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Taught on the hob

Miniature kitchens can provide an attractive and entertaining setting for role play. Jon O'Connor checks out the latest fittings and fixtures for the under-fives.

Kitchen-sink dramas can offer learning and teaching opportunities too good to miss for the under-fives. Habits and stereotypes are reinforced and challenged, as children fuss over the cupboards, gossip around the hob and clatter the washing up ferociously.

They explore and develop their own social roles, echo adult mannerisms and show off their knowledge of meal-time routines from first-hand experience.

The sequencing and organisational skills involved in making a meal are rehearsed to perfection, as they test out their assumed roles and relationships with the occasional curt phrase, such as "the table needs laying", clearly establishing the dominant partner in play.

The new national guidelines for under-fives identify six areas of experience and development. In each, there is at least one strand which would justify an increase in structured and free role-play activities. So when a whole variety of kitchen units, with fixtures and fittings, arrived from education suppliers Galt and Wesco for the children's home corner, I had a couple of scenarios in mind.

Imagine it's a family Sunday and you're out to choose a new kitchen at the superstore.You open and shut the drawers in white plastic or plastic oak. Hide the handle which falls off in your hand.

Or the other, more common, scene: you get the boxes home and unpack. There's a screw missing. The instructions are in Lithuanian. Three hours later and the sink unit is installed wrong side up.

Well, I was wrong. All the pint-sized kitchens reviewed here are wonders of simplicity. Wesco's units in particular are designed for the simple-minded. Undoing the Sellotape on the box was tough, but assembly of the components inside was a doddle. The carcass consists of two main pieces, each of which has two or three sides of the cuboid net hinged together.

You simply open up the sides and front face section and slide the other piece with the back and top face into channels on the inner sides. Six screws to tighten up the nylon joints and you're done. A child could do the job. And did so in our case - under adult supervision - meeting several of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's criteria in the process.

The main box is made from good-quality plywood, with featured pieces made of medium-density fibreboard (MDF). All edges are nicely chamfered and the hinges avoid any likelihood of fingers being pinched. All the screws are standard Phillips heads and are countersunk, using cup washers, which makes any repairs and patching easy. Window sections on the washing machine and the cookers are made from Perspex.

The doors on the Wesco range use Velcro patches as fasteners. They close nicely and secure well. Opening them can be a little awkward for small hands, since the door handles are simple blocks rather than shaped grips.

The control panel features are bright without being gaudy and there are simple selector controls and crisp realistic graphics showing a clockwise graduation in power or programming.

The Wesco collection includes a washing machine, with a door that opens a full 180 degrees. Children were simply frothing with excitement - no one lets them near the machine at home.

They loved the chance to stuff their PE kit inside. Unfortunately we didn't find this out until after PE. The twin-oven cooker presumably allows for a grilling at the top and the filo pastry down below.

Galt is one of the most established names in early learning and celebrates 160 years in the business this year. As you would expect, its new kitchen ranges for young galloping gourmets reflect the establishment indulgence of country cottage kitchen simplicity for sophisticated kitchen dwellers.

For some serious money - around Pounds 400 - you can splash out on the Excalibur kitchen, elaborately styled after the traditional Welsh dresser. If the price puts you off, think again before you turn back to the catalogue for cheap and tacky alternatives. This all-in-one kitchen compares favourably in price with the three or four components you would need to purchase separately.

There is also a real gain in terms of space-saving. The kitchen includes twin oven, sink unit with a mixer tap and inset bowl, four-ring hob and storage cupboards. More important, it looks fabulous. A beautiful dish rack on the top half of the dresser mimics current kitchen fashions and the "glass" on the unit doors is leaded. Naturally.

The quality of manufacture and attention to detail is good. The cupboard doors, for example, snick shut with a crisp nylon fastener and include a safety strap to avoid them being opened too far. The carcass is made from oak veneer-faced chipboard, with - get this - oak timber doors.

The Merlin kitchen is Galt's more contemporary answer for the Nineties man in the kitchen. Or woman. The same basic ingredients are constructed to a simpler line, in beech this time, with brightly-coloured MDF doors and panels.

If you are totally out of space, then you need the table top kitchen, which offers a neat combination of hob, oven, sink and cooker for under Pounds 100 and - wait for it - fits on the table top. Now we're cooking!

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