Saturday, 23 October 2010


Which toy train set to choose for your baby/toddler?

J (19M17D) has started to be interested in vehicles. So I have decided to invest in a train toy set. But boy, what a confusing world out there to figure out which train set to buy!!! Because it is not cheap, and can be build upon, I wanted to make the right decision, but still I have made some mistakes. Here is a post on my mistakes and learnings, and what I would do, if I could re-do it all over again.

What should a basic train set consist?

For the purpose of a toddler's fine motor skill development, if you are under budget constraints, a basic train set should consist the following in the order of listing:

1. One locomotive train engine - this is the main character in a train set

2. One tunnel – toddler learns to put the train through the tunnel

3. One round track - toddler learns to manipulate train to run on the track

4. One bridge – toddler learns to manipulate the train over the bridge

5. Two carriages - toddler learns about the function of magnets that join the locomotive and the carriages

It is worthwhile to invest in the above 5 components, and usually you can get it cheaper by buying it as a set, rather than separately. For example, The Brio My First Railway 33700 set comes with a locomotive engine, tunnel, sufficient tracks to make a circle and 3 carriages. The IKEA's Lillabo figure-of-8 track set comes with a locomotive engine (non-battery powered), tunnel, bridge and 3 carriages for only 99 DKK or 23 SGD.

All the other components/accessories such as petrol station, train station, ferry, etc. are not essential, but are more for vanity-sake, unless you can buy it cheaply from the flea markets.

And don’t let baby or toddler play with everything at once. If he is not developmentally ready, he will be frustrated, like J did. J LOVES his train toy set, but he is not developmentally ready, and got frustrated. He wanted me to play with him all the time, and to help him all the time.

Should I consider buying a train set for a girl too?

My neighbour has a girl who is a toddler 8 months older than J, and she is CRAZY about train set. The motor skills a train set trains is very good, and I would still invest in a train set, even if I have a girl, and not a boy. (Similarly, I would also invest in a food cutting set with toy fruit, fish, meat, knife, plate, pots, etc. for J, as I think it is important that he learns early how to "make" food and clean up. As it will be too messy or too dangerous for him to help cut a fruit or cook, the toys will come in handy for make belief play. In fact, J is crazy about all these toys, whenever we visit our neighbour).

Should it be made of plastic or wood?

For plastic train set, the major brand in Denmark is Lego. It is very expensive. It cost 499 DKK for a set with manual locomotive and 999 DKK for a set with battery-powered locomotive. If you wish to expand the tracks, Lego set of 6 pieces of track (curved or straight) costs 80 DKK, also more expensive than IKEA set of 10 pieces cost 69 DKK.

I have chosen the wooden type and didn’t regret it. It is more pleasing to the eye, and seems to be higher in quality as well as provide more combinations to build upon than the plastic ones. However, I use lego bricks to build the accessories such as tunnels. This also exposes J to different textures, instead of just plastic. This is a personal choice.

If it is wooden train set, should it be Thomas-the-Train, Brio, Kids-Wood or IKEA?

For wooden train set, the major brands available in Denmark are Thomas The Train, Brio, Kids-Wood and IKEA's Lillabo, in the order of price. Thomas-the-Train is the most expensive brand - everything from the train engine (manual or battery-powered), carriages, tracks, tunnels and bridges are more expensive than the others. Unless your toddler is crazy about Thomas-the-Train or you are interested in the re-sale value of Thomas-the-Train (if there is an active re-sale market out there!), I wouldn't buy all components from Thomas-the-Train. I would mix-and-match. It is worthwhile to buy the battery-powered train locomotive engine from Thomas-the-train though, as I find that it is more powerful than Brio. It could pull up to 5 wagons/carriages up the bridge (as seen from the picture below), unlike Brio, which has difficulty even with pulling 3 wagons/carriages up the bridge.

Are all the components from Thomas-the-Train, Brio, Kids-Wood and IKEA compatible?

All the components of Thomas-the-train, Brio and Kids-wood are compatible and the wooden tracks from these brands interlock very well. In fact, it seems that Brio holds the license for Thomas-the-Train in some countries, and it is suspected that they may be manufacturered in the same factory by Brio.

The train locomotives and carriages from the different brands also run well on the wooden tracks from IKEA. However, IKEA's tracks do not interlock so well with the tracks from other major brands, although IKEA claims on its website that its Lillabo series is compatible with other major brands. It is not impossible to interlock the tracks from IKEA with the other tracks, but it is more tedious, and you need to use more force, which may cause frustration for your child, if he is doing it on his own.

