Upstairs, downstairs

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Loft system from Pounds 1,595 to Pounds 3,395, Community Playthings, Darvell, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5DR. Hoyer system, Kits from Pounds 1,000 to Pounds 40,000, eibe-play Ltd, Forest House, 8 Baxter Road, Sale, Cheshire M33 3AL

...and in my lady's chamber. Carolyn O'Grady discovers a new style of nursery furniture which allows children to explore and hide, and act out their fantasies.

The home-care centre, the home corner, the life experience area - call it what you will, what always springs to mind is a small area of the nursery school or reception class given over to a settee, ironing board and sink with a few dolls.

Recently, however, something altogether more imaginative and versatile has arrived on the scene, which puts less emphasis on domesticity.

A generic term is hard to come by, but essentially these are wooden structures with stairs, an upper storey, hidey holes and perhaps a tunnel or two. They can serve as houses, hospitals, railway stations, sleeping areas, or a thousand other things.

The units are designed to act as a springboard to imaginative and social play in nursery and primary schools. They also encourage physical activity and can be cosy places where children go for some peace and quiet or to sleep. Small spaces evocative of the attic and the cubby hole under the stairs are included.

The units are modular and can be put together to make a variety of forms, depending on the age of the children and what is wanted. If your budget increases you can add more parts.

Michael Harris, headteacher of Middleton-in-Teesdale Primary School in County Durham, was looking for such a system for his school's nursery unit for some time before he happened upon the Community Playthings Loft system, built by the Hutterian Brethren, a Christian community with a reputation as a maker of educational toys and furniture for young children.

The current catalogue price of the school's unit is around Pounds 2,500, but a combination of enthusiastic fund-raising by parents and a grant from Glaxo enabled the school to meet the bill. The pharmaceutical company also lent fitters to put it together, though Community Playthings says it can easily be assembled by teachers and requires no tools.

Taking up around 1.25 metres by 2 metres of floor space, with a height of just over 2 metres, the system is relatively compact but intriguingly complex, with two stairs and a landing, a carpeted upper-storey, hidey holes, passages and standing room underneath. Inside are numerous places for children to explore and hide and act out their fantasies.

The child-sized stairs have been a particular success, Mr Harris says. Children, especially those who live in flats and go to single storey nurseries, find stairs magnetically attractive and for some they can be an immense physical challenge. "Several of our children with special needs have had to learn to use stairs," he says. "It took them several weeks, but now they do it all the time."

The height of the structure has also proved stimulating. "They can climb up the stairs to meet me at face level." No mean feat, as Mr Harris is over six feet tall.

Opportunities for language development are also offered by the many dimensions of the structure. "Up" and "under", "between" and "above" and "below" are quickly added to vocabularies.

It is the versatility of these units which appeals to Susan Hay of Floral Place Nursery in Islington, London, a private nursery which four years ago installed a large Hoyer system from eibe-play Ltd (an equivalent structure today would cost around Pounds 10,000). It was was bought, she says, "to brighten up one dingy wall with no windows". The unit was installed by eibe-play, though the company says it can be done by the caretaker or local fitters.

Ms Hay says: "A major strength is that it is so non-prescriptive. It can become anything. If we are doing a theme, 'The Body', for example, it can be a hospital, a surgery or a waiting room. If the theme is 'Travel', it can be a travel agent or an airport lobby. The children make areas out of it. They have had an office on the top floor. They love going for their rests in the little snuggly parts".

Ms Hay says, however, that it would be difficult to accommodate such a huge piece of furniture in most nurseries, as it is approximately 4.5 metres by 2 metres, with a height of 2.4 metres. The structures can be even larger: an eibe-play unit now in Germany takes up approximately 20 metres by 10 metres of floor space and is four storeys high. Eibe-play emphasises that the systems are flexible and can be adapted to any height and space.

Units are built to take an enormous amount of wear and tear. Clyde Nursery School in Lewisham, south London, bought its unit from the same company over a year ago (at today's prices it would cost around Pounds 7,000) with a grant from Lewisham's Early Years Service for children with special needs. It is estimated that about 60 per cent of the pupils have special needs including language difficulties, emotional needs and conditions such as asthma and sickle cell.

More than 150 children use the Hoyer system, as the school, as well as housing a nursery, includes an early learning centre for very young children, and the hall where the unit is situated is used by childminders and a parent and toddler group once a week. But it stands up to the pounding well, headteacher Thelma Miller says.

"It is great for imaginative play and language development. The children love it". Her only regret is that, though she would like to place it centrally in the room, it was decided to place it up against a wall to make supervision easier, especially for the parent and toddler group. The children, she says, "love the experience of climbing stairs - it gives them a sense of achievement. And they love being high up."

Community Playthings - stand 609

eibe-play - stand 412

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