This guide to electric trains and toy trains was reviewed prior to publication by Vicki Anderson, M.Ed., Kelly Crockett, M.Ed., and Glenna W. Tabor, M.Ed.
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Toy Train Dos and Don'tsThis article on toy trains and electric trains is rather lengthy. You may not want to read it all in one sitting. But before spending any money on electric trains for your, child look over my dos and don'ts for kids trains.
02 of 16
Electric Trains: Parents Make The Difference
The fact that you've found this page likely means that you're a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle looking for information about toy trains for a special child in your life. Well, they are a lucky child to have someone like you. Lots of people would just go to a toy store and grab the first thing, or the cheapest thing, that they see. I also hear people say things like their three-year-old got a train set because daddy wanted one. What daddy wants may not be the best choice for a child. You care enough to do some research, that makes all the difference. It will help make the trains that you buy for them more special. And there's a lot your pre-teen can learn from their trains. So let's talk about toy trains!
03 of 16
Where Do I Begin?
Obviously, your child's age plays a big part in the trains you'll select for them. Very young children may be fascinated by electric trains, but they certainly won't be able to set them up and run them. The common opinion in America today is that children shouldn't be given electric trains until they are eight years old. At the risk of upsetting authorities on parenting, I have to disagree. I have a wonderful train set from Germany. The literature says that it's not for children under three. I personally think five is a good age to transition from push toy trains and battery operated trains to electric trains... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
04 of 16
Children under five thrive on push toy trains. Brio, the Lego trains and the Thomas the Tank Engine toys are very popular; when I was a kid I envied my friend's Brio collection. My friend spent hours laying out his track and running his wooden trains, and sometimes I joined him.
Today, Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty much the rock star of toy trains for younger children. There are lots of Thomas toy train products available out there. But for my child, I'd definitely go with GeoTrax, by Fisher Price.Continue to 5 of 16 below.
05 of 16
Okay... I don't have children. But I have many friends who do. GeoTrax was first recommended to me by my friend Josh Wood. Josh runs SPTrains.com, and he carries over 100,000 different model railroad products. Josh started his own son on GeoTrax at 18 months. He chose GeoTrax because the curves are designed so that no matter how a child assembles them, the track pieces will always line up. It's the only product Josh found that had this capability. With GeoTrax children learn about laying out railroad track without the frustration of having to redo sections of their layout because the pieces "don't fit".
Warning: In 2007 some GeoTrax toys were involved in lead paint recalls. Visit the recall website for more.
06 of 16
Ages? We Don't Have To Show You No Steenking Ages!
What does that mean? It means your child doesn't need an "age credential" to move from one level of model railroading to the next. My Tillig Startset instructions say it's not for children under three. American sets say not for children under eight. Germany, known for the quality of its engineering, apparently expects its children to advance more quickly than we do here in the U.S. And perhaps that's not a bad thing.
My age brackets for advancing skills are guidelines but don't limit your child. If they show a serious interest in moving ahead and the aptitude to do so, support them. Don't hold them back.
07 of 16
Electric Trains: Supervision, Space, and Scale
My previous remarks notwithstanding, a child's first electric train set should always be set up and run under adult supervision, particularly when it is new to the child. The voltages on the rails and power pack terminals aren't sufficient to cause an electric shock, so it's no less safe than a video game. But setup and operation aren't necessarily intuitive.
Layout space is key to a child's enjoyment of their model trains. This topic is covered in detail in the article Children's Toy Train Tables. Also important is the scale (size) of the trains selected. This is discussed in Electric Train Scales for Children. Please read these articles before you go shopping.
08 of 16
Electric at Five
I'd start a child with electric trains around the age of five... earlier if they showed aptitude. Children of that age group will still be interested in Thomas the Tank Engine sets. But don't limit your choices or theirs to Thomas.
From an educational perspective, the purpose of electric trains for younger children is to help them develop hand-eye coordination. They do this by learning to control the speed and direction of travel of their train. This is even a recommended practice for children with autism.
As I've said in my article on scales for children's trains, most O scale train sets make directional control difficult. This is one of the three reasons I don't recommend O scale for children.Continue to 9 of 16 below.
