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The Evolution of a Train Table

Jan 31, 2013

by Caleb Gardner

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

It started as a hobby. One train and a couple of tracks were all Miles needed to entertain himself. Those were simpler days.

As his ability to create elaborate scenarios in his mind grew, so did the demand for the toys to bring them to life. As the first grandchild on both sides of the family, he had plenty of gift-givers who obliged his obsession. Our train collection grew exponentially. Train tracks weaved through our living spaces like weeds.

A train table from Craigslist later, and we were able to contain the track sprawl and give Miles a small world from which to let his imagination run. By that time, train tracks had spawned bridges, roundhouses, intersections. Thomas and Friends had met (and befriended) the Chuggington crew. Things were busy on the train table, and as scenarios became more elaborate, space became a commodity.

Like so many urban cities, we had nowhere to go but up. One level became two, which became three. If our train table is its own ecosystem, naturally mimicking urban development, Miles joyfully cultivated it with the same love as a lead engineer.

I admit that I got as into the construction of our train table as Miles did (occasionally more). The endless combinations made the table like a puzzle that needed solving every day. Whereas Miles was satisfied as long as the tracks held together, I strove for perfection. I wanted to find the most optimal train track setup within the constraints of the table. I still haven’t found it.

I like to think of the evolution of our train table as a reflection of the growing complexity with which Miles interacts with the world. His imagination has gone from supporting one simple, circular motion of a train to elaborate story lines where friends interact, problems are solved, and bad guys are vanquished. We’ve created a world that mimics his own, in train form.

I know this is a phase, but I’ll be sad come the day when trains don’t interest him anymore. Those little pieces of wood and wheels have for so long symbolized his innocence that when they’re gone, we won’t be able to help feeling a sense of loss. When he walks away from the train table, it means that I will have to as well. And the perfection I’ve been striving for will be in someone else’s hands.

What toys define your kids’ childhood? What play scenarios do you share together?

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2 Featured Comments

  • rorymosman

    Rory Mosman from FeatherKeeper said 6 years ago Featured

    As a stay at home father of three kids I am finding consistency in inconsistency! Any given day or hour we go from playdough to trains to books to forts and back again! I must say that I too find myself working just as hard as the kids to perfect that moment where the trains versus matchbox cars launch from the book ramp across the kitchen to slam satisfyingly against the cupboard :P Many different people encourage me to cherish these days and I try to. I also realize that these opportunities to interact with my children and imagine with them are the building blocks to how they will grow and evolve into adults. Its a nice reminder to be available and encouraging. Thanks for the post.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 6 years ago Featured

    Legos. Definitely Legos for us. My daughter, who is 7, just wants to create the real world with her Legos -- for the most part, her creations are by the book. I'm always trying to get her to build crazy things, insanely tall things, fantastical things. But she won't. I find it interesting, because otherwise she's a very creative child. But despite our different Lego styles, we still enjoy building with them together, and that's the important part.

52 comments

  • amysfunkyfibers

    Amy Gunderson from amysfunkyfibers said 6 years ago

    Play dough! My kids would spend hours making all sorts of things! It was really good fun!

  • amysfunkyfibers

    Amy Gunderson from amysfunkyfibers said 6 years ago

    My kids really loved Play Dough! It kept their little hands busy, and their minds full of imagination!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    These train tables have fascinated my daughter and I as well. My father is a HUGE Lionel train collector. The whole entire basement of the house I grew up in is filled with trains and collectable cars and vintage metal toys. Its fascinating no matter how old you are or get. Every time we visit my parents, we always journey to the trains and my daughter who is 8, has her own track that she uses. My son is 10 months and sits amazed as the trains go around the track. Soon enough he will have his own set too. Its something that my family will never outgrow :) There are many special memories behind his collection.

  • kathyjohnson3

    Kathy Johnson from kathyjohnson3 said 6 years ago

    My daughter and I used to enjoy sewing together, and the boys loved to go fishing! I was just thinking the other day that I wish I could do it all over again, I really miss those days!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    On the plus side, he's growing up as he should when he leaves the train table behind.

  • worksofwhimsy

    worksofwhimsy from worksofwhimsy said 6 years ago

    My daughters' dress up box got more use than any other play item. It started when the oldest was about 4 years old with items from post Halloween clearance sales and hand-me-down junk jewelry from grandma. Over the years thrift store finds and dance recital costumes have been added. My girls are in their late teens now, but still rummage through that dress up box from time to time when they need something for a school project or a theme party. I have many fond memories of the "shows" they put on for us.

