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Tips for silence

So how did you keep the kids busy in the holidays?" I ask a parent teacher. With four kids doing exams and universities, she should know.

"Actually, we never did," she tells me. "We've taught our children to look after themselves. They would read the papers, discuss the news or go out on their bicycles. Or they would get out their instruments, form a string quartet and play for ages."

After that, feeling very deficient, I gave my thanks and made excuses to leave. Actually, and I'm still smarting, I thought I'd been doing well with mine, aged four. While he's no more musical than his nursery rhyme tapes, he does know about Thomas. He knows too about Percy, Annie, Clarabel and all the tank engine team. He's got the definitive collection of Thomas models and all that mechanising can put on a Woolies shelf. He'll shunt trucks round a railway track for hours, acting out Thomas stories. Don't anyone dare move anything to spoil the ending.

His addiction and our success in keeping him "busy" led to the harder, more expensive stuff - a Brio train set. At age two it was totally ignored, now it's a joy to see it laid out by day, and a pain to trip over at night. But what's more questionable are the stereotypes in "Thomas" - a world where boy engines pull the girl trucks.

But this year is different, he and the girl next door have become an "item". Give them cardboard boxes and they turn them into cars. Give them a Blue Peter bin, and they turn string and plastic bottles into telephones. Give them dressing-up clothes, and they'll make a play and get you to video them. And give them paint, and they'll create an art gallery and exchange entrance tickets for invisible money.

You realise that two is less, much less to handle as you admire the art work. "How much do these cost?" you say. "Well, this one's 2p, and this one's Pounds 2 million pounds," they say. This young pair are a duet to match any string quartet.

For creative work and the child alone the computer is a must-have toy. Crayola Art Adventure has colouring in, dot to dots and unlike any painting set, it talks to help infants along. Others like 3D Movie Maker let them create cartoon stories, while Creative Writer lets them make a newspaper, birthday cards, or place-mats to print and even laminate. The choice is phenomenal, so you need only look for big brand names to find the best. There's so much to do, that you can ignore computer games and never miss them.

"But what if you're desperate - like you really need to get on with something?" I asked some Lambeth teachers in London.

"Well, give them something to do that they're guaranteed to mess up. Then when they do, you can send them to their room for hours. So if you let them do cooking, they're bound to drop the flour. Or if you pay them money up-front for tidying up, they'll always fail to do it."

Hmm. Nice tip, any more? "Yes, if you really want to get the kids out of the way, get them a Sony PlayStation console. Then they'll play games forever and not need to talk to you until they leave home."

These computer programs are widely available through stores or mail order.

Drawing: Kid Pix Studio (age 6+) from Br?derbund; Creative Artist (age 8+) from Microsoft. Crayola Art Adventure (age 4+) from Micrografx.

Animation: 3D Movie Maker (age 9+) from Microsoft Writing: Creative Writer (age 9+) from Microsoft

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