Confession time: I am not that great at playing with my kids. Okay, that isn’t entirely true. I try, I get down on the floor and we play. I am great at puzzles, I can read books, and I can do crafts. But things like playing cars or trains just elude me a bit. We set up the trains, then what? My son loves playing with them though, so I want to be a part of it. I also wouldn’t mind adding in some learning. Nothing big or he will notice, but I have found a few ways to squeeze some in. As a bonus it keeps me involved and the communication going. I also have a few fun ways to really focus in on some education topics. Some are no prep activities, others need a little bit of effort. Both casual and directed activities are important. Here are 5 easy learning activities using toy trains.
Train cars are perfect to practice counting on. We have, well, we have too many trains. This is perfect for practice with numbers over ten. (Hands up if you can go over twenty with your trains too. We can.) I feel like I hit the numbers 1-10 really well when my son was a toddler. But those teens and twenties can cause some confusion. Once you are in the twenties the pattern emerges, but it takes some practice. So as we are building bigger lines of train cars I have us pause and count how many we have. We also count the pieces of track that make up our creations. Kids get a kick out of things getting bigger, so they get into it.
Simple Addition and Subtraction
Train cars and train tracks are great for illustrating basic addition and subtraction. We start with one train car, then I ask my son how many cars we would have if we add one more. Sometimes he answers, sometimes not. Either way, we then add the next car and then count them up. I make it a point of saying ‘one plus one equals two.’ Using whatever numbers we just added together. You can do the same with subtraction. (In fact, this makes clean up time a bit more fun.) We have five train cars and I take two away, how many are left? Then we count. Again, I make sure to say the words ‘five minus two equals three.’ The point of this isn’t necessarily to master math, but it does show the concept. Saying the equation out loud helps your child get used to how math problems are often given to them and helps him become familiar with the vocabulary that goes along with math.
Not every train set has cars that connect with magnets, but a lot of them do. And thank goodness, it is so much easier for kids to connect the cars with magnets instead of hooks. Find two trains and hook them together. Then flip one around and see if they repel each other. You can explain that magnets have two poles, and opposite poles attract while like poles repel each other. Now unless you have a magnet where you know which pole is which, you probably won’t know on your trains which is the north and which is the south. But that’s okay, the key is to practice recognizing a same/different trait that isn’t visible just by looking at the trains.
Another way to take advantage of the magnetic properties of some train sets is to see how long a line of trains you can get going before you lose the end cars. The magnetic field of these trains is only so strong, so at some point, the weight of the additional cars is larger than the field can overcome. How many cars can your trains pull?
I love practicing basic observations, comparisons, and sorting. You can focus on any topic that your child is working on. Observe shapes, sort by color, and compare sizes. These are just some examples. Sometimes I just ask Ben to describe a particular train car to me. It is very interesting to see what traits he decides to focus in on. With older children, you can just ask them to sort the trains into two or three (or more) groups. That’s it, no further guidance. It is fun to see all the different ways to categorize the same trains. This is all great practice for future STEM activities as well, as those often include observation and comparison.
Letter and Word Practice
With a little prep work trains can be turned into a tool to practice letter recognition, spelling, sight words, and basic sentence structure. For letter practice and spelling, cut out small squares of paper and write one letter on each. Then tape the letters onto the train cars. Your child can then find the letters they need to spell out words or just practice alphabetical order. For older children use words instead of letters. This is good practice for sight words, and also helps them put together sentences. Finding a fun way to practice these skills using a subject your child enjoys, like trains, can make an otherwise painful exercise something everyone can enjoy.
You can cut out your own letters and words for this one, but to make it even easier I made a little free printable you can download and cut out. Moms are busy, and this can help save a little time.
There is nothing wrong with just playing with trains as is, but it can be so helpful to sneak in some directed learning with them. As a mother, I feel like it helps me bond with my son over something he really enjoys, even though I am not that into trains myself. You don’t need a ton of extra prep, mess, or effort to add a little learning into your child’s day. Just take a few minutes to talk with your child and let the learning and fun meet up.
Looking for more easy learning activities? Check these out!