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    Mary Robertson from MaggiesInn said 6 years ago

    One should never have to walk away from the train table... for a child remains in all of us... toot toot....chug chug... I am a grown up girl and I am still fascinated by them!!!

  • allthingswhite

    Kathi from allthingswhite said 6 years ago

    we had a train table when I was young. my dad and little brother built it in the corner of the basement . it had a paper mache mountain and tunnels and a pond in the middle that could lift out so that they could crawl under the table and pop themselves through the hole to work on the back side of the layout. it was pretty amazing thanks for the great memory of this today

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 6 years ago

    Caleb I really enjoy your blog posts here. It takes me back to the days when my kids were young (they are 23 and 21 now.) It goes SO fast, especially those lovely childhood years before preteen hormones begin to change everything ;) My daughter loved her large menagerie of stuffed animals and many of their games revolved around these 'families' of critters. My son was ok with this but there were trucks, knex, tinkertoys, legos, etc, that always played a part in their imaginary worlds! I always loved how they could find a way to merge their individual interests into worlds they could create together and share. It's great that you can share Miles' train world with him! I hope you take photos and videos to remember it by. With kids its ever-changing...letting go of each phase and welcoming the next. It's a wonderful experience I treasure the memories of, while enjoying who they are now, and loving who they are still becoming! Best wishes to your lovely family.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 6 years ago

    I would still go for the wooden train :)

  • SheriHansen1

    Sheri and Jason from TwinOaksStudios said 6 years ago

    These memories sound like the foundations for an adult collector! Maybe one day he will loose interest, but these interests come back around again in time!

  • ShabbyNChic

    ShabbyNChic from ShabbyNChic said 6 years ago

    My son is building toys out of cardboard with his dad as I type this. We make a lot of games as well, so homemade toys are huge for my kids. I would say the other is Legos for sure!

  • Plastidermy

    Chris Evans from Plastidermy said 6 years ago

    I don't have children yet, but if i do one day I will assure that they play with dinosaurs!

  • rorymosman

    Rory Mosman from FeatherKeeper said 6 years ago Featured

    As a stay at home father of three kids I am finding consistency in inconsistency! Any given day or hour we go from playdough to trains to books to forts and back again! I must say that I too find myself working just as hard as the kids to perfect that moment where the trains versus matchbox cars launch from the book ramp across the kitchen to slam satisfyingly against the cupboard :P Many different people encourage me to cherish these days and I try to. I also realize that these opportunities to interact with my children and imagine with them are the building blocks to how they will grow and evolve into adults. Its a nice reminder to be available and encouraging. Thanks for the post.

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 6 years ago

    Once upon a time the Beanie Babies and My Little Ponies were oozing out of every room in our small house and with twins everything was doubled. One birthday party left us with fourteen new Barbie dolls (which we donated to Toys For Tots). Someday I will be the most unpopular grandmother as I will only give books, underwear and college tuition money as gifts.

  • rorymosman

    Rory Mosman from FeatherKeeper said 6 years ago

    As a stay at home father of three kids I find consistency in inconsistency! Any given hour or day we go from trains to legos to books to forts to hide and seek and back again! I too find myself working towards that perfect flight of the train or matchbox car across the kitchen off the book ramp to hit solidly against the cupboard! People tell me to cherish these moment and I try too! I realize more and more that these moments of interaction and imaginitive play are really building blocks for their future as they grow and evolve into young adults. Thanks for this post it is a great reminder to care and spend as much time as possible listening to and guiding our kids!

  • rorymosman

    Rory Mosman from FeatherKeeper said 6 years ago

    Love it when I post a comment and it seems to get lost so I try to remember what I wrote, post it again, but only to have the old one show up! Yes!

  • LilyThings

    Elizabeth Lagasse from LillyThings said 6 years ago

    My husband and I find that we are now buying things we enjoyed as kids for our little one too. Train tables are a pick, but I really enjoyed the doing kid crafts , like making dollhouse outta sponges and shoe boxes.

  • thehouseofhemp

    sarah parker from thehouseofhemp said 6 years ago

    nothing is perfect caleb and you don't have to walk away from anything, you will always carry it with you.

  • econica

    Natallia from econica said 6 years ago

    what a sweet story! i have two little boys who love trains and their dad had to build them a special, very long train table to contain our ever growing collection of Thomas and friends!

