Christmas Shopping: Dennis The Chemist

Want to give your little menace an educational present? We put six kits for junior boffins to the litmus test
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The Independent Culture
CHILDREN love to mess around with matches, cause explosions and witness violent changes of colour, and parents want to kindle their budding Einsteins' interest in science. The old-fashioned chemistry set would seem to satisfy both these desires rather admirably.

THE PANEL

Our testers (in separate domestic trials) included Nerida Dawkin (13), Hannah Scrimshaw (11), Michael (13) and Emma (nine) Newton, Joe Caplin (five) and assorted parents whose scientific knowledge ranged from "practically none" to graduate level and beyond.

THE TEST

Many modern science sets claim to be completely safe; the question remains whether safety and education are compatible with fun for kids. We looked for engaging sets which would hold their interest on more than one occasion (these boxes aren't cheap) and would not bore the supervising adult.

**PHYSICAL SCIENCE 250

For age 10 plus; pounds 19.99

This set is physics- rather than chemistry-related, but the distinction was lost on most of our testers. "It's more of a Meccano kit," said Michael Newton. You construct your console, weighing scale and spring balance with screws, which seems a bit like hard work. Nerida and Hannah agreed - interest was flagging before they'd started on the 250 "amazing experiments" the box boasts. Some of these are as simple as looking at reflections in a teaspoon to compare convex and concave, while other sections expect an advanced vocabulary, using phrases like "the phenomenon of the persistence of vision" with little explanation. Deborah Dawkin protested that the instructions book is "very hard to follow": it's divided into rather plodding sections which deal with air, water, forces and motion, simple mechanics, light and sight, heat and magnetism. Everyone enjoyed the dinkiness of weighing a tiny balloon to see that air has weight, but were disappointed by a lack of practical references. You learn about Archimedes' principle, but not that he said "Eureka!" when he discovered it, which, as Angela Sutton said, "is far more interesting".

*****ALIEN SLIME LAB

For age 10 plus; pounds 24.99

Despite initial scoffing (as Deborah Dawkin said, "How educational can a chemistry set be when it's based on fantasy?") this was voted our winner, as it was imaginative, stimulating and accessible to all ages. The Dawkins, who reported that even their granny got involved, felt that "this would be a great present for Boxing Day". The children liked the alien illustrations in the booklet and the dangerous-sounding chemicals; seven containers are supplied, containing the likes of sodium citrate sensationally labelled "Poison". The adults thought that the experiments related nicely to everyday life - you can see whether enzymes actually clean, as all the washing powder commercials claim. "It's disgusting, but fun,"said Emma Newton, "but the Alien Skin is just green sponge - that's a bit silly." Still, she kitted up in the goggles and surgical gloves before she handled it.

***MEGA SCIENCE LAB, MICROCHEM 5000

For age 10 plus; pounds 29.99

The most impressive-looking as well as the most expensive set, the Mega Science Lab opens out like a carpenter's tool box to reveal row upon row of chemical containers, bits of plastic apparatus to be assembled, and sheets of sticky-backed chemical labels. Nerida Dawkin was overawed by it, saying: "This would make a brilliant Christmas present. But I needed a lot of help from my Dad." Those adults less well-read in the sciences also struggled, with much equipment to puzzle over and "endless plastic bits and bobs" (molecular models). You have to read sentences several times to grasp the instructions and the booklet doesn't give the conclusions to the experiments - a fact that some considered avant-garde and others exasperating. You can't dip into the kit; it has to be worked through methodically, otherwise you don't have the necessary compounds for later experiments. Lots of tables, reference charts and even pronunciation guides ("dee' kom po zi shun") make this seem like a worthy correspondence course. David Sutton judged the set "comprehensive - for the kids who want to learn organic chemistry so they can murder their parents and not be discovered".

*SCIENCE IN THE KITCHEN

For ages 5 to 9; pounds 7.99

The only set in our survey marketed as suitable for five- to nine-year- olds, this small box, containing such essentials as tiny plastic flower pots, bubble-wrap and lolly sticks, is part of a series of kits which includes Science in the Bathroom and Science in the Garden. Most of our older testers considered it "babyish". Nerida Dawkin thought the experiments (which largely involve freezing things and eating them) self-evident, but said if she had a younger sister or brother she'd like to help them with the tests. Hannah Scrimshaw said you'd be better off with a couple of yoghurt pots. We conscripted one five-year-old, Joe Caplin, to test it: his father reported limited interest, and his mother overheard him telling Grandma that the orange pips he'd planted that morning would have grown into a tree by tomorrow.

***SMITHSONIAN,

MICROCHEM XM2000

For age 10 plus; pounds 19.99

Less advanced than the Microchem 5000, the 2000 is billed as the "safest chemistry set ever made", apparently achieving the same results as regular chemistry sets without glassware, al- cohol burners or flames, and with reduced chemical strengths. But users still have to be aged 10 or over, and Hannah Scrimshaw said it was "a bit boring that none of the experiments need fire". Angela Sutton thought children would be wise to start on this before buying the bigger set, but they didn't think so, and found watching nails of different materials rusting "really boring". Nerida Dawkin summed it up as "educational and no fun", but Emma Newton did make herself a nice bracelet with the multi- coloured molecular models.

****JOHN ADAMS CHEMISTRY ACTION 120

For age 10 plus; pounds 24.99

This set is distinguished by its drawer-style boxes andan instructions book- let written cosily in the first person. Everyone found the playful aspects of the experiments appealing: a magic trick results in invisible ink and you are told how to make your own pH paper from dark red flowers. Users can also write with tea, make a mini fire-extinguisher and grow crystals. "We could probably do this on our own," said Emma Newton approvingly. Testers warmed to the extremely practical advice given which, Angela Sutton confessed, "we really should have known before embarking on some of the other sets". It suggests that you should read the whole experiment before starting, and that 'an untidy chemist is a bad chemist'. "You'd definitely want to be in this bloke's class," said Tony Newton.

STOCKISTS

All these sets are usually stocked by Hamley's, London W1 (0171 734 3161), or for Physical Science 250, call 01628 500309; Alien Slime Lab, 01438 726002; Science in the Kitchen, 01223 864886; Microchem, 01733 371170; John Adams, 01235 833066.

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