TRIED & TESTED; FOR THE FIRST TIME

Should a starter watch be entertaining or educational? Our panel of children and adults faces up to the question
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The Independent Culture
WHEN our panel set out to test children's first watches, we thought we knew what to expect. Parents and teachers would opt for something practical, a serious timepiece that really taught six- to 11-year-olds how to tell the time. Children, by contrast, would enthuse about anything that resembled a toy. If it was laden with over-the-top features and bore a conspicuous Disney logo or the name of a character from children's TV, they would want it; more sober timepieces would simply bore them.

The results of our survey were by no means that clear-cut. We asked our large panel of schoolchildren, parents and a teacher to weigh up the merits of six watches considered suitable for children. Many of the adults loved the fun ones, with their flashing, illuminated faces, kitsch features and crazy lettering. Some younger testers showed an unexpected degree of seriousness, preferring simpler, more utilitarian watches that helped them make that all-important childhood breakthrough - understanding the mystery of "to" and "past" and learning how to tell the time unaided.

THE PANEL

Our family testers were Rebecca Jones and her friend Camilla Hip-wood (both 6); Laurence and Rosie Purvis (7 and 6); Beth Jones (6), no relation; and Alexander Nicholas (8). Teacher Tony Fuller recruited form 6BS at Thomas's London Day School (11-year-olds) to discuss the watches.

THE TEST

Each group of testers considered whether the watches would be useful in helping beginners tell the time; whether their novelty features were superfluous or a bonus; whether the watches were fun; and whether they represented good value for money.

*SUPERMAN

pounds 16

This is a water-resistant watch of classic shape and size, made from blue and red plastic with a rotating bezel (or outer dial, like a diver's) and the Superman logo prominent on the face. Though solidly constructed and fun, its main drawback was that it had no marks or numerals, making it very impractical. The youngest children couldn't even begin to tell the time with it, and the rotating bezel (which did have numbers, marked in hours) made them even more confused.

Rebecca Jones and and Camilla Hipwood complained that this was "a boy's watch"; Rosie Purvis was a little more positive, declaring its no nonsense rubber strap "nice and curly-wurly". Her brother Laurence thought it "small and babyish, only brilliant if you really love Superman", and it left Beth Jones cold. Teacher Tony Fuller, by contrast, thought it was "pretty cool" and imagined his class would too. "The turning bezel for divers and the water resistance seemed to me like neat ideas, but they pointed out that the bezel was the only part of the watch with numbers - and besides, how many children reach 100m below sea level?"

**POLLY POCKET

pounds 4.76

"More of a toy than a watch" was the general verdict on this, part of the vast range of Polly Pocket playthings and accessories. Its light blue plastic cover flips up to reveal a digital display; inside the lid is a tiny plastic three-dimensional doll, jointed at the waist, posed against a jungle background. The favourite feature, though, was a panel of heat- sensitive gel on the lid. When this is warmed in a hot little hand, an image of a fairy appears as if by magic.

Beth Jones and Rosie Purvis thought this watch was "brilliant" and declared it their firm favourite. Rosie thought the digital time display would help her learn to tell the time easily, "because it's like a calculator with buttons". But Rebecca Jones and Camilla Hipwood found it "babyish", and were nonplussed by the digital system - as were some of the adults. It took them several minutes to set the time and date displays, following the printed instructions. Teacher Tony Fuller pointed out that digital technology is "still a secondary method of telling the time in this country" and isn't a substitute for a traditional clockface. "The fairy is bound to get broken," said Beth Jones's mother, "but at this price who cares? It will probably marginally outlast a child's boredom threshold."

