Tom Deveson unlocks a treasure trove of creatures designed to stimulate young imaginations
The tough box is a striking purple. Lift the lid, fold down the front flap and you look into a miniature world sprinkled with silver stars. A golden cloth can be draped wherever you wish, creating a cave filled with hidden treasure or marking the entrance to a magical kingdom.
The inhabitants of this Magical World Storybox (pound;30) come from myths, legends and the stranger dreams of the human race. There are 12 of them, skilfully moulded in durable plastic and each about 4-5cm in height. There are two dragons, a winged horse that stands in quiet contemplation and a bearded elf brandishing a clenched fist.
Some creatures represent the marvellous fusion of natural animals - the centaur (man and horse), the griffin (eagle and lion), the mermaid (woman and fish) and the Minotaur, with his muscular human body and fierce bull-like head. The unicorn and the phoenix are there too, with an ogre grinning at the prospect of trouble.
These characters can stimulate many kinds of small group activity at the foundation stage and at key stages 1 and 2. Teachers' notes suggest dozens of ways to make purposeful connections between play and learning. Children can be in control of narratives, making up scenarios and developing dialogue. They can change the setting from enchanted island to misty mountain, from palace to parallel universe. Action can move from the box itself on to carpets and classroom tables, and stories can be abandoned, revised, passed on to other participants or enriched with contributions from the entire class.
The possibilities for cross-curricular work are rich and varied. They may involve devising Narnia-style maps to provide a setting and keep a record of adventures, making up songs (what would a mermaid chant to a traveller?) or using the internet and whiteboards to find out about the cultures (Chinese, Greek, Arabic and Norse) that gave birth to these mind-haunting figures. Above all, the children themselves decide how to twist plots in surprising ways and write according to the prompting of their imaginations, rather than the requirements of a comprehension exercise.
The models would be more finger-friendly if they were twice the size. There is also a powerful need for human figures to interact with them - kings and queens, boys and girls, a woodcutter or a milkmaid. Mass immigration from the class Playmobil collection to this box should be welcomed, then the stories can really begin.
There is also a Natural World Storybox (also pound;30), with 12 different minibeasts and eight dinosaurs.
* Yellow Door Stand EY-V22B Both storyboxes are available for pound;25 at the show.