Reviewed by Louise Totton
I always think that one of the big measures of a toy is whether it manages to keep both the kids and the parents happy. By that, I mean that it should be fun and keep the attention of the kids, but ideally have some educational merit – at least that’s what I look out for. And I don’t mean a toy that allows them to practice their spellings or times tables, educational merit is far broader than that! I do think that we are incredibly lucky these days, and there is an abundance of toys that are designed to challenge children’s thinking and experiences, but the challenge is to make that product something that the kids actually want to use – and I think that sounds easier than it is! There are a few companies that I know make fantastic toys that both me and the kids loved, and for the most part I do go back to them again and again when I am looking for new toys.
One company that I have only just become aware of is Thames & Kosmos, who make science-based kits and toys. Some of the sets looked really rather intriguing, and much to my delight, the kids agreed so we decided we would like to fill some of the wet spring days we seem to have been subjected to recently and try some out.
One of the things that has, on occasion, stopped me from buying science kits in the past is the cost. They are often very expensive, which wouldn’t be so bad if I knew the kids would use and enjoy them. The thing is, they have usually never tried out this specific branch of science before, so splashing out £40+ is a bit of a risk (yes, I have been stung before, having spent around £50 on a chemistry set that was used once and never again!). So it was great when we saw that Thames & Kosmos make a range called MBE, which allows you to try a little bite-sized piece of the science discipline that you fancy, for just £8.99.
The MBE range includes Amazing Minerals, Bouncing Planets, Crystal Geodes, Crystal Growing, Prehistoric Sea Dogs, Molecule Beads, Monster Putty and Magic Tricks, so there is a varied selection and something to suit everyone. We were sent the Monster Putty and the Magic Tricks sets to try out, and both sets are playable straight out of the box with no setting up time and no equipment other than a flat table required. The MBE range is suitable for ages 8+; my girls are 7 and 9, but the 7-year-old is particularly grown up and sensible so we decided she would be fine with these kits, with adult supervision.
The first set that we tried out was the Monster Putty, at the request of my youngest daughter – mostly because of the fun-looking monster characters on the front of the box. Contained in the box is two plastic eggs, each containing a different colour of the monster putty, alongside a bag of differently sized googly eyes, a bag of plastic monster body parts, a plastic monster mountain and a set of instructions for three different experiments.
This set really is great fun and the kids (and adults!) found the monster putty substance to be really rather interesting! There are three experiments in the book, all of which are very simple and require the minimum of adult intervention. The girls particularly enjoyed the first experiment, which had them moulding and accessorising putty monsters, then observing as their little creations change form before their eyes! We found that we could extend this further by seeing if the change was exacerbated or slowed down by changes in temperature and it was great talking to the kids about their different predications and hypotheses as their experience of the substance grew.
By doing this and having the conversations about the substance, it made experiments two and three much more fun and educationally valuable than if we had just let the kids run through the instructions on their own. Having said that, there is still plenty of merit in the set, even with a minimal amount of adult involvement and I’m sure the kids would enjoy it just as much. The final thing that we liked about this set is that none of the component parts are single use. Some of the science kits we have bought before have had enough ingredients to complete an experiment once or twice, and after that you have to either source and pay for another batch or accept that you can’t do that experiment again. With this one, all of the parts are infinitely reusable, so can be brought out to fill rainy day after rainy day, making the £8.99 even better value!
The Magic Tricks set isn’t strictly speaking a science kit, but I think still ticks all of the boxes for its educational merit. Just like the Monster Putty set, this one is aimed at kids ages 8+, although my younger daughter was able to perform all of the tricks quite successfully once her sister had given her a run-through and talked her through the instructions.
Contained in the box are virtually all of the props you will need to perform ten different magic tricks – the only other items you would need are a pen, paper and a towel. The box includes a magic wand, piece of magician’s rope, a magic tunnel, a red ring, a red half shell, computer cards, a plastic box and a magical symbol die, as well as the instruction guide for ten simple magic tricks.
None of the tricks in this set are difficult, and after a little bit of practice, every single one of them can be mastered by a child. The instruction guide started with the very simplest of tricks and they progressively got harder, allowing the child to build their confidence up before attempting some of the trickier ones. Parental help is always useful for things like this, but in our case, the kids decided they wanted no help at all as they were really keen to put on a magic show for me at the end of the day. This was made possible by the great instruction guide which had photographic guides as well as written instructions – especially useful for some of the rope trick and the kids were able to follow the visual cues to get the trick to work.
Some of them did take a few attempts for them to get right, but it didn’t matter and they were very keen to get them right. I thought it was a fantastic way to get them to concentrate and to focus on the end result, and their perseverance paid off in the end and they put on a fantastic show for me. They also set up a little tripod with the iPhone and recorded themselves performing the tricks, which they thoroughly enjoyed watching back, especially as it helped them to see what they were doing from an audience point of view.
Finally, we tried out part of the new Ooze Labs range – again, a little bite-sized chunk of science kit. Ooze labs is Thames & Kosmos’ slime and goo range, and as well as the bigger chemistry-based slime making sets, they also have a cracking range of ‘ooze in a test tube’ sets, costing £4 each. These are small, self-contained sets that allow you to make and store different types of slime, goo and ooze!
Included in the range is Hot Ice, Magnetic Slime, Magic Sand, Hyper-colour Slime, Glow in the Dark Slime, Sunshine Slime, Instant Snow, Glitter Slime and Galaxy Slime. We were sent the Glitter Slime and the Glow in the Dark Slime to try out and as much as I’m not a big fan of slime, I think they are great.
The slimes are each contained in their own test tubes with a screw-on lid, and everything that you need to make your slime is included. Mixing the slime up is super easy and relatively mess-free, because of the test tube design. I thought the packaging was really well thought out in that the test tube lid acts as a steadying base for the test tube, so it can safely be sat on the table so you have two free hands to work with. The sets are incredibly simple, and the ooze is made by adding powder to water. The solution is then stirred with the lollipop stick included and then the lid is screwed onto the test tube and the goo is shaken vigorously for 30 seconds at a time for around ten minutes.
The resulting goo is great and the kids thought it was fantastic! It can be stored safely and securely (away from my carpets) in the test tubes. As well as the basic instructions, the leaflet also includes interesting scientific descriptions and explanations for the specific property of that slime, which was great to be able to talk to the kids about.
We loved all four of these products and thought they were a superb introduction to Thames and Kosmos and their science kits. These particular sets, at the price and level of simplicity, are a great first foray into different areas of science and will allow the kids to find an area that interests them at a very reasonable price. They are great for filling small chunks of time – ideal for rainy days and keeping handy for the school holidays.
For more information or to buy visit thamesandkosmos.co.uk.