John Salisbury is the publisher of UK Toy News, the UK's top trade toy magazine. Ted Barnes owns Cambridge Learning, the UK's first "try before you buy" family software shop (mail order: 01223 262777). Rosemary Stones is editor of Books for Keeps, Britain's leading review journal for children's books. Sophie Coleman is co-owner and chief buyer for Tridias, a chain of independent toy shops in Bath, London and Dartington in Devon (mail order: 01225 469455). Gill Wilton edits Practical Pre-School News, a magazine for anyone working with young children. Jon Rees is a secondary-school mathematics teacher. He has four children, ranging from ages one to nine-years-old.
"Children get very intensely involved with this toy. They follow the beads around in an absolute reverie of concentration," says Sophie Coleman. Indeed, even tiny tots will spend ages pushing the bright, polished, wooden shapes along their wire pathways, developing co-ordination, counting skills, colour and pattern recognition as they go. Ideal for fostering absorbing games between parents and children. Where from: by John Crane; for stockists, call 01604 678790.
How much: pounds 24.95.
See the circle of life in action with these endearing little brine shrimp. The ultimate in biology in a sachet: watch them hatch from dried eggs, develop into adulthood, and have babies of their own. All sets include a plastic aquarium with a built-in magnifying lens, a year's food supply, and an entertaining and informative guide. "Easily the cheapest and least demanding pets around," says Sophie Coleman. "They also involve extended play, because you've got to look after them to keep them going." Where from: by Educational Insights, at good toy shops. How much: pounds 4.99.
RUSH HOUR PUZZLE
Be prepared for fisticuffs over whose turn it is to play this addictive solitaire game based on the simple slide-puzzle concept. Sixteen vehicles must be manoeuvred to enable the red car to escape the parking lot, but with four levels of play, and some solutions involving over 150 moves, this is a lot more challenging than it sounds. "It's ideal for developing sequential thinking skills, as you need real persistence to solve the harder levels," says Sophie Coleman. "Few toys on the market really challenge children as well as this."
Where from: by Binary Arts, at Tridias (mail order: 01225 469455). How much: pounds 9.99.
"One of the most versatile of science toys around," says Jon Salisbury. "Children find it very satisfying to use, and it really demonstrates how things around us work." Capsela achieves this through a series of clear perspex slot-together capsules, each containing active visible functions like gears, clutch and motors. Children can build a variety of motorised machines, and learn up to 18 scientific principles of motion, energy and electricity, including Archimedes' principle and Newton's laws. Where from: by IQ Builders, at good toy shops. How much: from pounds 9.99.
SIM CITY 3000 CD-ROM
With Sim City, kids can be master of all they survey - as long as they do it wisely. As mayor of a growing city, they'll get a feel for how things work in the real world by juggling issues like housing, transport infrastructure, tax rates and environmental degradation. They can zoom into street level to ogle their voters or whizz out again for a god's eye view of their domain. "Arguably the best computer game on the planet," says Ted Barnes. "It really gets kids thinking and learning about all sorts of issues, like planning and pollution, while remaining absolutely compulsive." Where from: by Electronic Arts, at major software retailers. How much: pounds 34.99.
THE USBORNE BOOK OF EVERYDAY WORDS
There are lots of first-word books around, but this hardback, with photographs of objects lovingly crafted out of modelling clay, has immense appeal. Not only a great introduction to hundreds of items from toasters to tummy buttons, this will also prompt even the least arty kids to get out the plasticine and have a go. "A delight for parents as well as young kids," says Jon Rees. "The models have a real 3D feel, and the details, like the baby about to yank the cat's tail, are just perfect."
Where from: by Usborne, at good bookshops. How much: pounds 7.99.
GIZMOS GEARS GEAR GEARS
"A fantastic toy that illustrates the action of machines, and develops understanding of mechanical and engineering ideas," says Sophie Coleman. "The different colours and spirals also create different effects with fast movement." This advanced set for building flat or 3D-geared constructions actively illustrates the principles and practice of driving machines, and includes 20 cogged wheels, 14 clip-together bases, crown gear, propeller, spring connections and an ideas booklet. Where from: by Learning Resources, at good toy shops. How much: pounds 24.95.
