Wheel pleasure

EDU-PLAY ACTIVITY CENTRE Pounds 222.70 Edu-Play, units H and I, vulcan Business Centre, Vulcan Road, Leicester LE5 3EB Tel: 0116 262827

Jon O'Connor tries out a versatile piece of play equipment.

Toys which combine natural materials and traditional construction with a slice of simple technology are not just the stuff of parental nostalgia. If you look around, you can discover beautiful toys which offer young children scope for experiment and exploration.

Edu-Play's Activity Centre is such a piece of work: a collection of sound learning experiences for table-top or floorspace. The baseboard for the centre is a beautifully grained piece of plywood, with perfectly bevelled edges, flawless, satin finish and the sturdy structure of an elongated pyramid.

Along the sides, there is enough activity to keep three or four children occupied. On one face, there are two whirling drums made of ply and dowel, reminiscent of the hamster's training wheel. One holds fluorescent-coloured balls and the other sets five jingle-bells chattering as the drum spins round. There is a thumping good door knocker and a brightly-coloured six-blade paddle-wheel to mess with.

While you play, you can practise posing in the mirror. On the other team's side, there is a two-sided rotating mirror, which lets you look up inside your nose if you really need to. The opening cut into the board for the mirror provided three-year-old Todd with a useful space for his sandwiches. Paddington would have been proud of him.

Along with the mixture of rattles and bangs, rollers and reflection, there is an innocent introduction to some real technology. The three-cog set of gears provides satisfaction for the emergent engineer and a set of beads which can double as an early abacus provides for the maturing mathematician. A whirling spinner echoes the design of those horrendous fairground rides which carry a boatload of fearless riders over the top and back again.

The pi ce de resistance - which certainly cracked my resistance after a few minutes - is an innocuous-looking drum wheel, which hides an internal gearwheel cracking against a length of sprung steel, hidden inside the casing. The sound has the same sharpness and effect on more nervous listeners as a rifle shot. It's all good stuff.

Children need to have choice as well as more constrained activity which helps to develop their basic structure of knowledge and understanding. A great deal of research and care, therefore, goes into the design and manufacture of playthings for young children and the youngest of all represent the ultimate challenge.

Edu-Play's Activity Centre is a robust, attractive and entertaining piece of play equipment. Our school parent and toddler group were delighted by the variety of shapes, colours and actions. There was lots to talk about with friends and grown-ups. There are also many subtle allusions to number in the activity centre components. The bead abacus splits into two rows of three, with two beads on the top line and one on the lower line, split in half to provide counting options of three, four, five and nine. The cogs have eight teeth, while the spinner has five plastic clatterers top and bottom. It adds up to a beautiful piece of equipment, which is worth the investment for its excellent design, durability, education and entertainment value.

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