We thought initially that it was rather expensive but having seen the reaction of the children we think it would make a worthwhile purchase. It would be good for the truck to be a little bigger so that children could play with it together.

Janet Graham, manager

Song Box

Wonderbox 34.95 ****

Telephone 0141 5633569 www.wonderbox.com

Tested by Linden Nursery, Thetford, Norfolk

This is one in a range of Wonder Boxes. Each box contains items for play as well as a booklet that offers a selection of suggested activities. The box contains five favourite nursery rhyme characters that can be used to encourage recognition, listening and talking. Recommended age from birth.

Tester's report

The play value was high with a wide age range. We used it with children from six months onwards and all were interested in the contents of the box.

We loved the shape of the box - hexagonal - and the musical notation on the lid. It also seems sturdy and durable. We have tried out most of the suggested activities in the booklet and found that, on the whole, they are appropriate for one-to-one work or a small group. The booklet draws everyone's attention to the fact that the contents should be used with adult supervision and the danger of some small parts, and there didn't seem to be any other safety issues. The characters are well made but I would have preferred them to be washable rather than 'surface clean'.

Ann Aunins, proprietor

Wheelybug Hippychick from 45.95 ***

Telephone 01278 434440 www.hippychick.com

Tested by Ashbrow Children's Centre, Huddersfield

Wheelybugs are ride-on/push-along toys with bright bodies made of vinyl with a padded layer of sponge. They are available either as a ladybird or a bee and come in two sizes. The smaller, which our tester trialled, is designed for children from one- to two-and-a-half-years.

Tester's report

Although this was intended for toddlers it was more frequently used by the older children - the three- and four-year-olds. Because the body of the Wheelybug is rounded the younger children didn't seem to feel secure sitting on it. A back rest, doubling as a handle, might have made them feel safer. We also noted that it tipped up very easily. It was good for encouraging physical skills, balance, manoeuvrability and inspired lots of imaginative play. The Bug has had lots of use and is still in very good condition.

Lynne Lynch, early years co-ordinator

Mum's on the Phone K's Kids 9.99 ***

Telephone 01582 503503

www.kskids.co.uk

Tested by University of Teesside Day Nursery Middlesbrough

This combines the elements of a soft toy with a more traditional hard toy telephone. It features melodies and expressions and also has a recorded message facility.

Tester's report

There are numerous pieces of equipment similar to this and many of them are better suited to the nursery environment. Used in the home on a one-to-one basis this could be very good but the sound, especially from the tape, is very quiet and difficult to hear if there is peripheral noise as in a nursery. It is well made although the combination of fabric and plastic makes cleaning it difficult, so hygiene would be a problem.

Janet Graham, manager

Discovery Village Fisher Price approx. 35 *****

Telephone 01628 500000 www.fisher-price.com

Tested by Whitecastle Day Nursery, Ashton under Lyne

This features a moving roadway and pavement, a school, town hall and market. It comes complete with three figures, a car, a skateboard, a wagon, a food stand, a traffic signal and a fire hydrant. Recommended age from two years.

Tester's report

This is a brilliant toy for very young children. They enjoyed all the activities and the pieces are ideal for small hands. It would also be very good for children with special needs. It is a well-made toy and very easy to clean. I thoroughly recommend it.

Christina Whitelegg, manager

FOUNDATION STAGE

Flapjacks Smartscapes 57.58 per set **

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

Tested by The Bungalow Day Nursery, Denton, Manchester

Each set contains five polypropylene flat-packed seats that can be stored in the box in which they are supplied or can be stacked. There are two designs, Funky Fruits and Wild Animals.

Tester's report

The material is bendy and flexible and I found them quite durable when the toddlers were using them, although they did tend to put their fingers inside the folds on a number of occasions. However, when one of the larger children sat on one it bent and tore along the seam. I also thought they were rather expensive. These are not something we would use permanently in the nursery.

Catherine Pritchard, manager

Balamory Nursery Flair 14.99 ****

Telephone 0208 6430320 www.flairplc.co.uk

Tested by Rainbow Day Nursery, Penzance

This is one of the products that relates to the popular television series.