IKEA's bridge is also not totally compatible with the other 3 brands. The height of IKEA's bridge is too low for train locomotives from Thomas-the-train, Brio and Kids-wood to pass through as seen from the picture below:

However, you can solve this creatively by raising the height of the bridge using the wooden blocks, if you want to use IKEA's bridge as seen in the picture below:

I speak also from personal experience. I have bought Thomas-the-train battery-powered engine, Brio train set and Kids-wood train set, and they all work well together - tracks and trains. I also own IKEA's train set.

Should the locomotive train engine be manual or battery-powered?

I think it is important to start with the manual manual version in order for the toddler to practise the fine motor skills with hand and eye coordination. This gives a sense of empowerment when 'self body power' causes a train to move with a line of wagons behind and the 'little engine driver' has complete constant control with starting, stopping, speed and direction (when splitter is added). However, when J reaches 3 years old, I would add the battery-powered engine, as it would be more fun by then.

I thought I could buy the battery-powered version, and just wait with putting the battery. However, the battery-powered locomotive is constructed in such a way that the wheels are locked and could not roll manually, unless the on/off button is switched on.

What are the price differences among the different brands?

Here is a price comparison of wooden train set, based on the figure-of-8 track set as of 23 October 2010:

1. Thomas-the Train Tog 8-tals bane costs 469 DKK or 115 SGD

2. Brio Togbane Ottetal Safari set costs 280 DKK or 68 SGD (60% of the price of Thomas-the-Train) from amazon including delivery (but 325 DKK from other Danish on-line retailers excluding delivery).

3. Kids-Wood City Bumle-ekspressen 8-tals bane set costs 200 DKK or 48 SGD (43% of the price of Thomas-the-Train)

4. IKEA's LILLABO Basissæt tog 20 dele, togbane i 8 tal set costs 99 DKK or 24 SGD (20% of the price compared to Thomas-the-Train), but the height of the bridge is not compatible with size of the train locomotives from Thomas-the-train, Brio and Kids-wood.

What should I buy?

If I have a chance to re-do it all over again, here is what I will do:

1. Brio called My First Railway (33700 non-battery-powered set)

I would buy the first set of railway from Brio called My First Railway (33700 non-battery-powered set), because its tunnel is made of soft materials, and good for pre-toddlers and it comes with a manual locomotive train engine. (The reason why the manual one is preferred over the battery-operated is because the Brio battery-operated train locomotive is not powerful enough to pull the wagons/carriages up the bridge).

Here is the link to the Amazon US site:

It is cheaper to buy from and it costs 260 DKK including freight. It costs 325 DKK in the Danish websites excluding freight. I could not find this Brio set in the Danish stores in Copenhagen.

Also do not make the mistake like I did, to buy the Brio My First Railway motorized engine set (33701), thinking that I could wait with putting the battery in, and let my child use it manually first. The wheels are locked and can't function manually. The wheels only move, when the battery is put in and the power button is depressed.

2. Thomas-the-train battery-powered locomotive

Although Thomas-the-Train is the most expensive, I would buy the battery-powered locomotive from Thomas-the-train (200 DKK), because it is more powerful than Brio. It can pull even up to 5 wagons/carriages, while Brio has trouble pulling even 3 wagons/carriages up the bridge as seen below:

For those who live in Denmark, alternatively, you may want to buy Kids-wood motorizedlocomotive engine which costs 99.95 DKK or 23 SGD, which is cheaper than Thomas-the-Train, and the engine is stronger than Brio and as good as Thomas-the-Train.

Here is the link to the BR toy-shop in Denmark:

Here is how the Kids-wood motorized locomotive engine looks like:

3. Kids-wood City figure-of-8 Set

As my toddler grows, I would buy the figure-of-8 with bridge from Kids-wood, as it is the cheapest (200 DKK or 48 SGD), that is compatible with the major brands. IKEA's figure-of-8 set although is the cheapest (99 DKK or 23 SGD), but is not compatible with the rest.

Here is the link to Kids-wood figure-of-8 track set with bridge and tunnel from the BR toy-shop in Denmark:

4. IKEA's LILLABO tracks

If I would like to expand the formation of the railway set, I would add more tracks from IKEA although it is more tedious to interlock them with the tracks from the other brands, because it is the cheapest - 10 pieces of tracks from IKEA cost 69 DKK or 17 SGD compared with 8 pieces of tracks (4 straight and 4 curved) from Thomas-the-Train cost 178 DKK. 8 pieces of tracks (4 straight and 4 curved) cost 99 DKK each from both Brio and Kids-Wood.

