The 10 Best Train Tables
This wiki has been updated 29 times since it was first published in January of 2016. Sometimes the classic toys are the best. These train tables never go out of fashion and will provide your kids with years of entertainment. They're designed to work with today's most popular toy characters, like those from Disney's "Cars" movies, as well as old favorites, like Thomas the Tank Engine. And when children outgrow the make-believe phase, many can double as multi-activity tables. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
November 30, 2020:
We've added some fun selections during this update, starting with the Bigjigs Magical, a pretty pastel toy in a category that's dominated by primary colors. In addition to its soft pastels, its fanciful toadstools and unicorns set it apart. Another newcomer is the vibrant Hey Play Boys and Girls, which has plenty of rolling vehicles to entertain multiple children at once. The Pidoko Kids is a sturdy table-only option, and the affordable Simplay3 Carry and Go provides two toys in one.
The KidKraft brand continues to fly high in this category with several highly-reviewed sets to choose from, including our top item, the KidKraft Waterfall. We've also kept the larger KidKraft Metropolis and the smaller KidKraft 2-in-1 17576 on the list, but it seems like most parents are pleased with this company's whole line of toys overall - you can't go wrong.
We've taken the Little Colorado Handcrafted off the list because its price has risen and its reviews have fallen, and the Conductor Carl Set TCON-2 is gone because its details and pieces no longer stack up to comparable items. We've also removed the Sodura MTLCPT and the Zonxie 80-Piece because they are not available.
There's also a new listing in the Special Honors category for those who need a luxurious gift for the train-loving child that has everything. Finally, we've updated the information on several items, including the Step2 Deluxe Canyon Road, the Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wooden Multi-Activity, and the AmazonBasics Multi-Activity M42400T2N.
December 05, 2019:
While all of these items are designed for kids, some may contain small parts that could become choking hazards, so you'll always want to follow the manufacturer's recommended guidelines regarding the minimum age for safe play, as well as use a bit of your well-honed parent Spidey sense.
During this update, we removed the Hape Railway because there were multiple complaints of customers receiving damaged or stained items and we didn't want to recommend anything that we felt people may be unhappy with or have to deal with the hassle of trying to return for a replacement. We also got rid of the Brio 33099 for a similar reason, as well as having a laborious assembly often due to poor manufacturing.
To take the place of one of our eliminated models, we added the KidKraft 2-in-1 17576, which we feel is a smart option for anyone without too much extra floor space to spare in their home. Not only does it measure just 25 x 23 inches, but it has a two-sided playing surface, one of which is compatible with Lego blocks. We also added the Zonxie 80-Piece as another compact option, which also happens to be affordably priced for those on a tight budget.
When it comes to durability, few can rival the lightweight plastic construction of the Step2 Deluxe Canyon Road, since we all know plastic pretty much lasts forever. However, it can't match the aesthetics of a birch wood table like the Little Colorado Handcrafted and Sodura MTLCPT. Since these are basic models without any graphics, you might not even mind leaving them in your living room to double as coffee tables when your child isn't playing on them. The KidKraft Metropolis is another option that makes an attractive coffee table, however this one does have fun graphics on one side of the top, making it great for both parents and kids. It also features an extremely large storage drawer just in case all your child's belongings can't fit in their toy chest.
Carolina Activity Table Low If you want something that can grow with your child, the Carolina Activity Table is a smart choice. It starts off at a toddler height, and later you can buy the tall legs for it to raise it up to chair height. It has a plain white aesthetic, too, so it is easy to match with most home decors. potterybarnkids.com
Wood Designs Activity Island Durably made from Baltic birch plywood, the Activity Island should last through years of use from rambunctious kids. It has a lip around the edge of the playing surface to keep toys contained and features safe, rounded edges. It is also Greenguard certified and comes with a lifetime warranty. schooloutfitters.com
Zaer Christmas Train Big enough to accommodate a small child, this decorative steam engine and its coal car are fully decked out for the holidays. Place it inside or outdoors and enjoy the festive look, complete with wreaths in the windows and glossy gold accents. There's a small set of stairs for easy access, and at 200 inches long, it's sure to make an impression on Christmas morning. zaerltd.com
The Benefits of Train Tables
The breadth of creativity possible with a given train set depends on its design.
It's no secret that a train table is a great way to keep a child engaged and entertained for hours on end. But many parents may not realize that there are myriad developmental benefits to giving your child a train set.