It's a wooden nursery which includes Miss Hoolie and two children and features a dual-purpose activity table, stickers to decorate the walls and Miss Hoolie's secret cupboard. There is also a special weather wheel.

Tester's report

The children instantly related to the nursery, having seen it on TV and enjoyed playing with it, especially as the pieces are easy to handle. It's very good for encouraging concentration and extending their vocabulary.

While they played we discussed what we do at nursery and also talked about the weather. But it was a bit frustrating that the roof kept falling off!

Katherine Gates, deputy manager

Playground Set - Traffic theme Three Bears Playthings 48 per set **** Telephone 01669 620315 www.threebearsplaythings.co.uk

Tested by Great Milton Primary School, Oxford

These are role-play tabards designed to fit over outdoor clothes to enhance outdoor play. The Traffic set consists of five waterproof washable waistcoats suitable for four- to seven-year-olds. Included is traffic control, road vehicle repair, police, traffic warden and a high visibility waistcoat.

Tester's report

It's a good idea to have a session before using these to talk about the different roles the tabards represent. Using them has definitely encouraged more children to play outside and they have also structured 'bike' play.

They instigated an idea for making traffic lights and also gave us the opportunity to revise road safety. The tabards are made from durable material. Tags would be useful to make it easier to hang them on the dressing up trolley.

Sarah Peregrine, reception teacher

2D Shape Bag Active Designs 14.95***

Telephone 01327 858522, www.activedesigns.co.uk

Tested by Silver Trees Day Nursery, Toton, Notts

This resource is designed to introduce 2D geometric shapes for Foundation Stage and KS1. It includes an embroidered shape bag with ten foam shapes, ten labels and an activity sheet. The bag measures 30 x 30cm.

Tester's report I think this is most suitable for children in reception. They need word-building skills in order to match and read the captions and get the full learning potential. However, it is also useful for pre-school children to aid shape recognition.

Emma Foster, nursery nurse

Dressing Frame Dolls Asco 24 set of six

Telephone 0113 270 7070

www.ascoeducational.co.uk

Tested by Ashbrow Children's Centre, Huddersfield

Each of the wooden frames is in the form of a doll and each dress involves a different dressing skill, including lacing, zipping and buckling.

Tester's report

These look appealing but once the children had removed the clothes from the dolls they soon lost interest as they proved very difficult to re-fasten - definitely too complex for the under-fives. We feel opportunities have been lost in the design of these dolls; they might have featured facial expressions - sad, happy, frowning or surprised. They could also be improved if they came with more than the one set of clothes. On the positive side they are made of hard-wearing wood and the clothes are durable. They offer good value for children over five but are not suitable for the younger ones.

Lynne Lynch, early excellence co-ordinator

Cash Dispenser Economatics 29.95 ****

Telephone 0114 2813311

www.economatics.co.uk/education

Tested by Cornerstone Nursery, Tamworth, Staffs

This is a role-play cash dispenser with the Halifax logo and character. It has large keys and measures 15 x 26 x 24cm. It comes with toy money and a debit card.

Tester's report

Our out-of-school club children enjoyed playing with this as much as the younger ones.It took staff a little while to work out how to use it so it's a good idea to read the instructions first. It is a useful toy for developing hand/eye co-ordination. Very durable and good value for money.

The only gripe is that the card can be a little difficult to get in and out of the machine.

Sarah Avery, manager

Traffic Dominoes Asco 11.50 ****

Contact as before

Tested by Oakington Primary School, Cambridge

These are dominoes with a difference, according to Asco. They are played like any other domino game but the task for the children is to match the front and back of the vehicles. As the matches are made a colourful street map appears.

Tester's report

A tactile product as the dominoes feel so smooth, so the children loved touching them, and they are very appealing and colourful. There is plenty of learning potential: back and front, matching, ordering, in front or behind, counting and social skills - taking turns and playing fairly. The pieces are easy to pick up so are appropriate for children with special needs. The adults enjoyed them too, and we all appreciated the 'neatness'

of the stacked cars - they have to be stacked before they can be put away.

