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The height of enjoyment

Furniture which is appropriate for youngsters can be hardto find, but recent designs have turned a corner. Carolyn O'Grady reports

When the Elmdon Day Care at Guildford College Children's Centre moved last November, it faced the task of completely furnishing and equipping its new premises. "We wanted colourful toys and furniture which would be appropriate for the many different age groups which are catered for," says Mary Field, the nursery manager.

The centre, which was previously only able to take 23 children, now has 83 in four units: for babies, toddlers, two to three-year-olds and three to five-year-olds. The centre also plans to open a creche which will be available to parents and carers on appointment and will take children for between one hour and a full day.

The building also has an assessment and staff development centre where student nursery nurses and others can study for National Vocational Qualifications and take other courses while working under supervision.

When equipping the building, the centre management paid particular attention to storage and display facilities. The Office for Standards in Education had said that there should be "effective horizontal and vertical storage and display space", but furniture of this kind which is appropriate for young children is hard to find. Often the shelving is too high.

They chose the new Heron Linkup system, which seemed to satisfy the OFSTED requirements. Available in modules, the parts can be linked together to form display and storage units of different types and heights. The roundedL-shaped units and straight units, providing deep shelving or cabinets, can also act as room dividers. And "role play panels", which can sit on top of the shelving, can be closed to make a vertical display area or open to create a shop counter or window.

Elmdon chose corner units with three long, open shelves and a storage cabinet which holds nine deep plastic trays, and similar units with only shelving. They have been used to demarcate play areas, allowing children to take objects from both sides of the wide shelving. The highest shelves are positioned so that children can stand and comfortably play with activities and objects on top. "One of the big advantages of the Heron units is their height," says Mary.

In the room for three to five-year-olds there were objects associated with the Chinese New Year, including a bowl in which they could place small objects using chop sticks. There were also calculators with large buttons and a globe, which a child was slowly spinning. Every week a different letter or number is displayed so that children can study it and follow the outline with their finger.

On the lower shelves were crayons and other supplies and objects which children can collect for themselves and take back to the tables. "The units give the children the opportunity to choose their own things, to see what there is and bring them back to the table," says Mary.

"Easy access to resources is important because, at this age, we are beginning to prepare them for school. They are learning independent skills," she said. "We also encourage them to take the things back when they've finished with them."

In the toddler unit, items such as bean bag toys, look-into boxes and large "egg timers" are placed within easy reach on open shelves. "They can easily get pushed out on both sides by the children", says Mary, "but they're also easy to put back." In a cabinet are plastic boxes containing construction kits and puzzles.

Safety is an important feature. Mary is pleased that the system has rounded corners and no sharp edges, and is assembled with child-safe fittings. The assembly was completed by the Children's Centre Co-ordinator, Colin Peak. The instructions were "user-friendly", he says, although he made quite a few mistakes and had to get one piece replaced, but that was managed very quickly.

s Link Up frames pound;15.50; shelves from pound;19.95; cabinets from pound;59.95; storage corner unit featuring long cabinet with nine deep trays and shelving pound;345; corner shelving without cabinet pound;279; role-play panels pound;35.95. System packs contain all the components, fittings and tools. Installation will be carried out by Heron if required. Cabinets, shelves and frames guaranteed for l0 years.

s Heron Educational Ltd . Heron Link Up Freephone: 0800 373249. Stand D25, Hall 12

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