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Playing around

Roger Frost visits this year's Olympia Toy and Hobby Fair in the company of toy sellers, teachers and a psychologist. Last Christmas parents in the UK spent Pounds 112 on toys for each of their children. Figures for January to September last year, the latest available, show that we spent Pounds 620 million on toys in that period. Add to that the astounding Christmas splurge, accounting for 80 per cent of the year's spending and you see we're dealing with something big.

We were at last week's annual Toy and Hobby Fair at Olympia, London. "Hello Sindy, Hello Barbie, and HEL-LO Action Man," we said, walking past. You can't help showing some respect for those at the very top of the market. But we were in search of something deeper and more meaningful than Ken and Barbie ever managed. So we missed out the cuddly toys, the bendy toys and Sindy in her pop star outfit.

We weren't dismissing them, we were just ignoring them today. We tried to ignore Gooey Louie - a model head where you pull the green things from her nose until her brains go pop. There was mild interest in Play Doh that now changes colour in your hand, and Playstuff, a "dough" that glitters. But that interest didn't last and that might be one criterion of a good toy, or it might not.

With board games, the crunch comes when you've bought and played them. However, we could definitively say that the Teddy Bear Mulberry Bush game (Orchard Toys Pounds 7, age 3-6) had a "belongs in the nursery" feel to it. Here the children have to get Teddy ready for school, and they match cards and mime actions - like combing hair or brushing teeth. The pedigree is good - Orchard's past hits with Shopping List (Pounds 5) and Teddy Bear Colourmatch Express (Pounds 7) put this one in a very positive spotlight.

And funny how "educational" means toys with numbers and letters, although My First Scrabble Words (Spears Games Pounds 10, age 4 plus) is a promising example. The children need to find the letters to make a word. Colour clues help to narrow down the choice to a few letters while keyed slots confirm the correct choice. The tasks are graded in difficulty, and lead on to words that cross like real Scrabble.

Children attracted to games rather than toil might like Readspin (Imperial Pounds 8) where they turn wheels to form different words. The eight-letter wheels can be split up so that two can play with four each and the idea of course is to make more words and score more. There are lots of versions including some for maths.

Baby needs some fun too. I mean, when you're strapped into your car seat and facing backwards, the view will have anyone screaming. Galt's Drive Time Bunny (Galt Pounds 17.99) offers some respite with a large bunny to see and touch. And the Duplo range has spawned Primo for those from six to 24 months. Here are rattle bricks, mirror bricks and characters - and each with a clever dome fitting that's less exacting than real Duplo.

Nurseries stuck for space, or who can't leave things out overnight might be interested in a very practical Folding Climbing Frame (TP Activity Toys Pounds 200). It's an indoor or outdoor frame which easily gate-folds flat by removing a platform and loosening four wing-nuts. We liked the suggestion to disguise it as a play shop or double decker bus or add accessories such as a slide (Pounds 50) and a hoop tunnel (Pounds 35).

For pretend play, the Bi-plane U Wear (If Cardboard Creations) is a hilarious strap-on aeroplane that high flying headteachers could use to zoom around the school. Shame it was made of card or it would be a brilliant nursery toy.

The most uncouth toy we found was Wild Planet's Beast Blasters (Juniors from Pounds 6) which has a hunter-style belt with compass, microscope and animal containers. You then feed and keep your bug, like a circus act in a plastic desert, kitchen or cityscape. Very suspect, we thought.

Being forever stuck for a toy to take to a birthday party, Chuft's Originals have wood toy classics like yo-yos, cup and ball game, and some esoteric items at prices from Pounds 2 to Pounds 12. The packaging is woody and has that middle class appeal.

Construction sets are the whole food of toys. You'd want a child to have all sorts of construction sets, so there's no clear best here. You'd want the set to make a range of things, not just one. And for school you need to occupy several children, not just one. So, ever Lego-lovers, we were none too attracted by tractor kits and car kits. "If you want a nice tractor, then buy a nice tractor" was the comment. "I've been there and done it and got family handed-down kits, always sans vital bits and instructions," she added.

Fourteen-month-old K'nex is aiming at 20 per cent of the construction market over the year, chipping away at Lego's fantastic 90 per cent share. New this year are battery and spring motors to power their models. And there are school packs (NES Arnold Pounds 50-Pounds 200) with teachers' guides.

Another original and liked system is Interstar - star shapes which fit together by a unique interlocking system (Commotion kits Pounds 12-Pounds 22 ). These now have some important add-ons including twister spheres (Commotion Pounds 13) which help you build a model in different directions and also boxes of wheels and axles (Commotion Pounds 13) to make them mobile.

Magnetico is an award-winning Lego derivative where the bricks stick together using magnetism. Special needs schools might find a place for bricks that don't need to align precisely to stick precisely (NES ArnoldGalt Pounds 8 - Pounds 30 ). And a really interesting new arrival is Morphun - soft yet strong plastic foam bricks which use star-shaped pieces to lock them together (from Morphun Pounds 15 ). Children use their manipulative skills, and imagination to turn just three different pieces - squares, triangles and small locking pieces - into letters, rockets and animal shapes. The mix of colours lets you add pattern to your shapes, while the fact that they float makes bath time creative too. We'd rate this for over-fours because of its small pieces, but a larger prototype was on show.

And finally a favourite for age seven to 12, and one in our top six, are IQ Builders' Capsela science kits (HopeNES about Pounds 23). The Capsela 250 kit builds 15 models which use see-through plastic bubbles to make things which move, flash lights and even generate electricity. You can actually see how its switches, gears and belt drives work and the models look really spacy and great. Inevitably, the largest kits offer more creativity, whether you get this for school or home.

We found other great toys like Dowling's wonderful magnet kits - the sorts of toys which might move children on in how they see things. But then the industry's own top toy awards hit us. This year's winners include Pogs, Power Rangers and Barbie. Oh dear! Why did we miss them? How could we be so wrong? We'll get it right next time, I guess. By then, we may have moved on to realise that lauding toys is more to do with product shifting than paradigm shifting. But I'm not bitter.

With thanks to Rosie Kentish, consultant psychologist, Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, London; Pat Strack and Bill Hodder, toy sellers and advisory teachers for science and technology in Haringey, London.

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