A very good product suitable for three- to six-year-olds.

Mary Carnell, reception teacher

Tickit Timers Asco 11.95 each ****

Contact as before

Tested by Oakington Primary School, Cambridge

These are sand timers (right) that are designed to be virtually indestructible and have moulded end caps and thick wall surrounds. There are three in the series, colour coded for easy identification - the green timer runs for one minute, the yellow for three minutes and the blue for five minutes.

Tester's report

We tested all three timers and found them excellent for a number of reasons. As an aid to learning they are a useful resource for science up to KS1 and, even possibly, KS2. They encourage a child to focus on the task in hand and demonstrate the passing of time. We used one during the one minute silence on 11 November. They are also extremely useful for behaviour management with children with challenging behaviour. They can see when they are wasting time and this helps with self-control. These timers seem more hardwearing than others... have previously used. A very useful piece of classroom equipment.

Ann Williams, reception teacher

Writing Slope Wood@Work from 14.99 ***

Telephone 01380 828914 www.woodatwork.biz

Tested by St Andrews C of E Primary School, Uxbridge, Middx

This is made from MDF with rounded edges and with an integral penholder.

Three sizes are available: 355 x 355mm, 457 x 355mm and 610 x 458 mm. Each has an optimum angle of 20 degrees and the Slope folds away when not in use.

Tester's report

This is probably best for children who are poor handwriters; it certainly helped children with poor hand/eye co-ordination to write and form letters more accurately. However, the children who are forming letters well seemed to gain no real benefit. We found the slope rather steep and perhaps a clip to hold work in place and prevent from slipping down would be helpful. The surface is quite slippery so perhaps a material which provides more grip would make it easier for a child to use.

Elizabeth Wakling, head teacher

Big Track Keytools 55 ****

Telephone 023 8058 4314 www.keytools.com

Tested by Watlington Primary School, Oxfordshire

New this year, this large trackball with a face like a teddy bear is designed for children who do not enjoy using a regular mouse or who have motor difficulties. It is compatible with either a PC (USB and PS2 connections) or Mac (USB connection). There is also a switch version for those with severe motor disabilities.

Tester's report

Although this is a very good product we think it would be surplus to requirements in our school as most of the children are already familiar with a conventional mouse and those who aren't quickly learn how to use one. However, I think it would be very useful where children have special needs. It's bright and chunky andhas stood up well to use, despite constantly falling on the floor.

Pat Greenhalf, foundation stage teacher

Hands-on-Learning Opposites and Colours and Shapes Meadowside Children's Books 5.99 ****

Telephone 020 7400 1061

www.meadowsidebooks.com

Tested by Holy Cross Playgroup, New Malden, Surrey

Each consists of a box containing photographs and textured pictures. The first aims to help children understand that objects can have attributes that are the same and attributes that are different, the second helps to identify shapes and colours. The cards come with many suggestions on how they can be used.

Tester's report

I would recommend these for use in pre-school settings. The cards can be adapted to cover various stages of the children's development. They can also be used with children with a range of disabilities as they can be adapted to an individual child's cognitive development.

Pat Pain, playgroup leader

Painting Window and Mirror Asco 110 and 52 **

Contact as before

Tested by Whitehall Infant School, Uxbridge, Middlesex

The Window has a beechwood frame and measures 58 x 78 x 8cm. It's designed to help children develop their observational skills and beginto understand simple proportions - the size of the head in relation to the body, for example. It may also help a child who finds direct eye contact difficult.

The window has red wooden knobs anda carrying handle. The acrylic mirror accessory measures 49 x 69 x 3mm and helps children to paint themselves and identify their own features. It is attached to the Painting Window with four suction discs.

Tester's report

We found this far too big and cumbersome. It is a sturdy product but was too large for our use and we found it difficult to assemble and to put away. While children can enjoy drawing each other it is restrictive in that it can only be used by two children at the same time. It also needs to stand on a table as the legs stick out. With the mirror attached the children enjoyed admiring themselves. We might have used it in the home corner but, again, it was far too big for this.