For starters, train tables can help teach children foundational problem-solving skills. Whether you realize it or not, life is a series of problems, and there are few more illustrative ways for children to learn the relationship between a problem and its solution than by playing with toy trains. By nature, trains require continuous, unbroken stretches of track in order to operate, and, while your child might get frustrated with the process of setting up that track, they'll delight in the reward of moving the train along their successfully finished course.
Most train sets also include pieces to help expand and enrich a child's understanding of movement. By inserting inclines, curves, and obstacles into their tracks, they'll face more complex problems to solve. They're also likely to learn the basic principles of physics. As they see the trains speed up when coming down a slope, for example, they'll learn about gravity without even realizing it.
The constraints of a table further push a child into the world of creative problem solving, as they'll have to avoid running the track off of its edge. But whether they're solving problems or just experimenting with different track designs, playing with train sets teaches creativity and encourages children to use their imaginations. Depending on the table or set, your child will encounter a whole world in which to construct a track, limited only by their own creative process (and, of course, the included pieces). Many sets also include customizable trains, further allowing your child to express him or herself.
The breadth of creativity possible with a given train set depends on its design. Some tables come with a totally blank slate on which your child can express themselves in whatever way they like. Others have a basic design in place to get them started. The type you choose should depend on what patterns you've observed in your child's play habits. If they like doing everything themselves, go for a table that allows them to do just that. If they prefer to build upon an existing foundation, there are plenty of options available.
Last but not least, train play helps children develop fine motor skills that they'll use for the rest of their lives. A train set is like a puzzle in many ways, and putting the pieces together helps solidify hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Those skills will help them with everything from getting dressed to brushing their teeth, tying their shoelaces, and, one day, driving a car.
A Brief History Of Toy Trains
While today's sets are made of materials ranging from metal to plastic, classic toy trains are wooden. Some models on the market today are virtually unchanged from their midcentury predecessors.
The first train sets were developed by a company called Skaneateles Handicrafters in 1936. They used wooden tracks and cars with metal axles connecting each pair of wooden wheels. Each train car (except for the first and last ones) featured a hook on one end and an eye on the other so that they could be connected in series. In 1956, Playskool took over distribution for the company until its owners sold it to the German manufacturer Habermaaß in 1980.
Right around the time Playskool began distributing the wooden Skaneateles trains, several other competitors came to market.
Right around the time Playskool began distributing the wooden Skaneateles trains, several other competitors came to market. The first arrived in 1956 from the Jack-Built Manufacturing Company, which marketed its creations as "snap trains" because of the means of connection they utilized. Built in Japan, they used a patented magnetic system to connect track sections and rolling stock alike. Both manufacturers' products were compatible with the other's, so that trains from one set could be used on tracks from another, though individual pieces could not be joined due to their differing connection styles.
In 1957, a Swedish company called Brio introduced its own wooden train sets in Europe. Considered the industry standard to this day, Brio's tracks were the first to use a peg-and-hole jigsaw connection system. Their train cars were initially joined by a hook-and-eye system like Skaneateles', though they switched to magnetic connectors after a number of years. Several other European competitors popped up in the meantime, including the Heros company, which was the first to experiment with plastic tracks in the 1970s. They also developed the first battery-powered toy trains in 1994.
Today, there's no shortage of manufacturers on the market. Competition has led to countless innovations and specialized designs, meaning there's no shortage of fun variations on the classic concept for children of the new millennium.
A Note About Track Styles
To this day, several standards exist when it comes to the tracks used with train sets. Regardless of manufacturer, many are interchangeable to allow you to combine sets or expand your train table without being tied to a particular brand.
This allows for imperfect connections, making it easier for children to manipulate the tracks.
The most consistent quality across train sets is the gauge of their tracks. Nearly all manufacturers conform to the same standards so that their trains can run on one another's tracks. The 20mm standard has been agreed upon by international hobbyist groups including the National Model Railroad Association and the German Normen Europäischer Modellbahnen. While most sets feature tracks with grooves of a standard depth and distance from one another, many manufacturers vary the curvature of the groove (or lack thereof).
Another common standard in train sets is referred to as the Vario system. It establishes that jigsaw-style tracks have loose connections to allow for some wiggle-room in track connections. In sets that subscribe to this standard, the pegs at one end of each track segment are smaller than the holes into which they fit. This allows for imperfect connections, making it easier for children to manipulate the tracks.