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Cards that sharpen your wits

Ann Mroz tries her luck at four games that are supposed to be fun and educational

Gone are the days when little Johnny could come home from school and kick a ball around the garden until teatime, while his sister Janet played with her dolls. In these more enlightened times, there is none of that stereotyped playing for them. In fact, there is little in the way of fun at all unless it also happens to be educational. Ever-eager parents, who know their key stage 2 from their level four, now have the opportunity to make their offspring play games linked to the national curriculum.

In general, if you say "it's educational" to children, their eyes glaze over. Say "national curriculum" and you won't see them for dust. And who could blame them? But there are a growing number of games which purport to be linked to the national curriculum, all part of the trend for involving parents in their child's education. But do children really want them that involved? Or can curriculum-linked learning actually be fun?

Three games from Playbreak aim to slot into this category. Two are established family favourites, Lotto and Pairs, and combine them with various symbols - road signs, signs in public places (yes, lavatory signs do feature), religious symbols and weather symbols. Signs and Symbols Pairs tests memory skills, whereas Signs and Symbols Lotto tests, well, bingo-playing skills.

I don't know about the children, but some of the washing care symbols proved an education to their father. The 10-year-old (Year 6) was able to parade her recently acquired knowledge of religious symbols, having just covered them at school, and the six-year-old (Year 2) was equally able to demonstrate something - an overactive imagination - insisting that the Aum, the symbol of Hinduism, was, in fact, a symbol for"a Chinese lady".

Some road signs were similar, with the no-left-turn and no-right-turn signs driving both children nuts when playing pairs, but most of the signs should prove useful.

The third game, Animal Families, is again based on an old favourite, Happy Families, but involves the classification of animals. So, instead of collecting the thin and bald Mr Stitch, the tailor, and his family, you have to collect the rather fat and hairy Mr Spider and the rest of his attractive arachnid posse - a tick, a scorpion and a mite. There are nine sets of four to collect.

The game is successful in teaching children which animals belong to which family and was popular, especially when competing for who had the nastiest creatures. The only drawback is the size of the cards - lovely to look at but far too big for little hands to hold a whole hand's worth. One of my children had to lay the cards out behind a barricade while the other one played from under the table; only an adult can hold an entire hand and even I found the cards too large to shuffle properly.

A more established game, said to be played in more than 30 countries ("and I wish this wasn't one of them", said my none-too-enthusiastic daughter) is Rummikub. The object is to set down numbered tiles together in groups or runs. A "group" is a set of either three or four tiles of the same number in different colours and a run is a set of three or more consecutive numbers, all in the same colour.

Where Rummikub comes into its own, however, is in the manipulation of groups already placed down. This can be done by adding to them or by rearranging the sets and can involve manipulating many sets at the same time. The person to get rid of all their tiles first and call "Rummikub" is the winner.

The game encourages children to think in terms of number grouping and sequencing and can be quite challenging when it comes to manipulation. All in all, though, despite the added twist of the manipulation, a game of rummy using a pack of cards would probably be just as much fun and a great deal cheaper.

* Signs and Symbols Lotto, age 8 plus, 2-4 players, pound;7. Signs and Symbols Pairs, age 5 plus, 2-4 players, pound;6.Animal Families, age 8 plus, 3-6 players, pound;5.50. All from Playbreak,71 Howard Road, Leicester LE2 1XN. TelFax: 0116 270 1005. P amp; p pound;2 * Rummikub, age 8+, 2-4 players, pound;14.99,from Goliath Games, from most games stockists

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