LOOKING AT PICTURES
Plundering the art collection of the National Gallery, this well-planned book encourages young people to discover the joy of looking at art by using examples of great paintings to discuss major works of narration, portraits and landscapes. "A lively and accessible text written with infectious enthusiasm," concludes Rosemary Stones. Topics include why paintings were made, storytelling in pictures, artistic symbols, painting methods, light and atmosphere.
Where from: by A&C Black, at good bookshops. How much: paperback pounds 10.99.
ZOOMBINIS MATHS JOURNEY CD-ROM
Full marks for originality for this wry and witty title, which calls on children's logic and maths skills to get a tribe of oversized blueberries home to Zoombiniton. It takes a great deal of brain power to outwit the Pizza troll or cross the Allergic cliffs. "Never the same twice," says Ted Barnes, "and it really does help children develop the matching, sorting and logic skills taught in today's maths lessons." Where from: by Broderbund, at major software retailers. How much: pounds 19.99.
Guaranteed to give even the most precocious teenager a good mental workout, every one of these 100 illustrated cards has a brain-teasing puzzle or conundrum to solve. Questions include eyeball tanglers, logic puzzles, twisted mazes and physics quandaries, with three levels of difficulty and answers on the back for the truly stumped. "Tricky, very tricky or extremely tricky," is Jon Rees's verdict. Where from: by Binary Arts, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 12.99. 11
Children and adults alike cannot help but be seduced by this appealing penguin television character, and the CD-Rom has all the flair of the cartoons. With a straightforward but super selection of games and puzzles in three difficulty levels, this helps children with maths, reading, science, geography, problem-solving and hand-eye co-ordination - though they'll never know it. "This is the BBC's best CD-Rom ever," says Ted Barnes. "It's educational but highly entertaining - fits of giggles are common." Where from: by BBC Multimedia, at major software retailers.
How much: pounds 24.99.
THE USBORNE ANIMATED CHILDREN'S ENCYCLOPAEDIA
"Not a deeply serious reference work, but humorous and very child-friendly," says Rosemary Stones of this book- and-CD-Rom package. "The software, with its sparkly sound effects and animated sequences, captivates young kids for hours, and helps them pick up masses of information on the way." It covers everything from the Earth and science, to plants, animals, people and their discoveries.
Where from: by Usborne, at good bookshops.
How much: pounds 19.99.
LOGIBLOCKS ELECTRIC CITY 1
It's always a bonus when what you build actually works, and with Logiblocks' chunky slot-together components, children can irritate their parents by making various noisy inventions, including a burglar alarm, door alarm, and water sensor. "An electric circuit-board gives each block its own unique function, introducing electronic and logical principles in an attractive and easy-to-use way," says Jon Salisbury. Where from: by Logiblocks Ltd, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 34.95.
A construction set with a difference, this comes complete with genuine miniature terracotta bricks and roof tiles, even a tiny trowel, so you can build little houses with real cement. Demolition is easy; soak the whole thing in water and start again. "There is something utterly bewitching about this beautifully crafted set," says Jon Rees. "And in terms of getting children thinking about the basics of house-building, it just can't be beaten." Where from: by Teifoc, through Hawkin mail order (01986 782536). How much: pounds 39.90.
DEGANO 2,000 YEARS JIGSAW PUZZLE
Keep 'em quiet until the millennium with this gigantic 8,000-piece jigsaw, which details mankind's achievements over the last 2,000 years. The witty cartoon illustrations show history's most prominent events and characters by 10-yearly increments. "Challenging, but enormous fun to do," says Jon Rees, "and the pictures sparked lots of questions and conversations about history and civilisation."
Where from: by BV Leisure; for stockists, call 01480 411144.
How much: pounds 46.
"My three- and six-year-olds were addicted to this, whizzing through the exercises without pausing," says Jon Rees. "It's a rare toy that's genuinely stimulating and exciting at the same time." Used in a similar form in reception classes around the country, Starter Stile gets young children learning independently by matching the tiles with the right answers in the accompanying tray to make attractive patterns. It covers shape and letter recognition, matching, opposites, first words and animals. Where from: by Early Learning Centre (ELC), at branches of ELC (call 01793 443322 for your nearest store).
