The 10 Best Train Tables
10. Brio 33099
9. Hape Railway
8. KidKraft Waterfall Mountain
7. Pidoko Gift Set
6. Sodura MTLCPT
5. Little Colorado Handcrafted
4. Step2 Deluxe Canyon Road
3. Melissa & Doug 2371
2. Conductor Carl Set
1. KidKraft Metropolis
The Benefits of Train Tables
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. 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.
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.