Tries & Tested: FLYING COLOURS

So which colouring set will keep your children safely and happily occupied for hours on end while encouraging their natural creativity? We put six of them to the test to see what came out in the wash
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The Independent Culture
PAINTING, drawing and colouring-in are some of the most satisfying activities for little fingers to practise, and an ideal way for small children to express themselves, develop their innate creativity and have a thoroughly good, messy time. Some children will become completely absorbed in their pictures, and a new set of felt tips can offer parents half an hour of blessed calm; some, of course, will always want to tip indelible ink over their heads. The question is, which implements will they most enjoy, and which will most encourage creativity?

THE PANEL

In the supervised environment of York Rise Nursery School in London, children aged between three and 10 tried out the products. Their teacher Becca Coles reported on their attitudes to them and on their progress. At home, left to their own devices, Beth (10) and David (nine) Jones of Chigwell in Essex gave the products a somewhat wider application.

THE TEST

We looked for colouring and drawing tools which were fun to use, deemed educational by teachers and childminders, and didn't cost a fortune in extras (paints, batteries and so on).

***TWIRL AND PAINT

pounds 6.99, age 4 plus

No batteries are necessary for this alarming-looking toy, which requires users to add droplets of paint to their paper as a turntable spins with the emerging art-work attached. But surprisingly, this turned out to be "quite a tidy one to use," according to Becca Coles, because the toy is designed to contain all the paint splatter.

"This is good fun," approved Holly (four) and her classmates agreed. The kit includes refillable paint pots - as usual you have to buy lots more paint, although you do get 100 sheets of paper to fill with interesting abstract art. There was one drawback: Twirl and Paint was difficult for some of the younger children, who needed two hands to squeeze the tubes of paint, and found it too difficult to squeeze the tube and press the button on the turntable at the same time.

*****P&M BLOPENS

pounds 2.95, age 3 plus

Though judged deeply unhygienic for a group painting session, given the endless swapping around of pens full of spit, the Blopens were voted absolute favourite by every one of the children. These are a sort of blow-it-yourself version of an airbrush, and the result they produce is a kind of pointillist effect on the paper.

"These are really cool," said Mosi (five). Freddie (seven) thought they'd be "specially nice on glass" - but his mother wasn't too keen on this idea.

The Blopens come in packs of five, with a set of small stencils included, for pounds 2.95 - "fantastic value" according to Becca Coles, who thought the little stencils quite adequate, although the bigger packs with dinosaur stencils (at pounds 4.99) were much appreciated by the older boys.

Some of the bigger children abandoned the stencils altogether and cut out their own designs. While most of the younger ones wanted to get so close to the paper that the "sprinkle effect" was completely lost. Those who were too young to understand the concept of blowing were happy to simply pull the tops off and scribble with the pens.

Alexander (five) blew so much that he said his head hurt - the manufacturer does warn of this.

**SPIROLATOR

pounds 5.75, age 5 plus

Universally referred to by parents as "that vibrator pen", the Spirolator is a battery-operated toy which causes the pen of your choice to rotate, making large or small circles on paper in an endless line. Parents were not much impressed - they thought the product overly expensive.

"Most of these wiggly pens are only tried out at random, then discarded - they're very rarely completed into any sort of picture," commented Mrs Jones, who added, "but they do offer plenty of potential to add customised designs to bedroom walls."

But children at the nursery were quite creative with the Spirolator: Luke (seven) drew a face and Natty (six) said, "You can make a map going round and round" - a sort of pathway. At home, David Jones was planning to test the whirring Spirolator's effects on his hamster, but was thwarted by his mother. Other adults said the noise drove them nuts within minutes (but at least the batteries are supplied with the product).

***TELETUBBY SPONGE PAINTING KIT

pounds 9.99, age 3 plus

As a kit, the Teletubby package struck testers as excellent value. The dinky little "briefcase" contains 16 Teletubby shaped sponges, washable paints, a paint bowl, sugar paper and two sheets of stencils. Children too young to be trusted alone with the paints played happily with the foam characters and the carrying case. Beth and David produced several imprinted sheets (complete with ironic captions) which they made into cards and sent to their great-aunt.

"They're a good size for little kids' hands," said Beth, "but the paint runs out too quickly." Becca Coles was also of the opinion that you would do well to buy extra paints from the outset, and complained that a single mixing bowl is a waste of time, since you get three different paint colours to use. "But the children did really enjoy this kit, and talked about it a lot," Becca reported enthusiastically.

Most saliently, though, Tabitha (aged two) declared, "That's not Po - it's the wrong colour," which led to the dramatic realisation that many of the Teletubbies had been cut from the wrong colour foam, according to the show's young fans. Quelle faux pas! The sponges also split on their first wash. Neverthelss, Nick (four), pressing out a line of the shapes, declared: "They're nice, because you can stomp them and then they can walk."

****FISHER PRICE TRAVEL MAGNA-DOODLE

Approximately pounds 10, aged 2 plus

This is a smaller, portable version of the well-known Magna-Doodle - a screen with a magnetic pen attached which attracts metal particles to form a drawing. Travel Magna-Doodle was a big favourite with the child- minders, who said it was creative, noted that children went back to it time and again, and were delighted that it made no mess. "It can also be used as a message-board and telephone-pad by parents," Mrs Jones remarked.

Obviously, Travel Magna-Doodle is good for car trips and can be used to play hangman and noughts and crosses on as well as for drawing.

Becca Coles, though, noticed that left-handers have to turn the screen upside down (otherwise the string holding the pen isn't long enough), but the erasing factor was probably its greatest appeal: "I like it 'cos it can just go away - whoo!" said Katie (four).

***EASY ART

pounds 4.99, age 5 plus

The Easy Art kit consists partly of plasticised pictures (ghostly representations of peacocks, butterflies, fish and so on), a paintbrush, a little plastic palette and five colours to "create stunning pictures as if by magic". In other words, these images become visible once you apply the paint to them, a technique which Becca Coles found "really limited". Most of the little children "only spent two minutes on it," decided the results were "pretty", but showed no further interest.

Beth and David Jones, on the other hand, were enthralled by this product, spending long periods of time in intense competition with each other to create rainbow-coloured images. "You can't go wrong with this," said their mother, "and they felt that these pictures look more grown-up than, say, the Teletubby ones."

STOCKISTS

Blopens and Spirolator from John Lewis (0171 629 7711 for branches), Hamleys (0171 734 3161) and independent toy shops; Teletubby Sponge Painting, Twirl and Paint and Easy Art from Early Learning Centres (0990 352352 for local branches); for Fisher Price stockists, call 01628 500303. !

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