How much: pounds 5 for the tile-and-tray set, pounds 3 for the set of two workbooks.
CHILDREN'S BAKEWARE SET
The pint-sized rolling pin, springform tin and mixing bowl, among 15 components in this top-quality baking set, can't fail to get children itching to try some of the recipes in the accompanying leaflet, which is carefully written with kids and safety in mind. "What with convenience food and pressure on the curriculum, the art of cooking is in danger of being lost," says Sophie Coleman. "This lovely set encourages children to try their hand at baking, along with all the associated skills in maths and proportion."
Where from: by Progress; for stockists, call 01282 415511.
How much: pounds 14.95.
Similar to the traditional card version, this compelling family game takes the concept of forming sets a stage further, with double the number of playing pieces and more versatile tactics. "A great way of getting kids to think about mathematical concepts like sets and number relationships," says Jon Rees. "It's easy to learn, but challenging enough to give adults a good run for their money."
Where from: by Goliath Games, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 14.99.
GEOSAFARI TALKING GLOBE
There's nothing like a proper globe to give you a feel for physical geography, and this attractive 30cm geopolitical version is satisfying to handle and explore. For added interest, the sturdy base includes a compulsive electronic quiz game for one to four players, with different levels of difficulty covering place names and locations. "Kids love the combination of technology and education, and it fits in nicely with the National Curriculum for geography," says Jon Salisbury. Where from: by Educational Insights; for stockists, call 01438 726002.
How much: pounds 49.99.
Tax their powers of observation, research and lateral thinking with this worldwide computer-based treasure hunt. If they solve all of Aureum's 40 visual and historical clues, they can enter a global race to win a prize holiday and treasure trove of pounds 20,000 worth of gold. "Like a good crossword, this is engrossing and seriously challenging," says Jon Rees, "not to mention thoroughly enjoyable - even if we don't get the gold." Where from: by Attica Software, at major software retailers.
How much: pounds 19.99.
MATCHING AND SORTING BLOCKS
"They may look simple, but handling the shapes and gaining familiarity with their proportions helps to develop an intuitive sense of basic mathematical principles," says Gill Wilton of this attractive set of coloured, geometrically shaped blocks. Young children can arrange them in an infinite number of ways, helping them understand shape, pattern and form, and promoting sorting and matching skills. Invaluable, too, for nurturing infant architects and engineers. Where from: by Plan Toys; for stockists, call 01664 483838.
How much: pounds 13.99.
With 44 experiments that you can do around the home, this book will have young kids itching to find out more about the world around them, and provides enough information and explanations to answer all their attendant questions without humiliating more scientifically challenged parents. "An illuminating and entertaining series of experiments in which science disciplines are healthily mixed," says Rosemary Stones. "The instructions are unambiguous, the results gratifying, and the book itself is nicely designed and illustrated." Where from: by Kingfisher, at good bookshops.
How much: paperback pounds 5.99. 23
ARITHMETIC, ARITHMETIC COLOURING BOOK
As usual, the simplest ideas are the best. Solve the number puzzles involving standard functions, fractions, decimals, percentages and ratios, colour in the answers, and reveal the hidden pictures. Each picture has two different sets of sums to choose from: one easier and one harder. "An easy and pleasurable way to get thoroughly familiar with sums, while speeding up mental arithmetic," says Sophie Coleman. Two similar books are available for times tables. Where from: by Tarquin Publishing; for stockists, call 01379 384218.
How much: pounds 2.95.
"The virtue of this kit is that it's very detailed without being too difficult," says Sophie Coleman, "And while lots of toys fall down on the background booklet, this has good instructions and lots of detail about electronics in general." Everything you need for a sound introduction to all things electrical, including components and instructions to build a radio, alarm system, siren, and musical organ - and not a soldering iron in sight. Where from: by John Adams Toys, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 12.99.
CAPRICORN ELECTRONIC CHESS AND DRAUGHTS COMPUTER
Play with an opponent or pit your wits against the computer to hone your chess skills and strategies. This compact electronic chess game has over 7,000 settings, built-in teaching features, and a memory function to record the game if batteries, time or mental energy runs low. "Too often chess is presented in rather a stark way, with explanations that are difficult to follow," says Sophie Coleman, "but this game comes with a really good booklet with its own friendly teaching method." Where from: by Systema, at Tridias (mail order: 01225 469455) and Argos (catalogue no: 3606298; call 0870 600 2020 to order). How much: pounds 34.99.
