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From a grandfather's gift to high tech wizardry

Brigid McConville looks at the latest crop of pre-school products at Nursery World
The second Nursery World Exhibition opened its doors at London's Earls Court Olympia yesterday and proved that although money can't buy you love, when it comes to small children, it can buy a great deal of care and entertainment, not to mention safety. As today's overworked parents struggle to find "quality time" for their children, their spending on educational games, toys, books and other materials for the very young has gone through the roof. And the pre-school market has been quick to respond.

Although this is only the second time that the pre-school industry has turned out in force, the show is twice as big as last year's - which attracted 11,000 visitors - and next year, two exhibitions are planned.

Although this exhibition is aimed at childcare professionals, it offers parents plenty to look at or buy. The big names like Berol and Lego are all there, but it's the original ideas from individual newcomers that make the exhibition worth a visit.

Rebecca Sandy was a teacher until this summer when the pictures and stories she invented for her infant class became so popular that she gave up her job to launch her own company, Ten Town Teaching.

The stories of the Ten Town characters help children to remember how to write their numbers without reversing them. There is Tommy 2, servant to King 1, whose shape "kneels" to tie the kingly shoelaces, while Fiona 5 does five knee bends as she goes for a jog - and so on.

Rebecca invested pounds 15,000 of her savings in the first print-run of Ten Town products, which include a frieze, flash cards, worksheets and parents' book. Half have been sold since July - mostly by word of mouth - which means that Rebecca has already got her money back. "It was a huge leap of faith," she says, "but it's paid off".

The genesis of Twoey Toys was also one of homemade creations turned by popular demand into a family business. It was a doting grandfather's handcrafted gift to his granddaughter - first a shop, then a blackboard - which grew into an attractive range of flat-packed play furniture, now sought after by nurseries and playgroups as well as parents.

Such ideas are obviously useful, and will certainly appeal to traditionalists. At the other end of the spectrum the show is a launch pad for a mind boggling range of computer programmes aimed at pre-school children. Two of Britain's biggest computer software companies, Apple UK and Acorn, have joined forces to create the company Xemplar which is setting up a "software village" at the Nursery World Exibition.

SEMERC (Special Education Micro Electronics Resource Centre) offers a range of more than 400 products for primary and special needs children. "Children with learning difficulties who may not be able to hold a pen can hit a switch," points out Margaret Thompson from SEMERC. "Texts can be made larger for visually impaired children, or they can hear what is being typed. Spell checkers and word prediction (where the screen suggests options) can also help children to learn."

Talking Stories software from Sherston - amongst others - aims to bring the Oxford Reading Tree stories to life with animation and sound. Publishers Dorling Kindersley have a broad range of CD ROMs on display too: in PB Bear's Birthday Party, based on the bestselling book, the words are highlighted as the story is read, encouraging children to make the link between the spoken and written word.

But what's wrong with a human helper making this link, you may well ask? "Computers are no substitute for sitting on mum's knee," agrees Alan Bennett of Xemplar, "but Information Technology for pre-school children can help with their phonic skills and early counting". And of course, if your child starts using keyboards at aged three or four, the software companies are likely to have a customer for life.

Ten Town Teaching 01785 211284

Twoey Toys 016974 78420

SEMERC 0161 6274469