Jigsaws and gym jams
With more than 100 exhibitors there was so much for a nursery teacher or playgroup leader to die, or cry, for, but money doesn't grow on trees even for adults, and in the early years world it is in notoriously short supply.
Nevertheless there were signs at the exhibition, held in Heathrow's Ramada Inn, that business is booming. "People will always pay for a quality product, and if money is tight, they become even more interested in durability," says the Ninja Corporation's Anthony Brereton.
The Ninja Corporation - "we thought of the name before the turtles came along," he insists - is marketing large, easy-to-assemble outdoor play equipment made by Feber, Spain's biggest toy manufacturer. A fort can be yours for Pounds 179, castles come dearer at Pounds 229. And if the military life palls, then add a slide. Just the thing for a soldier sitting out a long siege.
Large play equipment was much in evidence at the exhibition, as was a concern for the under-fives' physical fitness. Mike Whitfield of Asco Educational Supplies says schools have been asking for equipment that encourages physical development. Thanks to Asco, the under-fives can now indulge in mini step aerobics and when they've worn themselves out they can relax with the company's "chew 'n wash" jigsaws.
Other early-years work-out opportunities include Wesco UK's "tiny tot gym modules" - big, bright, and for those of us under 18 months, complete with Velcro strips to hold them together. "Babies don't like it if things start falling apart," confided the Wesco representative.
If a third of the exhibition was big, bright and plastic, another third was small and wooden. Particularly impressive were the educational toys manufactured by six people based in Leicester. Edu-play products were first produced specifically for children, or adults, with special needs, but the company has realised that they have a wider appeal.
Mirrors are a prominent feature, partly because they can be made to perform tricks with light for children with impaired vision, but also "because children love looking at themselves," according to Corrina Orencas of Edu-play.
Another small wooden item was "the chair of the future", courtesy of the Hutterian Brethen, a Christian organisation that sells its products through its company Community Playthings. The new chair is made of 11-core laminated maple plywood and is the product of strategic design, which appears to mean that everyone who knows anything about children's chairs gets involved from the beginning, before the production lines start rolling. The chairs, which are stackable, are intended to survive eight hours' use every day for 20 years, and for this you pay Pounds 44.
One product being launched at the exhibition will, unfortunately, probably do very well. Unfortunately because it is the Childtrakka - "the UK's first electronic child-tracking device". Though it was on the drawing board before the abduction of Jamie Bulger, Keith D'Abrera, Childtrakka's sales manager, concedes that the case reinforced the message that there was a need for such a device.
The parent side of the operation looks like a car-alarm gadget; the child side comes with a blue bum bag, though it can be clipped on a belt. You "alarm" your child and then if he or she disappears from view you press the button and your child goes off - well, their alarm does. It costs Pounds 39.99 (Pounds 1 of which goes to the NSPCC) and has a range of 200ft. It is also "coded", which means, according to Keith D'Abrera, parents don't run the risk setting off every child alarm in the shop or park or road . . .
Roads. Keith D'Abrera says that a Sheffield study has shown that 22 per cent of parents are more worried about their child being abducted than they are about traffic accidents or drug abuse. Which means that 78 per cent of them are still worried about roads, which is good news for Brian Alderson of Roadmaster.
Roadmaster is also a new product, basically a mini motorway system for the play area with orange lights and cones made by manufacturers of the real things. Traffic lights are under development, and if Brian's display seemed to emphasise road works, well, we want to introduce the under-fives to the real world, don't we?