5. Lego City Train Station (7937)

When J is around 5 years old, should I be "vain" to buy accessories such as a train station, I would buy Lego City Train Station (349 DKK) although it is more expensive than Kids-Wood (200 DKK) and Brio (250DKK), while still cheaper than Thomas-the-Train (375 DKK). This is because it allows imagination and creativity. The child has to build it himself, unlike those from the other brands, which comes ready assembled.

I was surprised to find that most of the toy shops in Denmark do not carry all the major brands, and have very limited selection of the same brand. Thus, either one has to run around from store-to-store in the whole of Copenhagen, or to buy them over the internet.

When should baby/toddler play with train set?

1. Baby 9-12 months old: Manual locomotive train engine only

When baby is 9 months old, take only the train engine out of the Brio set. Let baby plays with it. Tell him about the colours, and that it has wheel, and that it can moves.

When baby is 12 months old, he should be able to move the train engine manually on the wheel on the floor. Still, don’t use the battery yet, otherwise, baby doesn't see the need to use his hand muscles to move the train, and it defeats the motor skills this toy can train.

2. Pre-toddler 15 months old: Manual locomotive train engine + tunnel only

When baby is approx. 15 months or when you see that baby is ready, take out the tunnel and let baby/pre-toddler learn to manipulate the train engine through the tunnel. The tunnel can be from the above-recommended Brio set or made with lego bricks as seen from the picture below:

3. Toddler 18 months old: Manual locomotive train engine + tunnel + circular track

When baby reaches approx. 18 months or when you see that baby/toddler is ready, take out the track from the Brio My First Railway set and build a circular track first. Let toddler runs the train-engine manually on the tracks.

4. Toddler 21 months old: Manual locomotive train engine + tunnel + figure-of-8-tracks + bridge

When toddler reaches 21 months old or when you see toddler is developmentally ready, you can introduce the bridge and a more complicated figure-of-8-tracks as seen below.

5. Toddler 24 months old – Manual locomotive train engine + tunnel + tracks + bridge + carriages

When toddler reaches 24 months old or when you see toddler is developmentally ready, you can let him have all the carriages and explain that the train engine and the carriage are joined magnetically.

I made the mistake of introducing the carriages to J too early, as he wasn't developmentally ready, and got very frustrated, as every time he pushed the carriages and the train engine, and they came off. He could not control the strength of push he should give to move the carriage, which is joined magnetically to the engine, and got frustrated.

6. Toddler 2.5 years old – Battery-powered locomotive train engine + tunnel + tracks + bridge + carriages

Now is the time to bring bring the battery-powered Thomas-the-train engine. From age 2-3, that is when imagination takes over (1-2 is when curiosity takes over). Your toddler/pre-schooler would be amazed that the train can run on its own, and that it can pull along the other carriages as well to go under a tunnel and over a bridge, etc. all by itself.

It is not necessary to buy all these pre-made accessories from Thomas-the-Train or Brio, as you can use lego bricks to let your toddler/pre-schooler use his/her creativity to build its own build police station, train station, etc. for the train. You can add more tracks and it is the cheapest to get from IKEA.

Some ideas on train models combining lego bricks from the internet:

7. Pre-schooler 3 years old: All the above + Story-telling

You can narrate a story as the train travels along the tracks and also encourage your pre-schooler to create a story himself as the train runs along. See below references for awesome story inspiration from youtube. You can inspire your pre-schooler to make his own story by letting him watch the video from youtube:

How do you know when baby/toddler is developmentally ready for all the various stages with a train set?

Every toddler is different. This can only be discovered by trial-and-error, like what I am going through now. J is 19M18D today, and he is still not developmentally ready to manipulate the engine and the carriages together. So today, I have decided to keep the carriages in the cabinet, until he is ready. So, I have learned from my "error".

P.S.: Why do I want to take time writing all these down in a post?

I know months and years from now, I would have forgotten all about this, and all the learning from my mistakes would be gone. So I better capture it, while “the iron is still hot” – as the Chinese saying goes, which is also an English saying.

Also, buying the first train set for J is so special. I wanted to capture this special memory by writing it down.


Here are some inspiring train model videos from youtube:

6.8.2011 (2Y5M2D) - Train track built by J

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I am just thinking of expanding our little Ikea starter set we bought before our 20 month old daughter was born and this is very helpful, especially the tips on compatibility and the power of the Thomas motor. You've saved me a lot of bother.


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