***LION KING

pounds 24.99

With its metallic gold lid (shaped like Simba's head) and a real leather strap textured with lion paw prints, this was described by one parent as "the Gucci of the children's watch world". It appealed particularly to mothers (some said they would wear it themselves). One drawback is that it is heavy for small wrists, and Simba's large protruding ears could snag on objects (or other children). Even the youngest testers picked this one without prompting as the most expensive. As Rebecca Jones enthused, "It's gold and the strap is leather, and leather is best because your shoes are made out of it." The hands are glittery, so not perfect for telling the time, but the numbers are clear. While Tony Fuller's class wondered how long the hinges on the lid would last, Rebecca Jones and Camilla Hipwood thought the metal covering would stop the face getting scratched.

*****WIZZARDS INDIGLO

pounds 17.99

This, our winning watch, was simple and practical, like the Time Teacher (below), but it edged ahead because it was also a lot of fun. Its most attractive feature is an illuminated face with jazzy numerals that lights up at the push of a button; it glows a spooky turquoise (or other colours, depending on the model you have).

This made it the absolute favourite of both Rebecca Jones and Camilla Hipwood. They "couldn't wait for bedtime so they could play with it under the covers". Alexander Nicholas liked the fact that you could make it glow underwater.

Laurence Purvis liked this watch best when he first saw it, but later he opted for the Time Teacher as his favourite when he realised that it was simpler to tell the time by; the patterning on the Indiglo's face makes this more difficult.

Tony Fuller's class of 11-year-olds, however, went wild about this watch; the luminous dial would provide "endless entertainment at raves", they said, and even the patterned strap was a hit.

The bezel (outer ring) around the face didn't rotate, leading the Purvis children to dismiss it as "a gimmick". Other testers, however, maintained that it would still help children to understand the concept of minutes.

****TIMEX TIME TEACHER

pounds 15.99

This is classic-looking watch, more like a small adult's than a child's. It has only one novelty feature, and a very practical one at that. The two halves of its clearly numbered face are marked "To" and "Past" to help children learn to tell the time.

Most of the adults declared it "dull, but practical" but it was acclaimed by all the infant testers in a hilarious example of parent/child role reversal. "Brilliant!" said Alexander Nicholas, while Laurence Purvis exclaimed with amazement: "It just tells the time!" In fact, it helped several children understand the function of watches for the very first time - a thrilling achievement.

The Time Teacher comes in two colourways: the boys all liked the blue and red version, while the girls were either thrilled with the pink (Beth Jones) or, much to the astonishment of her mother, spurned it as "too pink" (Rebecca Jones). Like the Indiglo watch above, this one is water- resistant to 30 metres, which appealed enormously to all the young swimmers. The 11-year-olds, however, were quickly bored with it, proving how crucial age and learning levels are to this sort of gift.

*SYLVESTER & TWEETIE PIE

pounds 16

Part of Warner Brothers' merchandising range, this bulky novelty watch features a black plastic figurine of Sylvester the cat embracing a birdcage with the watch face inside it. Inside the protruding cage and on the watch face is a picture of Tweetie Pie, Sylvester's perennial adversary. Despite many of the parents' gleeful assertion that this was a very amusing watch children would love to have, Rebecca Jones and Camilla Hipwood took an instant dislike to it. They hated its dull black colour and said it was "too big to wear". (This didn't prevent one of the adult testers wearing it for a week, and it did prove fairly robust.)

All the children commented on the difficulties of telling the time with this. If you want a watch to be virtually unreadable, why not make its face very small and partially obscure it behind a plastic birdcage with busy animal graphics? "The 5 is too near Tweetie Pie's foot," Rosie Purvis observed, "so you can't see it." Beth Jones protested that there was no number 6 at all. The length and width of the hour and minute hands were too similar, causing difficulties when they overlapped (at 12 o'clock, say). Children were confused if they could not tell exactly where the hands were.

The general feeling was that this was a toy rather than a serious timepiece - and a toy for grown-ups at that. As Laurence Purvis remarked: "It's more of a showing-off watch."

PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB POWELL l COMPILED BY SUE WEBSTER

NEXT WEEK: WINTER WALKS

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