This chunky infant version of Lego is perhaps the best introduction to the construction toy. It encourages co-ordination skills and is versatile enough to be made - with a liberal dose of imagination - into just about anything. "A great traditional toy that is excellent for young children to make models," says Gill Wilton. "Best of all, it's washable, and can be combined with ordinary Lego to extend its life as children get older."
Where from: by Lego, at good toy shops.
How much: pre-school packs from pounds 9.99.
"Only the best games survive the test of time," says Jon Salisbury, "and nothing beats the tried-and-tested formula of Scrabble for getting children interested in words and improving their vocabulary." This simplified version of the traditional word game has a colourful, double-sided board: on one side, the "word and pictures" game guides word formation and recognition; on the other, an easier scoring system introduces younger children to the regular crossword game. Where from: by Mattel, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 13.99.
Try and turn the lights out in the minimum number of moves using this neat electronic handset. Much, much more difficult than it sounds, as each time you press a button, it either lights up or turns off that button and many of the others around it. "Great for developing logical thinking and, even more importantly, memory," says Jon Salisbury. Guarantees hours of family bemusement. Where from: by Tiger Electronics, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 16.99.
LEGO DROID DEVELOPERS KIT
"A winning combination of Lego bricks, sophisticated computer technology, and the Star Wars brand make this a really popular, yet challenging toy," says Jon Salisbury. The micro-computer with seven built-in programs at the heart of this kit takes Lego into a new dimension, allowing children to build their own working Droids and R2-D2 using the accompanying CD- Rom and step-by-step building guide. Where from: by Lego, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 79.99.
MECCANO MASTER CONNECTION
A classic toy that hardly needs introduction, but Meccano has come a long way since the days of plain nuts, bolts and metal strips with holes. Older children will find plenty to stretch their creative and technical skills with components like shock absorbers, four-wheel steering, and torque mechanisms to meddle with. "Another classic construction toy taken into another dimension, with technical advances that reflect many of those in the world around us," says Jon Salisbury. Where from: by Meccano, at good toy shops. How much: from pounds 9.99.
TIZZY'S TOYBOX CD-ROM
"This is no-nonsense British schools software at its best, and one of the few titles available to the general public," says Ted Barnes. "It may not have the glossy graphics and whizz-bang effects of many early- years titles, but it benefits from clear screen design, British narration and a refreshingly direct approach." The CD-Rom is packed with rewarding activities surrounding letters and reading, numbers and counting, sorting, matching, and recognising shapes and spaces. It comes in three difficulty levels, with photocopiable resource sheets and a useful ideas book.
Where from: by Sherston Software, at Cambridge Learning (mail order: 01223 262777). How much: pounds 24.99.
BERLITZ KIDS FRENCH LANGUAGE PACK
Everything you need to get kids started early on a foreign language - the younger they start, the more they absorb. The pack includes an illustrated first 100 words and phrases book, flash cards, a bilingual storybook, a cassette and a guide to helping your child with a foreign language. "Thankfully a million miles away from the dull grammatical approach I endured at school," says Jon Rees. "This really appealed to all my kids, and covers all the basics." Also available in Spanish and German. Where from: by Berlitz, at good bookshops.
How much: pounds 15.49.
THE OXFORD CHILDREN'S ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPAEDIA
With over 800 major entries, extensive cross-referencing and lavish illustrations, this is the gold standard of children's reference works. Researched and written in consultation with 50 specialist experts around the world, it is invaluable for supporting homework or simply satisfying idle curiosity. "A good balance of well-covered topics, this is a highly effective and engaging book from which kids can retrieve information with ease," says Rosemary Stones. Where from: by OUP, at good bookshops.
How much: pounds 29.99.
DESIGNER GENES BY PHIL GATES
"An important topic for all of our futures, the arguments are objective and thorough, with a lively and humorous style throughout," says Rosemary Stones of this highly informative paperback. Part of Scholastic's "Talking Point" series, it takes an in-depth look at genetic science and what it may mean to future generations. While thoroughly covering all the science behind manipulating human, plant and animal DNA, the author also focuses on the moral and ethical questions involved. Other books in the series include animals, alien contact and the Internet.
