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Buying Toy Trains and Model Railroad Trains for Children


The material in this guide on electric trains and other toy trains for children was reviewed prior to publication by: Vicki Anderson, M.Ed., Kelly Crockett, M.Ed., and Glenna W. Tabor, M.Ed.
  1. Parents Make the Difference
  2. Under Five
  3. Electric at Five: Choose a Scale
  4. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends
  5. Choose a Railroad
  1. Beginning Track Layout
  2. At Eight Think About Landscape
  3. At Eleven Model Trains Can Be 3D Games
  4. Teens Can Do It All

Parents Make the Difference

Reading this parent's guide indicates that you want to make an informed toy train purchase for a special child in your life. You're to be commended. 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, with no consideration to the child's needs. You care enough to do some research, that makes all the difference. First there are a few dos and don'ts you need to know about. Then you need to consider where the child is going to set up their track.

Under Five

Your child's age plays a big part in the trains you'll select for them. Children under five thrive on push toy trains. GeoTrax is a great product because it has curves are designed so that no matter how a child assembles them, the track pieces will always line up.GeoTrax was first recommended to me by my friend Josh Wood. Josh runs SPTrains.com and he started his own son on GeoTrax at 18 months. Brio and Lego trains are also good choices for younger children. When I was a kid I enjoyed playing with my friend's Brio collection and always wanted a set of my own.

Electric at Five: Choose a Scale

American electric train manufacturers usualy say their products aren't for children under eight. At the risk of upsetting authorities on parenting I have to disagree. Modern toy trains are electrically safe, and the average American five year old is well prepared to begin playing with them. To get them started you first have to choose a scale. To help you out I've linked a couple articles below on the subject. My favorite is the exotic TT scale. However, inexpensive Tillig TT scale sets from German have become difficult to obtain recently. So my first choice would be an Amtrak N scale set from Kato.

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends

Today, Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty much the rock star of toy trains for younger children. There's lots of Thomas toy train products available out there in both push toys and electric trains. I have some Thomas links below.

Choose a Railroad

When your child has outgrown Thomas they are ready to step up from "toy trains" to "model railroading". In order to teach your child selectivity and self-discipline help them choose a specific railroad for their model railroading. There are many to choose from. When your child wants to add a locomotive or railroad car to their collection the first criteria should always be, is it their railroad. Without this fundamental criteria everything they want may become everything they see.

Beginning Track Layout

When a child gets a train set, the next thing they want is more track. It's a good idea to give children a few more track pieces to add complexity to their train layouts as they become more skilled in model train operations. Taking this approach can be very educational.

At Eight Think 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. This can be a much better way to learn than by trial and error at home.

At Eleven Model Trains Can Be 3D Games

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.

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 contact the Teen Association of Model Railroaders (TAMR).

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