Box of tricks

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Fantasy Cube, From Suffolk Playworks, Pounds 215 plus VAT, Age range: up to 5

Jon O'Connor gets to grips with a cube that keeps children playing for hours.

Suffolk Playworks are based in Suffolk and they really make play work well. Their name suits them. They understand how to captivate thoroughly modern children with quality products that are durable and which have real aesthetic beauty.

Their Fantasy Cube is also well named. However you try to describe it, it's easy to under-sell the versatility, which is its key feature. It's a good example of the tricky business of making simple ideas succeed: a large folding box of bits and bobs to play with, plus a collation of cogs, wheels, handles, seats, cavities and corners. And out of that basic mixture comes week upon week of sustained and complex entertainment and learning for the early years.

In essence, the Fantasy Cube is an abstract piece of furniture which can represent so many different forms, depending on the imagination and the components brought into play by children.

The cube itself is built from high-quality birch plywood in a mainly natural hand finish, with "feature" parts stained in bright colours to bring out the natural grain of the wood. It's a well-designed, well-executed play environment which is a deserving winner of an award from the Good Toy Guide.

Yes, you say, so it's a prizewinning box, but what's actually in it? Well, its potential unfolds and appears gradually just like the box itself. The Fantasy Cube hinges open to nearly double its original size. Inside, there's a bench seat just made for two to sit inside, making it a vehicle, a machine, a tea-room or whatever you care to tell your friend it really is.

Hidden beneath the pilot or the drivers, the astronauts or the crane operator, there's a twin storage compartment. Inside, there are two mini-boxes and a couple of dozen tool-pegs which plug into holes all round the Cube.

The pegs themselves are provided in several different designs, some flag-shaped, some like giant keys, others with a jolly round bobble on top. These, of course, are the power cables, telecom links or steel hawsers, depending upon your particular fantasy.

The smaller box sections unpack to sit outside the main cube as extra seats on the deck of the steamer, the secret steps into the attic, or imaginary machinery awaiting repair. There's a fine assortment of handles, levers and gearwheels to twiddle and twirl ready-mounted on the cube itself.

Children need no introduction to the how, why and what you do with the Fantasy Cube. They settle in, adjust the components and tune in to their own fantasies.

The reason they get so much out of it is a combination of the design's simplicity and the impromptu, open-ended nature of the activity it promotes. It's irresistible for ages up to rising five.

The value of their conversations and interest grows the more they get to know its possibilities and provides real opportunities for snippets of language development work through extended role play.

In our nursery, it's been a ship, a bus, a caravan, a workshop and been part of dozens of little scenes for play partnerships. The role play constantly offers incidental exploration of simple technology, shape and space. It has the potential to support every one of the six development areas defined in the Desirable Outcomes curriculum for younger children.

Despite the fact that it is extremely compact, it works hard, is rarely left alone by groups of up to four or five children and at Pounds 215 plus VAT, including delivery, I think it's a real bargain.

Suffolk Playworks also offer "finish it yourself" playboxes, which simply need varnishing if you want to save some money and enjoy a sense of tradition and craft for yourself.

Suffolk Playworks, Red House Yard, Thornham Magna, Suffolk, IP23 8HH. Tel: 01379 788154

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