Enabling environments: Tried and Tested - A small world

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Miniature toys hold a timeless appeal for young children and there is a huge and varied range on the market suitable for group play. Early years settings check some out for Sue Hubberstey




Age Range: 3-plus
Price: £182.10
Contact: 0115 989 9765

This is a larger than average wooden toy farm, especially designed for childcare facilities. It has substantial openings in the four sides and the roof, to give access for several children playing together. It measures 90 (l) x 55 (w) x 21 (h) cm and is delivered assembled. It is supplied with two farmers and a shepherd, a set of small farm animals, a set of country animals and a set of fowls.

Tested by World's End Under-Fives Centre, south-west London

'Overall, the farm was very strong, durable and well-made. Painted wooden toys often chip and look tatty over time, so the stained wood is more suitable for a nursery environment. The manufacturers have clearly thought about how the farm will be used and made it child-friendly. The children became completely engrossed in their play for long periods of time. The animals are delightful; they are made of rubbery plastic and are really life-like. The parents loved it all, too. It's a pity that the stables and barns are completely enclosed, apart from an opening in the large barn roof, because when the farm is on the floor the children have to lie down to see inside. But this is definitely something I would recommend to other childcare groups.'

Rating: ****



Age Range: 3-plus
Price: £54.50 (for castle alone; fantasy characters £37.50
per set)
Contact: 0113 2707070

The castle features ramparts, a prison and stables which can be accessed by opening the roof. It measures 60 (w) x 60 (l) x 26 (h) cm. The set of 24 painted wood Fantasy Play Characters includes a king, queen, princess, lady in waiting, wizard, knights, and animals.

Tested by Toddle-Inn Nursery, Fleetwood, Lancashire

'We thought the theme of the castle, knights and wizards a little too advanced for our three- and four-year- olds. The children did not relate to the knights, except for a few who were familiar with Harry Potter. Instead, they played with it as a house - the knights became dads and the wizards became queens. They enjoyed using the drawbridge and new vocabulary was introduced. One child with sight problems enjoyed the bulky feel of the knights and horses. Unfortunately, some of the figures broke away at the corners, leaving sharp edges. I'm not convinced this is robust enough for a nursery.'

Rating: **



Age Range: 3-plus
Price: £54.99
Contact: 0844 8885000

The station features four lockers, a control console, swivel chair, bunk beds with pillows, table, two chairs, shelf unit and satellite dish. There is a carry handle built into the roof. It comes flat packed and measures 56 x 59 x 31 cm.

Tested by Renee Phillips-Gall, Childminder, Skewen, Neath

'All the children in a wide age range enjoyed playing with this, including the over-fives. It encourages imagination and role play - some children dressed up as firemen and we had a session on real-life jobs. Opening and closing the doors and moving the accessories around helps with fine manipulative skills and this was particularly useful with a child who has hemiplegia. However, although it is a good-quality toy, I don't think it's good value for money. I was disappointed that no fire officers nor a fire engine are included in the price and the office accessories need to be more comprehensive to make it a good buy.'

Rating ***



Age Range: 3 - 5
Price: FROM £18
Contact: 01604 774949

The series includes a working digger, fully operative crane, dumper truck and front end loader to create a building site. Each item can be bought separately. The vehicles' yellow and grey livery emulates those seen on real building sites.

Tested by Marigold Day Nursery, Wirral, Merseyside

'These were very popular toys, played with every day throughout the testing period. They are useful for encouraging mathematical language - concepts such as full, empty, small, large. We used them in our Tuff Spot with sand to create a miniature building site and they encouraged plenty of co-operative play. The children shared appropriately, taking turns and passing on to friends. The tall crane is a little unstable and one item arrived damaged but was replaced within three days so we were impressed with the service. They are good value for money, because they proved popular with all our pre-school children.'

Rating: *****



Age Range: 3 - 5
Price: £68.90
Contact: 0800 318686

This 180-piece set includes wooden building blocks, vehicles, animals, a fairground and a monorail with which children can create city scenes. Five base plates are included which illustrate a circular road and rail system. The baseboard measures 66cm in diameter.

Tested by Abacus Nursery, Pinderfields Hospital, Wakefield

'This is a wonderful product, which promotes a whole range of early years foundation skills - role play, communication and language, sharing and turn-taking - and it can really enhance personal, social and emotional development. We think it excellent value for money. It's a high-quality set, very safe, colourful and child friendly.'

Rating ****




Age Range: 2-plus
Price: £49.99
Contact: 0844 8885000

There are ten pairs of animals and Mr and Mrs Noah with this painted wooden ark, which measures 51 x 39 x 17.5 cm. The ark has an opening side door, walk-in ramp, dovecote mast and removable opening rear side. Each figure is made from wood with fabric details.

Tested by Castle Montessori Day Nursery, Berkhamsted, Herts

'This should have been an excellent resource, as it's attractive to look at and inspired the children's imagination. Unfortunately, however, it did not stand up to the rigours of nursery life. Within the first day of testing one of the animals had broken and some of the felt tails and ears only lasted a week or so. Despite this, it did not reduce the children's enjoyment. It is probably better suited for just one or two children rather than a nursery setting.'

Rating *


*** GOOD


For Janet Graham, University of Teesside Nursery, Middlesbrough

'The Tuff Spot - it's such a basic thing, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities for imaginative play, especially when we fill it with sand or water. Our children particularly love boats, and pirates. Most of our small-world figures have come from the Early Learning Centre and we have dinosaurs, seaworld animals and farmyard animals. Our farmyard was made especially for us. Our younger children enjoy Little People sets from Mattel and we have a selection of those in the baby room.'

Tuff Spot Active World Tray from TTS Early Steps, £19.75

Little People Sets from Mattel, from £9.99.

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