Where from: by Scholastic, at good bookshops. How much: pounds 3.99. 35
RED SHIFT CD-ROM
Created by serious astronomers and crammed with awe-inspiring statistics, films, photographs and illustrations, this state-of-the-art title takes you from the Big Bang to the end of time. Budding Patrick Moores can establish the position of more than one million stars, planets and other celestial objects, or use the sky diary to find out exactly what to point their telescope at in tonight's sky. "The interactive tutorials are first class, and, for beginners, the new photos from the Hubble space telescope and footage from the surface of Mars are inspiring," says Ted Barnes. Where from: by Dorling Kindersley, from major software retailers.
How much: pounds 29.99.
This scheme of phonics-based workbooks, videos, and durable board books is used extensively in schools, and familiarises young children with the shapes and sounds of the alphabet in preparation for reading and writing. "The board books in particular have a nice touch in that children can trace their fingers along the groove of each letter," says Jon Rees. "This physical experience helps imprint the form of the letter before they can manage pencil control." Where from: by Jolly Learning Ltd, from good bookshops.
How much: board books pounds 4.99, workbooks pounds 1.50, videos pounds 9.99-pounds 23.44, box pounds 129.72.
ORLY'S DRAW-A-STORY CD-ROM
Truly a paint program with a difference. Eight-year-old Orly, an irrepressible Jamaican girl, has four stories to tell, but she needs another child to help breathe life into the characters using the painting and drawing tools provided. It is guaranteed to rouse even the most reluctant young artists, as they see their artwork characters animated as part of the story, and can also make up stories of their own. "Bursting with personality, this is very inspiring, and really gets kids using computer paint tools in a constructive way," says Ted Barnes. Where from: by Broderbund, from major software outlets.
How much: pounds 29.99.
You don't have to be a Manchester United fan to enjoy this cheeky take on the classic board game - but it helps. Football-themed throughout, the London streets have been substituted with famous players, with balls and whistles for counters. Otherwise, the game works on the same principles as the enduringly popular original - basically greed - and is still one of the best ways to get kids engaged in mental arithmetic. "Monopoly is excellent for numeracy and maths skills," says Jon Salisbury. "You see kids doing quite complicated sums without even noticing."
Where from: by Hasbro, from good toy shops.
How much: pounds 32.99.
THE YOUNG OXFORD HISTORY OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND
"Copiously illustrated, and written simply and directly, this is an outstanding history book," says Rosemary Stones. "It also counters the anglo-centrism that is still prevalent in much of children's history publishing." Explore the everyday lives of people of all kinds across the centuries, and learn about great moments of social change, discovery and invention. Comprehensive, authoritative and packed with beautiful illustrations, this is a reference resource to treasure. Where from: by OUP, from good bookshops.
How much: paperback pounds 12.99.
COMPLETE BOOK OF THE MICROSCOPE
Wonder at the remarkable detail in a fly's eye, the flu virus, even an individual atom, with this book packed with photographs showing the world a thousand or million times larger than life. It also contains step- by-step project ideas on how to use your own microscope to see the extraordinary in the everyday. "A great introduction to microscopy," says Rosemary Stones. "Full of amazing and enlightening close-ups, it adds to the understanding of everyday things like feathers and newsprint, as well as the application of the science in forensics, industry and medicine." Where from: by Usborne, from good bookshops.
How much: pounds 9.99.
Eh-oh, not again, you groan. But our garish tubby friends really do have enduring appeal for young children, and serious educational merit, despite all the furore over the supposed dumbed-down language. Now in multiple formats, including videos, tapes, CD-Rom, and in story, colouring and puzzle books. "The kids love them," says Jon Rees, "and the surface simplicity is deceptive - there really is a lot going on in Teletubbyland." Not for nothing have they been exported to dozens of countries, from Australia to Estonia. Where from: by BBC Worldwide, at most good book and toy shops.
How much: from pounds 2.99.
