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The community that prays together, plays together

The catalogue for Community Playthings pictures the usual happy children, playing building blocks and posing on nursery furniture. What is unusual is the way the children are dressed: the little boys in checked shirts and braces, the girls in pinafore dresses and tie-on caps. The occasional smiling, supervisory mother is wearing an almost identical outfit to her little girl, white socks and sensible shoes included.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that women do not look their best with a middle parting and a kerchief tied firmly under the chin, but personal vanity is not high on the list of the Bruderhof community, who make Community Playthings. Founded in 1920, the movement harks back to early Protestant Anabaptists called the Hutterites who, in turn, were influenced by Biblical Christians who had lived communally and pooled all their resources. No one in the present-day Bruderhofs has a personal income. The movement started off in Germany, fell out with Hitler, moved to Paraguay, and has ended up as six communities in North America and two in southern England. The German influence is still there in the communities' style of dress, architecture and food. At the Darvell community, in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, there is even a German-speaking hotline to take orders direct from Germany. The second language in the community's school is German.

Down the road in Nonington, Kent, they make foam play-mats and blocks, but at Darvell - an old TB sanitorium - they concentrate on wooden products, made with maple imported from North America. Given that the men who work together in the factory also eat and worship together, as well as live within yards of each other, the management style is unusual. "The first responsibility of the shop foreman and his assistant," says Mr Boucher, "is to ensure that there is a brotherly working together in the shop. Peace, unity and love are important. There are no class divisions between management and the floor. We don't talk behind people's backs and we speak up against it if we have that". In the US, the Bruderhof communities have diversified into making equipment for disabled people (the Rifton range), dog-rearing and even run a charter jet (left over from when they had a community in Nigeria). At Darvell, they make only Community Playthings, though they handle Rifton sales and a publishing house, The Plough.

As well as the workshop, full of bearded, checky-shirted men turning out climbing frames and dollies' cradles for worldwide orders, there is a design team working on new ideas. "This is the life blood of our community," says Mr Boucher. "We have to have new products." The Woodcrest community in America has just designed "a major breakthrough in children's furniture", the Woodcrest Chair: a stackable one-piece maple-ply chair designed not to tip over when sat on by a restless child. At Darvell, they are working on a new "home-corner", a mini unit for playing mummies and daddies. The toys and furniture have to be hard-wearing as, not surprisingly, the community lays great emphasis on its children, and large families are encouraged (Mr Boucher has four children). As most of the grown-up "brothers and sisters" work on the site, babies are sent to the community daycare creche (the "sisters" collect them and the other young children for an hour at home after lunch). The children progress together from the creche to year nine, after which they go to the local state school. Until then, they are perfect on-site testers for new products being developed in the workshop, and the schoolrooms are furnished with Community Plaything products.

It looks rather fun to be a child at the Darvell school, with acres of safe grounds in which to run about, lovely wooden toys to play with and intricate climbing frames to tackle. When I visited the community, the dining hall (the Bruderhofs eat together at least once a day) had been beautifully decorated by the children with flowers. At lunch, after a cheerfully harmonic hymn or two, silence was maintained while a community leader read aloud a children's story.

Life must be a little harder when the children leave Darvell school and trot down the hill in their frumpy pinafores and headsquares to encounter the outside world at the local secondary school (there are no televisions or radios at Darvell), though Mr Boucher assured me that the community's children are very much accepted by the locals. Teenage "dating" is not allowed by the Bruderhof ("We want to avoid the hurt that comes with dating"), and courtship between members of the community occurs only after baptism (usually in the early twenties), under the watchful eye of both parents and community leaders. It goes without saying that sex before marriage and remarriage after divorce are no-nos.

"We would not seek marriage outside the community," says Mr Boucher. "A community of faith is very important... though it has to be 100 per cent voluntary." To the Bruderhof, it would seem that Community Playthings' wooden bricks build more than castles, towers and bridges: they build lives.

Catalogues for Community Playthings and Rifton Equipment can be ordered from Darvell, Robertsbridge, East Sussex TN32 5DR, freephone 0800-387457 and 0800-387531 respectively, or fax 01580-882 250.