|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
and New Boston and Donnels Creek:
Okay, we all know that model railroading is supposed to be a "guy thing." But there are many opportunities to make it into a family hobby. Garden railroading has even more potential - many existing garden railroads show a woman's touch, in the choice and placement of plants and accessories, and even sometimes in the "traditional male roles" of kitbashing and coupler changeovers. Getting and keeping the kids involved can be a little harder, with children having such crowded schedules and so many entertainment options these days. Still, this article, based on trial and error (mostly error) lists a few things we can do to help our children get and stay enthusiastic about trains.
Update for 2013: When I first wrote this article, I was thinking mostly about Large Scale trains, the kind meant to be used in the garden. Many of my examples are still Large Scale. But in retrospect, I don't think that Large Scale trains are a bad choice for transitioning youngsters from "playing with toy trains" to "enjoying model railroading." (If you already have some Lionel O27 trains onhand, that can work too, as long as you have time to help the kids set them up the first few times.) For one thing, it's easier to teach kids about railroads, operations, and the like if they're not spending all their time trying to get and keep smaller trains on the track.
That said, several of my favority kid-friendly Large Scale trains are no longer available. So in our related "buyer's guide," Garden Trains for Kids, we list the best current choices. But we also have a section for some great discontinued trains, in case you come across one on eBay or whatever and wonder if it would be a good investment.
We have also expanded the section on teaching through play - today's adults can no longer assume that kids know what trains actually do - even if they watch Thomas (very little actual railroading happens on most episodes).
I hope you are reading this while your kids are still small. If your kids are grown, but your grandchildren are small, feel free to read the word "grand" into sentences with the words "kids" or "children."
Here are the topics we address so far:
We have reviewed several current and discontinued sets you might find helpful in a buyer's guide called Garden Trains for Kids. Some of the product names are linked to those reviews. If you click on the link, it should open a new window that you can close when you're ready. If a new window doesn't open, just use your browser's back button to get back here.
Trains for Babies? - Obviously, infants will chew on anything, and toddlers will attempt to put anything in their mouths that's not bigger than their heads. Frankly, I'm not certain train-related toys for very young children are going to stir much interest in the hobby, anyway. If you adhere to the Suzuki method, I don't know that a stuffed Thomas will do any harm, but I can't promise it will do any good either. So I'll move on to the next age group.
Trains for Pre-Schoolers - Since Brio introduced its line of push-trains for small children, several similar brands, some compatible and some not, have come on the scene. Some even have battery-powered locomotives, so your little ones can "run trains."
Here are three warnings:
Transitional Train Sets Your kids may want something less "babyish" well before they're ready for real "train sets." Sadly, there aren't many products that bridge the gap between kids' toys and model trains. Except for a PlaySkool set that was made in the 1980s and briefly in the 1990s, most battery-powered train sets are made to last one Christmas season period.
One line we've used with "four-year-olds and up" under supervision is Lionel's "G Gauge" battery powered trains - though they still won't survive unsupervised abuse like throwing and stomping. My favorite is their Polar Express set, but the freight sets are pretty solid, too. Little kids can't put them on the track. But they can push the buttons on the remote control. We've set these up for kids to run at our outdoor open railroads three times, and delighted many children.
Our Lionel's Toy "G" Trains article takes a closer look at these and explains why they are better than the department-store brands. The "Battery Powered Alternatives" section of our Garden Trains For Kids buyer's guide lists a few that were available as of August, 2013.
Also deserving of honorable mention - Scientific Toys' EZ-Tec trains, which are usually hard to find, but occasionally show up at Christmas. They also tend to be more sturdy than the average department-store battery-powered plastic train.
Entry-level Electric Trains
Over the years, several model train companies have introduced Large Scale electric trains that (except for putting the track together) were suitable for 6-10-year olds.
Not only do the trains above run on 45mm track, but they're compatible with most Large Scale train equipment. Cost-wise, they are also pretty good values, by Large Scale standards.
Many ordinary "starter sets" can also be used by ordinary elementary school children, with some supervision. The Bachmann starter sets that occasionally hit the warehouse clubs in the months before Christmas are a good value and sturdy enough for kids to use and enjoy. If you see the 1980's-era Lionel "Thunder Mountain" train for a good price, that train is one of their sturdiest Large Scale trains (although big people need to put the track together). You ge the idea.
Note that we're talking about "Age-Appropriate Trains," not "Cheap Trains." Every Christmas, toy store shelves include battery-powered, plastic-tracked trains. These trains are typically poor models, which won't do much to hone a child's taste for trains. But, worse yet, they're prone to breakage, and they don't run very well. Giving a child a plastic toy that looks like a train set but doesn't work for long won't necessarily do much to encourage the child in the hobby. In fact it could do more harm than good. When a parent tells me "We tried trains once and they didn't work out," they're usually talking about a $50 seasonal set.Temporary Outdoor Railroad.
On a stranger note, my children still talk about a tinplate layout we visited about twenty years ago. A Lionel mail car was supposed to snag or deposit a mail bag when it passed the station, but, as often as not, the mechanism hurled it across the room. The kids got a bigger charge out of that than they would have if it had worked properly every time. To a certain extent, the "train set" can really be an excuse to play with toy people and funky action accessories that the kids don't come across in any other situation. Take advantage of this; let them have their "own" people and accessories, and be certain to take time to "play" with them.
In times past, several model train manufacturers that made kids trains made toy accessories to go with them. At the moment, not many are available, but European toy manufacturer Playmobil often has pieces that make good accessories. Playmobil is not for small children, but their water tower, and several other sets work great with the trains on this page.
Because I believe in putting a great paint job on models, much of my "modeling" is really done with a spray can. You would not believe how hard it is to get a child (or many adults) to use a spray can effectively. But once they learn to do that, or to mask off areas, or to perform a thousand other skills that go into building a railroad, they'll have pride of ownership, and a range of skills that they can apply to other hobbies, interests, and even home repairs as they get older.
Teaching About TrainsA couple generations ago, everybody knew what trains did. Some of the Thomas stories show the trains doing something functional, but there's not always a clear explanation as to why, say, Thomas has to drag the Troublesome Trucks to Ffarquhar station. For Thomas fans, the "why" may never register. Kids who haven't had a lot of exposure to trains - even fictional ones - may have no idea what trains do besides going in circles. So, as you play with the kids, take advantage of opportunities to help them understand the "why" as well as the "how" of train operations.
But more often than not, when your children settle down somewhere and have children of their own, their links to the past, and even to you, will become more important again.
As I update this article, I have three grown daughters who still like setting up their trains at Christmas and, when possible, helping me in the yard with our garden railway. Time will tell how much love for trains they pass on to the next generation. But one thing's for certain: I will have spent many creative hours with my children, and that will count for something.
Hope this helps.
Best of luck, all,
For an article about our family letting all our kids, neices, nephews, cousins, and friends' children set up and operate the New Boston and Donnels Creek RR at the same time, check out Stress Testing on the New Boston and Donnels' Creek
For reviews and recommendations of kid-friendly trains, check out our related "buyer's guide," Garden Trains for Kids,
Note: Family Garden Trains?, Garden Train Store?, Big Christmas Trains?, BIG Indoor Trains?, and BIG Train Store? are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
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