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Pieces de resistance

Orchard Toys' 1995 catalogue is bright and breezy and full of goodies for the early years. Much of its range is aimed at the three to seven-year-old market, with some especially nice floor and table activities for the nursery age-range.

The latest jigsaw puzzles are made of chunky card, able to withstand the hazards of a dribble, wobble or scrabble. The overall picture size is sensible (around 60 by 40 cms), so that you can see what you're doing. Each piece is a good chunk of encouragement as the puzzles have none of those horrid stretches of pale sky.

In the case of the 43-piece Underwater Adventure puzzle, five key pieces are interchangeable, meaning that more than 120 pictures can be made. This is a neat and novel development in jigsaw production which provides a special talking point; Orchard has other titles in its "Change-About" series which use the same idea. The artwork is appealingly bright and breezy, but contains a great deal of accurate visual information, notably the depiction of sea-creatures.

Orchard also produces a series of wildlife puzzles, some with only 25 pieces that are ideal for young natural scientists.

A Three Little Pigs pack with a 45-piece puzzle and accompanying tape includes 10 character pieces which are designed to be added as the story tape unfolds the drama. The recorded reading of the Three Little Pigs is really good. It's bright and judiciously contemporary, with a little touch of literary colour and vocal entertainment.

Each of Orchard's jigsaw puzzles also has a valuable leaflet noting some of the best methods for moving on to linked activities, such as focused questioning.

The Orchard catalogue also contains games. One, the Shopping List game, got our nursery nurse quite excited. She likes shopping, has an eye for a bargain, but also knows about the learning qualities to look for in early games. Observation and memory are core tools of the nursery trade. The game succeeds in pitching the interest level right, using simple rules and investing quality in the production materials and graphics. The shopping list items are realistic and reasonably health-conscious, unlike other products which patronise children with kiddy-shopping for sweeties and jelly.

None of these items costs more than Pounds 9, which puts them within reach of both home and school. Recent recognition for Orchard products includes the Practical Parenting Best Buy Award in 1995, the Good Toy Guide Gold Award and Parents Award. They can now add the ultimate accolade: Parkside nursery's GTC Award - Get The Catalogue, please.

Jon O'Connor is headteacher of Parkside first school, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The Orchard Toys catalogue can be obtained by phoning 0115 937 3547

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