Today I’d like to talk about number 5 on the Scalliwag Toys Top Ten Toys List.
Number 5 on our list — and I want to stress that these choices are just our opinions, and that you may well disagree with some or even all of them — is wooden railways.
Note: You can, of course, find push trains on the market that are manufactured of plastic or metal. We just like the wooden ones, largely for aesthetic reasons. They feel substantial in the hand, the wood is smooth and pleasant to the touch, and they are very tough and durable. They are also constructed from renewable hardwoods (European beech in the case of Brio, maple in the case of Thomas the Tank Engine, and re-purposed rubbertree wood from many other suppliers), which makes them environmentally-friendly.
Small children seem to be fascinated by trains. (Of course, there’s a whole hobby known as “trainspotting”, which is found largely in the U.K. and which involves watching for specific engines, cars, and so on. Kind of like birdwatching, I guess — and carried out largely by adults, so it’s not just children who like trains!) Wooden trains and track have been around for many years, first having been mass-produced in 1958 by Swedish company BRIO.
Wooden train sets allow children both to explore imaginative play and to develop problem-solving and design skills. The trains are often used as characters in stories that children tell as they push the trains around; they may even stand in for people in the child’s family as they go about their daily routines. In this sense, the trains are actors in a play the child is writing, directing, and putting on for him or herself! This creative process stretches the imagination and allows the child to explore different situations and emotions. Even very young children seem to do this, although their narrative may consist entirely of “choo-choo” sounds and the occasional “crash”!
The construction aspect of playing with wooden trains is what makes it really special. Initially, your child must learn to manipulate the track pieces, which join together with a tab-and-slot mechanism. Young engineers, once they get the hang of joining pieces of track to one another, often make long and winding railways, stretching down a hallway, say, until they run out of track pieces. As they become more sophisticated builders, however, children are able to imagine more complicated track layouts that feature closed loops, incorporating buildings or special features like tunnels. The skills being practiced here are akin to those used in solving puzzles: the child must first decide what he wants to create, and then figure out how to do it. How can he take the pieces that he has and turn them into what he imagines?
Wooden trains fit our three criteria for great toys: they offer open-ended play, they are interactive, and they are toys that encourage creativity. Next time, we’ll talk about Number Six on the list — puppets.