09 of 16
Beginning Track Layout
When a child gets a train set, the next thing they want is more track. Let's face facts, the basic oval of track that comes with a train set is boring! Your child has probably already been building layouts in Brio or GeoTrax. Limiting them to an oval will be frustrating. Invest in some additional track pieces soon after giving your child a train set.
Don't, however, go to the expense of buying any turnouts (switches) for them just yet. Stick with straights, curves, and crossovers. At this point, giving children curves of different radii will introduce some very fundamental concepts of geometry to them. And will require them to expand their problem-solving skills when laying out their track. Trestles will add interest also.
10 of 16
'Round and 'Round She Goes
Without turnouts, your child's layouts will be continuous loops. This doesn't mean that they're stuck with an oval. There are a number of types of continuous loops you can teach them to build; twice around, dogbones, folded dogbones, and others. There should be enough variety to hold a child's interest while they are mastering their throttle control and track placement skills. I'll be posting layouts for your children's train boards here. You can also find lots of layout plans on the web. Model railroaders' home pages and model railroad manufacturers websites are good places to look.
11 of 16
Next Stop... Switching
Two turnouts that can divert a train on and off of a short parallel track is a siding. To introduce children to switching, I'd start by adding a siding to your child's continuous loop layout. In the real world, sidings are used for parking a train briefly so that another train can pass. This would be a good next step in your child's model railroading.
Turnouts are the most expensive track pieces in model railroading, particularly so if they can be switched electrically by remote control. What you choose for your child is up to you. Just be aware that remote controlled turnouts require additional wiring connections. This may be another educational opportunity for your child.
12 of 16
Parking a train on a siding teaches a fundamental railroad operation. But unless you're running a three-rail system, making two trains approach from opposite directions on the same track requires Digital Command Control. At the time of this writing, it costs about a $150 to add DCC to a train layout. In the next few years, I hope we'll see children's sets that come with DCC systems. But regardless, DCC is a worthwhile investment if your child takes their trains seriously.
Another consideration when running trains in opposite directions is the overall length of your child's track. You will need a long continuous loop of track to run oncoming trains, or things will happen too fast for your child to control them.Continue to 13 of 16 below.
13 of 16
Around Eight, Think About About Landscape
At eight, or maybe younger, you can introduce your child to landscape construction. I have read about a model railroad camp that starts kids as young as four building landscaped modules. Russell Straw, I salute you! Russell teaches kids this at the Rosenberg Museum.
T-trak.org has a youth program for scouting groups and other children's organizations. The benefit of learning in a group is that each child makes their own small module, and when everyone is done the group can connect the modules together and run trains on them.
I wouldn't start building a permanent layout with your child unless you, the parent, are going to make a commitment to seeing the project through to completion. These projects can take years.
14 of 16
At Eleven 3-D Games Can Be Trains
A time saver layout is a puzzle game. Time savers are a fun way to keep older children interested in their railroads. Basically, a time saver is a small railroad yard layout. A switching locomotive is placed on the layout with a number of railroad cars. The cars are placed at diverse positions on the layout. The operator uses the locomotive to collect the cars from their different tracks and assemble them into a train in the proper order on a specified track. The goal is to build your train in the least "moves" and the shortest amount of time.
The late John Allen originated the time saver. Adrian Wymann has built a great time saver site that will be useful to parents who want to introduce their children to the time saver.
15 of 16
Teens Can Do It All
If your teenager is new to model railroading, they'll get the most out of it if they progress through the stages I've described, but at their own accelerated pace. Teenagers who are serious about model railroading are ready to build a real layout. If you can make room for one in your basement or garage that's great. If not, help them get involved in a club. Maybe one where teenagers build modules and display them at shows. Showing a well-made module can be a great self-esteem builder. For more information, you can contact the Teen Association of Model Railroaders (TAMR).
16 of 16
Any Other Ideas?
I hope that this page has sparked your imagination about using model railroad trains as an educational tool for your child. I'm sure that there's a lot of other useful ideas on the subject floating around. If you have one that you'd like to share, or if you have questions about anything discussed here, please post your comments and questions to our Parents and Teachers Forum.