Windsor's new pleasure palace

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The wildlife safari has gone but new, brick-built excitement is to be found in its place. Maureen McTaggart reports from Legoland

On a hill overlooking the Queen's Windsor backyard, millions of brightly -coloured bricks, scattered with careless creativity, vie with nature to produce a 35-acre interactive playground for thousands of youngsters.

Lego, the Danish toy company thinks "whatever the child does, he is king", so it has replaced 600 tons of hippo dung and tranquilliser darts left behind by the previous tenants of Windsor Safari Park, with an Pounds 83 million project dedicated to children's needs.

For more than two years, the family-run firm whose plastic bricks have built it a worldwide toy empire, has been creating Legoland Windsor (twice the size of the Danish Legoland opened in 1968), to develop children's education through an interactive approach.

Legoland falls into five main activity areas. One is Miniland, a model world as high as a youngster's kneecaps, which has taken 100 model designers two and a half years and several million computer-controlled bricks to create an impressive display of the many wonders of the world, including the Taj Mahal and the Statue of Liberty.

Among the other ingredients, without which no theme park would be complete, are the rides which thankfully, are of the pink-knuckle variety and reassuringly brick-free.

But there is more to Legoland than plastic bricks. Unlike other theme parks where wisdom-inducing activities are often tacked on afterwards, education has been planned from the beginning for Legoland Windsor, which opens at the end of March.

Lorna Scott, the company's education officer, says they are not jumping on the learning bandwagon and their programmes are not an afterthought. "They were there from the planning stages because we believe children should learn through play.

"The whole park has been designed with educational opportunities in mind, from the trains running between European cities in Miniland and the driving school where youngsters can gain a Legoland driving licence to the water fountain that magically parts to allow them to walk through. Every activity is open to questioning, giving children the chance to explore why things work the way they do."

It is a move that compounds the 64-year-old vision of Ole Christiansen, Lego's founder, that children should have the imagination to create whatever they want out of bricks guaranteed to always fit together.

Lego Dacta, the group's education arm, has worked closely with Berkshire's education authority to develop six programmes to support national curriculum work. And 100 of the county's teachers have been involved in testing them with more than 200 of their pupils.

Stanley Goodchild, Berkshire's chief education officer, welcomes Lego's approach to learning. "It is not so much about teaching children, but more about them learning by using imaginative, thought-provoking constructions. And the positioning of the education centre right in the middle of the park, instead of tucking it away in a corner, shows Lego's genuine concern about education."

Some of the schoolchildren involved in trials of the teaching approaches in the Lego Dacta classrooms worked on gravity experiments with Lego-built racing cars, while others used one of the 16 computers to manipulate Lego equipment - illustrating the benefits of Lego's partnership deal with Apple Computer for control technology.

During term-time, four hour-long workshops will take place in the two dedicated classrooms housed in the park's Imagination Centre.

These will be designed for groups of schoolchildren aged from five to 13, and will reflect the teaching needs of key stages 1, 2 and 3 in drama, science, design technology and information technology.

"Our research shows that 60 per cent of primary teachers are not happy about teaching these subjects, so we have developed programmes that will help them enhance classroom work," says Lorna Scott.

"However, we are not here to replace teachers, only to help them kick off the subjects."

Prior to a visit, teachers are invited to a free planning trip where they can request a lesson to suit special classroom needs. In addition, they will be sent a resource pack giving background on the workshop, suggested activities, worksheets and even a parents' letter and, for the first time, Lego Dacta products will be available for the general public to buy.

Teenagers and grown-ups on their own would find Legoland tame but children between three and 12 will be fascinated.

* Legoland Windsor is open from 10am to 6pm daily from March 29 to September 29. During the school summer holidays (July 1 to August 31), it will open from 10am until 8pm and on weekends during October.A special schools price of Pounds 6 per head from Monday to Friday, with one free place for every 12, includes a resource pack, workshops and a day in the park. Legoland, Windsor Park Ltd, Winkfield Road, Berkshire SL4 4AY. Tel: 01753 626100. Stand SJ18

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