Although he has a significant developmental delay, is on the autistic spectrum and hyperactive, there is one group of activities two and a half year old Freddy adores and that is arts & crafts. To encourage his creative side this Hama Maxi Giant Gift Box was bought as a present for his second birthday for a very reasonable £15 (presently £10.39) from Amazon and it has proved an excellent investment.
I first came across Hama Beads just over a decade ago, when my then five year old daughter brought home a coaster she had made at school, but I have to admit that I didn't take an awful lot of notice of how the coaster had been made out of little beads that had been fused together. At the most basic level Hama Beads are small plastic beads that the child (or adult) places on a specially designed peg board to create patterns and designs. Once all the pegs are in place a piece of special ironing paper is placed over the top and an adult fuses the beads together using an iron. Once the beads are fused together the paper can be removed, the board turned over and the design falls out with all the beads fused into a solid mat.
Hama beads are non-toxic (so if they are accidentally swallowed they won't do the child any harm) come in a huge variety of colours and three different sizes and are also available in a multitude of themed gift sets. The smallest Hama Beads, the mini, are considered suitable for adults and children over the ago of ten. With a diameter of just 2.5mm, these are very fiddly and obviously far too difficult for Freddy to use. The next size up and most common are the midi beads, which have a diameter of 5mm, these are considered suitable for children over the age of five and again are just too small for Freddy to be able to handle confidently. The largest of the Hama beads are the maxi, while there is a far smaller range of these available, with a diameter of 5mm, these are the perfect size for Freddy to handle and although the recommended minimum age is three years, there is absolutely no reason why younger children cannot use them as long as they have a reasonably precise pincer grip and are adequately supervised.
==A Bumper Set==
There are a number of different Hama Maxi Giant Gift Sets available, but the one I am reviewing is supplied in a large purple box and is supplied with the beads and peg boards to create an elephant, clown, butterfly, bee, teddy bear and bunch of flowers. The actual box is relatively large, which does make a child feel that they are receiving a bigger present and it contains everything you need to create six different items, with some beads left over. One slightly less than positive aspect of the box is that although it is designed with trays to hold the beads, those trays are not enclosed, meaning that they do not hold the beads in place during transport, so you will most likely need to find something to hold the beads between play sessions. I'm using an old Jacobs biscuit tin and find this does the job perfectly. There are 900 beads within the set, which are already colour sorted into plastic bags, although again these bags do not reseal so it is very difficult to keep the colours separate. There are also two pegboards, one elephant and the other a clown, three double sided pattern sheets, ironing paper and some very basic instructions.
==Let's Get Creative==
At only two years old I knew that Freddy would not have the concentration span to work on any of the larger designs immediately, so the first time we used this set we worked on the smallest of the designs, that is the bunch of flowers. The pegboards are transparent and when placed on the pattern sheet allow the child (or you) to see exactly where to place the beads. The flower design is relatively simple, is worked on the elephant pegboard and can completed with a fairly timespan.
Before sitting Freddy down to work on the design, I sorted out the beads that he would need, placed the board on top of the design sheet, then called him over. That first session, Freddy really wasn't sure what he should do, so I put the first few beads in place and it didn't take long until Freddy wanted to try. The beads are the perfect size for his little hands and with a little concentration he was putting the beads where I showed him, while I narrated saying what colours he was using. Within half hour, Freddy had completed this very simple design and was extremely proud of himself. We didn't bother fusing that first attempt, putting the beads back in the box for another day.
Over the next few days, we continued making the flowers, with Freddy steadily improving his hand-eye coordination and finding it easier to place the beads on the board with accuracy. To start with he would occasionally knock a bead or two off as he placed the next one on, but this happened less and less. Eventually we were ready to move onto the next design, so I decided it was time to fuse the flowers so that we could keep them for ever. The different sized Hama beads require the iron to be set at different temperatures and with the Maxi beads I find the hottest setting on the iron is the best (three dots). To fuse the beads you simply need to cover the design with the ironing paper, wait for your iron to heat up and then gently iron over the paper. I find that it's best to use circular motions while ironing and you will be able to tell that the beads have fused when the colour starts to come through the paper. Once ironed, the beads do obviously get very hot, and they do take a while to cool down. Once the design has cooled slightly, it can be tipped out and allowed to completely cool, although it is best to place it under something heavy so that it stays flat as it hardens. I also find that the design stays together better if the top surface is given a slight blast with the iron (over ironing paper of course). Once cooled the flowers kept their integrity well and looked so good that we glued it to a home-made card.
Since completing the flower, we've also made the teddy bear, which took us a couple of sessions, but our big project has been the elephant. To begin with I did try and get Freddy to follow the pattern, but he had other ideas and decided that he was going to let his creative streak free. For the last six weeks or so, he has been steadily working at completely covering the elephant board with a multitude of different colour beads, thoroughly enjoying himself and taking absolute care that the beads go where he wants. This has been a large-scale project, that has taken him many hours, with the occasional mishap of a bead or two being knocked out of place and at least one occasion where the all the beads ended up on the floor, but one that has worked wonders for Freddy's hand-eye coordination. With him finally finishing the elephant today, it was time for me to iron it, only to find that I had lost the ironing paper. So it's a good job you can also use greaseproof paper or baking parchment, which incidentally works just as well. I did find that it was a lot more difficult to ensure that this much larger piece of work had fused fully, and it took me nearly five minutes all told, with me turning the air just a little bit blue when I thought I had succeeded only to find that there were a couple of beads that I had missed. The final results were more than worth the effort though, the elephant looks fantastic and now has pride of place on the windowsill, standing up using the supplied peg stands.
Both Freddy and I have had many, many hours playing with this set and have thoroughly enjoyed every minute. In fact we've enjoyed it so much that we have expanded our collection of Hama Maxi Beads, buying other starter sets, more beads and more pegboards. If he could talk, I'm sure Freddy would give this set five out of five as he simply gets very excited when he sees the tin we've used to store the beads, boards and templates in brought out.
As with all arts and crafts activities, this set will help your child develop all important skills while they express themselves and have fun. At a basic level, it will help your child improve their hand-eye coordination as they place the beads on the board. As they get older, it will also help them improve their colour matching and naming skills as they match the colour on the template to the bead they are putting in position. While creativity is a little limited by the pegboards not having a standard grid, there is still plenty of scope for your child to also develop their own designs, as proved by Freddy's wonderful multi-coloured elephant.
With adult help and supervision the set can be played with by children below the recommended age of three, but with Freddy, I will be supervising well above that age anyway. While it is not recommended to allow your child to swallow these, Freddy has attempted to eat them (he eats anything including live spiders given half the chance) and he came to no harm. I can confirm that they do not cause stomach upsets it swallowed, in fact the one he did swallow reappeared 24 hours later, whole, in his nappy.
This set is brilliant fun and with supervision can be played with by children even younger than the minimum age. I bought this to share with my then 2 year old son, who has been taking part in arts and craft activities since he was 10 months. The beads are a good size for those with a confident pincer grip and the look of concentration on his face is a sight to behold, as is his pride in the finished article.
My only slight gripes are that the supplied storage tray is open meaning that it doesn't hold the beads securely and the pegboards don't allow too much independent creativity. But all in all this is a great introduction to the world of Hama beads for younger children and a set I would definitely recommend as it's given my little artist hours of fun.