Jane Ansell, foundation teacher

Construction Vehicle John Crane 12.99 ***

Telephone 01604 774949

www.john-crane.co.uk

Tested by Marigold Day Nursery, Wirral

This is a wooden construction set complete with screwdriver and wooden screws that allows the children to build several different vehicles, including a digger and a helicopter. The recommended age is from three years.

Tester's report

This did not have instant appeal for the children in our pre-school room, but those who did play with it were learning how to use bolts and screws and other manipulative skills. Those children with the best concentration most enjoyed the challenge of building a vehicle. All the pieces are very durable and I think it's well priced for a construction set.

Vicki Dickinson, manager

Generation Dolls Asco 24 for set of two *****

Telephone 0113 2707070 www.ascoeducational.co.uk

Tested by Ashbrow Children's Centre, Huddersfield

There are three sets of these dolls available - two children, two parents and two grandparents. They are 23 to 28cm high and are designed for general play or in play therapy situations. The arms and legs are bendable so the dolls can be putin different positions and they are machine washable.

Tester's report

These were really well played with from day one. The children enjoyed carrying them around and were constantly undressing them. They cover all the early learning goals, giving opportunities for communication, exploration of feelings, imaginative play and manipulative skills. They are also really well made, and the features remained firmly intact after washing. In fact they looked as good as new. The children have really taken to these, making them good value for money.

Lynne Lynch, early excellence co-ordinator

Pukeko Stomp Kids Music Education 21.50 CD/Book Set ***

Telephone 01344 627644 www.KidsMusicEducation.com

Tested by Whitehall Infant School, Uxbridge, Middx

This is one of a series of CDs that aims to get children 'listening, counting and moving'. It has 21 tracks and comes complete with a teacher's book that includes the score, lyrics, actions and 'skills and understandings' cross reference. Recommended for children from three to eight years.

Tester's report

Fun for the Foundation Stage and KS1. There are some useful learning songs for musical elements such as dynamics, tempo and beat and a vast range of musical styles is included. There are also some topic-related songs, too, for example 'autumn'. The teaching notes are certainly comprehensive, but unfortunately they are cross-referenced to New Zealand's achievement objectives!

Caroline McLucas, reception teacher

Swing Thing Kids Music Education 21.50 CD/Book Set ***

Contact as before

Tested by Whitehall Infant School, Uxbridge, Middx

Swing Thing is a collection of 23 songs, featuring starfish, shapes, sunshine songs, healthy food songs and some calypso to encourage active listening and lots of movement. Recommended for children aged three to eight years.

Tester's report

Once again it's unfortunate that this is linked to the New Zealand system rather than the UK's. There are lotsof fun songs to inspire music and movement lessons at Foundation and KS1 and plenty of ideas on how to help the children become more creative in their movements.

Caroline McLucas, reception teacher

BigKeys Early Learning System KeyTools 109 *****

Contact as before

Tested by Watlington Primary School, Oxfordshire

This system consists of the BigKeys large format keyboard and a set of transparent flexible gloves that fit neatly over it. With different key layouts the gloves allow the keyboard to be used in a variety of ways. For example, the layout can be changed from Qwerty to ABC format. All unnecessary keys found on a standardised keyboard have either been removed or hidden. Extra stickers are included when picture key tops are no longer required.

Tester's report

I liked the clear, logical layout and it was easy to convert from ABC format to Qwerty. The overlays are useful, allowing the teacher to switch easily when working on a one to one with a child and they are easy to manipulate, strong and easy to clean. This is good for children with literacy problems. An excellent product.

Pat Greenhalf, foundation stage teacher

BEST OF THE BUNCH

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

UNDER-THREES Goblin Truck from Holz

Discovery Village from Fisher Price

FOUNDATION Generation Dolls from Asco

Tickit Timers from Asco

BigKeys Early Learning System from KeyTools

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 2005 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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