IQ SUPER TIMES TABLE
"Normally I avoid toys with built-in computers, but this focuses on an area that most kids struggle with, and goes a long way to take some of the slog out of learning tables," says Jon Rees. The electronic keyboard covers 10 simple mathematical activities, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and times tables, with games to help younger children develop logical thinking and improve memory skills. Where from: by IQ Builders; available by mail order (01603 494008) or from good toy shops.
How much: pounds 14.95 plus pounds 2 p&p.
FUN WITH ENGLISH AND MATHS
Written by former primary school teachers, these two books go a long way to making these core subjects entertaining, using plenty of games and interesting activities to drum up children's enthusiasm. English covers spelling, grammar and creative writing; maths includes sums, investigations and mathematical conundrums. Ideal for boosting confidence and enjoyment. "A bit different to the more typical workbooks on the market," says Jon Rees. "There's much more emphasis on fun and exploration, rather than just cramming." Where from: by Kingfisher, from good bookshops.
How much: pounds 7.99 each.
ALIEN SLIME LAB
Like some bizarre spin-off from Roswell, this seriously experimental chemistry kit asks children to analyse various bits of "alien" matter using processes like enzyme analysis and chromatography. Contains 35 items, including seven tubs of chemicals, electrical-conductivity meter, test tubes, droppers, gloves and goggles, and an entertaining instruction booklet covering nine experiments. "This is ideal for a child who might be turned off by a more serious chemistry or physics set," says Sophie Coleman. "It may be gimmicky, but it does involve real chemistry and biochemistry." Where from: by Educational Insights, at good toy shops.
How much: pounds 29.95.
Spanning the Internet, books, CD-Roms and television, the BBC's Bitesize revision service is used by nearly 70 per cent of GCSE students. Reflecting key areas of the examination syllabus and written by examiners and teachers, it offers manageable nuggets on key topics, concentrating on areas that students find particularly difficult. "Great on the specifics, but also valuable for advice and tips about the skills needed to do well in coursework and exams," says Jon Rees. Where from: by BBC, for stockists, call 01937 541001.
How much: books from pounds 4.99, CD-Roms pounds 17.
HAMA BEADS MAXI
Create any kind of shape or pattern by slotting these colourful beads onto the peg board. Then, run over it with an ordinary household iron, and - hey presto! - your design is permanently welded and can be removed from the board. "Not only highly creative, but excellent for introducing young children to mathematical concepts like pattern-forming and proportion," says Gill Wilton. Where from: by Hama; for stockists, call 01604 678797
How much: from pounds 3.50.
THINKING SCIENCE CD-ROM
"Cambridge parents with science degrees choose this above all other science software," says Ted Barnes. "It offers a superb introduction to scientific investigation and deduction for younger children, presented by playful characters who make everyone feel they have genius potential." Choose one of hundreds of science challenges, and use the software's powerful tools to solve problems, learn basic scientific concepts and develop deductive reasoning skills. Where from: by Iona; for stockists, call 0181-296 9454.
How much: pounds 19.99.
One of the most comprehensive educational software series on the market, Adi is graded right through from age eight to 15. Each package has copious exercises for English and maths, guided Internet access, and plenty of information on areas like science and astronomy. "With each package of two CD-Roms supplying an entire year's worth of maths and English, this genuinely teaches basic skills," says Ted Barnes. "The Adi character is also highly motivating, giving lots of encouragement, and rewarding effort with games and activities."
Where from: by Knowledge Adventure, from major software retailers.
How much: pounds 29.99 for each year.
TIME CAPSULE ACTIVITY KIT
"This would make a great family project for the millennium," says Jon Salisbury. "It's a wonderful way to get children to focus on their lives, and what is important to them and the times they live in." Contains everything children need to leave a durable record of their lives and contemporary history, including a tough waterproof tin, identity book, family tree, photo wallet, protective bags and location map for where it's all buried. Where from: by Helix, from good toy shops.
How much: pounds 16.99.
Now available in more than 100 titles, covering subjects as diverse as the Aztecs, mammals, music, cowboys, the future, writing and dance, this ground-breaking series uses stunning images and detailed information to document each area. "A breathtakingly innovative range of books that uses very high quality photography to allow readers to see objects for themselves, as though they were in a museum," says Rosemary Stones. Where from: by Dorling Kindersley, from good bookshops.
How much: pounds 9.99.