My son lives in his imagination. A little bit too much at times. Imaginative play then is something that I've had a great deal of experience of. Just the very name of this toy, Create A World (£49.95), resonated with me. That's pretty much what my son does - creates a whole world in his head that to me looks like a bit of material scattered on the floor and some Lego bricks.
Which made me think though, is there really a point to, or a need for, a toy that does essentially the same thing? This got me curious enough to want to try one out for ourselves. Create A World comes from Whitestep, an online store I've come to know quite well having now bought three of their Flexibaths as gifts.
The store doesn't sell a lot of items, but what is available appear to be well designed, well built and simply lovely to look at. Even when it comes to utility items like a baby bath!
Is Create A World a worthwhile addition to the kid's playtime? Or is it the sort of toy that parents love to buy but children aren't so keen to play with? The only way to find out was to try the toy out. For this I roped in two young testers. Twins, one boy and one girl, aged four years old. Here's how they got on.
I'd already opened the box, had a look at the toy, and tried it out from an adult's perspective. For some reason I expected a much bigger box. The toy looks so large in the pictures, but of course it is all material, so it will fold up. When you open the box you find a tidy bag containing the mat and the items that can be placed on the mat.
The bag is really handy, It means you've got somewhere to keep all the pieces, but also you can easily carry the toy around. The website suggests that this is a good toy to take on holiday with you, and it is certainly light enough.
Having decided that my son might be a little too old to test the toy properly I gave it to two young testers to try out. Here I had my preconceptions immediately overturned.
As mentioned, I'd already looked at the toy and had decided that really it seemed far more girly than a boy toy even with the items like a crocodile. I don't really know why I thought that way - it just seemed like it would be more attractive to girls.
Actually I was wrong. Our little boy tester immediately took to the toy, laying it out, playing with various items, and incorporating his other toys in the game. Our little girl tester wasn't so sure. She played with it while the adults were about, but when our attention wandered on to something else, so did she.
Later their mum told me that for the first week they had the toy, her daughter really didn't show a lot of interest at all. Whereas her son had it out every day after school.
We talked about why this might be, and we realised that in fact, he had quite a few play mats already. Three of them to be precise, all based around street scenes, that he used to play with his cars. The sorts of imaginative games his sister engaged in however usually had her building up houses or streets using boxes and other items. She also had nearly an entire village of Sylvanian families houses and other buildings.
A turning point came when they took the toy to their grandparents house for half term. It became a much used centre point for all their games.
There's just a couple points that came out of this try out. According to the website, the game can be played with either on the floor or hung on the wall. Our little girl tester was quite happy with this. She liked to make up stories, and move the pictures around according to what she was doing.
Our little boy tester hated it on the wall and immediately took it off to play. He only really liked playing on it with his other toys, and of course they wouldn't stick to the wall.
A really nice design feature is that there are four buttonholes in each corner, to use to hang on the wall.
Another problem with hanging it on the wall that the mum of the twins found was that the pieces don't stick as well as she'd have liked. They do stay up but it can be easy to knock them off. With one child playing, that's not a problem, but when two children are it can quickly lead to squabbles.
On the practical side for parents - it is really very easy to clean. This was 'tested' through the use of fingers sticky with melted chocolate and an unfortunate accident involving the dog and a cup a of milk.
We'd been a little bit worried when we saw that the washing instructions said to clean with wet wipes only, but this worked just fine. The felt seems to have a natural liquid resistance. Long enough to shake off the worst of the milk, and dab up the rest with paper towels. The dried on chocolate was fairly easy to pick off. And the wet wipes seemed to clean off anything else that was left. Certainly it didn't end up with that horrid stale milk smell!
The good: handy to carry about, good for all sorts of imaginative play (you'll be surprised!), beautiful to look at
The bad: the price. Both the mum and I agreed that at £49.95 this is something we'd be pointing grandparents and godparents towards! Aunts and uncles looking for favourite status should definitely take note.
The overall verdict: 7/10. This is a well designed toy that you'll get a lot of use out of. If you've more than one child to share it with you'll also get good value for money. We did feel that it had limitations when hung on a wall. As a combination toy and playmat it worked really well.