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Ringing the right numbers

PLAY SHOPS

Bank, post office, Pounds 147.95. shop, Pounds 112.95. Telephone kiosk with two phones, Pounds 159.95. EDCO, 1 Mallusk Park, Mallusk Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim BT36 8GW. Tel: 01232 844023 or 0113 2300112.

Jon O'Connor takes an appreciative stroll through the high street play shops that fit inside the classroom. The Wendy House and the home corner have moved on. In early years classrooms around the country, streetwise children explore shops, petrol stations, offices and hairdressing salons realistic enough to make even Ken Barlow seethe with excitement.

But if the endless effort with paints, scrap materials and jumble sale props is getting tiresome, Edco has developed some brilliant new variations which are fun and flexible. Edco's expanding empire of child-centred buildings includes a cheerful trio of meeting places for small entrepreneurs, at a very sensible price. A post office, bank and take-away restaurant all feature in the series, with a traditional shop also available.

As the late Les Dawson's caricatures reminded us, the Post Office is the place to be for 101 little operations. Edco's Post Office, like the rest of the range, has built-in storage and a good-sized counter-space for financial transactions. Here, assistants can learn the time-honoured art of serving and berating the queue at the same time.

The bank version is the ideal setting for Giro-credits to the gas board and pay-on-demand hold-ups for baby-faced trainee Bonnie and Clydes. The design echoes a charming period when customers were not compulsorily roped off from the counters.

The take-away restaurant is a personal favourite, featuring a level of detail that role-play furniture often lacks. There is a front tray for the self-service counter; the twin bain-marie pots are also there, with overhead heat lamps to make this play restaurant comply with food temperature regulations. The only thing missing is the escapologist egg, swimming for dear life across the sea of oil.

These role-play venues are all made from high-density MDF board, supplied in a flat-pack format. They took about half an hour to assemble, following the simple guide sheet, with one screwdriver and no technical hitches.

All the play houses and shops are capable of being part of a wider scenario, a general dramatisation of the real world which is the key to role-play.

They are all full of fun brightly coloured and with bags of potential beyond the immediately obvious use of any particular format.

It is wonderful, but somehow a little poignant, to see a three-year- old desperately demanding a response from a plastic telephone. Edco's set-up offers much better opportunities.

The fully-operational double telephone kiosk is one of those simple but brilliantly-innovative ideas we wish we'd thought of ourselves. The kiosk stands around 1.5 metres high, with the two phones back to back.

Watching two children use them, oblivious to their physical proximity, is both amusing and educational. The use of language for negotiation, direction and social comment explodes into life. It's like discovering a whole class full of Sybil Fawlty talk-alikes in contact with their chums for hours on end.

The phones are real touch-tone machinery. We tested them by plugging into a socket on the school external lines and confirmed that they are capable of connecting with Paris be warned!

The style of Edco's kiosk owes more to mainstream BT than to esoteric Mercury. Crisp tones of grey with a good sharp image for the telephone indicator on the canopy gave the children a feeling of playing it cool on the streets.

A while ago, our school set up a working internal telephone system. We assumed it would help with security, or allow staff to whistle up a coffee and Danish pastry, but we initially failed to see the potential for children to transmit messages for us (there is little if any reference to telephone communications within the English national curriculum).

Calling up brothers and sisters for a quick check on the lunch-box or to pass on warnings that dinner ladies were on the way during a wet lunchtime showed us how much more rapidly young children see the potential of technology than their supposed mentors ever imagined possible.

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