  • ParisCabinet

    JD Kohler from ParisCabinet said 6 years ago

    Caleb, what a great article. Our oldest grandson went through trains and my husband made a low huge train table for the playroom for the layouts. We all had fun at that table, even birthday parties. After a few years the table had to go but the huge framed train poster from Disneyland is still there! Enjoy the time.

  • WoodlandCottage

    WoodlandCottage from WoodlandCottage said 6 years ago

    Puppets!

  • InWiththeOldVintage

    Courtney McCabe from InWiththeOldVintage said 6 years ago

    While his Thomas Train set still occupies at least 45 min. of my son's day, both of my children spend a majority of their time at their kitchen set. For my 6th Christmas, my father built my siblings and I a wooden kitchen set. We spent countless hours playing with it. My daughter inherited it on her 2nd birthday. It's amazing that almost 30 years later my children are just as obsessed with it as we were. They pretend to cook, grocery shop, run a restaurant, have picnics, tea parties and birthday parties. Every time I see them playing with it, it brings back memories of my happy childhood. I hope when they are grown, it will do the same for them.

  • TreadleLady

    Donna Kohler from TreadleLady said 6 years ago

    Great article. My 12 year old grandson was crazy about Little People when he was small. He lived Little People and town layouts, he had the houses and businesses and played all day. A friend gave me a cute treadle sewing machine refrigerator magnet. The next time my grandson came over he spotted it. He got the funniest look on his face, he froze and zoned out, I'll never forget it and I said, "I know what you are thinking, you want it for your Little People." Continuing to stare at it with the glazed look he shook his head yes. Next time I went over I had to photograph my treadle sewing machine magnet in his Little People house and I put it at the end of my Vintage Machines page on my website. Ahhh, memories are so wonderful, enjoy.

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 6 years ago

    My two year old nephew Gallatin is simply enthralled with tractors. Specifically blue ones. For months and months every other word escaping his lips was "dadoo! dadoo!", his own unique spin on the word. His grandfather is a farmer, so this might have something to do with his cute obsession : )

  • gescate

    Gino Escate from Gygante said 6 years ago

    Great story, love the trains

  • amusebeads

    amusebeads from amusebeads said 6 years ago

    I've discovered that more is not necessarily better. It seems like my 4 year old got so much out of imagining that the poptart box was the roundhouse, and that crayons and pencil stubs were the logs on the logging car. Now that he's received a real roundhouse, and bigger train sets, it seems like the magic is gone. Everything has become more literal and somehow less... playful. Methinks it is time to pull out the recycling bin again!

  • juliewilkens

    Julie Wilkens said 6 years ago

    My kids like their trains, yes, and their various cars and Barbies and such, but my 6-year-old daughter's biggest obsession is anything she can get out of the recycling--plastic containers, old boxes, cardboard tubes, etc.--and tape together or draw on to make new stuff. The recycling bin is where it's at!

  • MahoganyWayMama

    Darcel Harmon from TheMahoganyWay said 6 years ago

    My 2yr old son loves trains,trucks,helicopters. Even though he has a toy box full of these items, he seems to enjoy creating his own out of legos and blocks.

  • silverlily786

    Fatema from SilverLilyJewelry said 6 years ago

    We started (with a huge push and nudge from me:) our collection with a train set I bought for my eldest son from ikea whenever we would take him shopping for a gift I would encourage him to buy more components with the arrival of his brother the collection grew now they are more into a Beyblades,video games and currently a new spy kit but we are blessed with a third son who I will be encouraging to add on to our train set:-)

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 6 years ago Featured

    Legos. Definitely Legos for us. My daughter, who is 7, just wants to create the real world with her Legos -- for the most part, her creations are by the book. I'm always trying to get her to build crazy things, insanely tall things, fantastical things. But she won't. I find it interesting, because otherwise she's a very creative child. But despite our different Lego styles, we still enjoy building with them together, and that's the important part.

  • FalconandFinch

    Lynelle Miliate-Ha from FalconandFinch said 6 years ago

    My Finn is still too young for toys, but I remember being hypnotized by the train set belonging to a child I nannied. He loved to build long and bigger tracks, but I was taken by the idyllic scenery. It was a perfect little place - every green spot a meadow, and the villages so quaint and quiet. I longed to live there, in the world of his toy trains.

  • solocosmo

    Jessica Grundy from solocosmo said 6 years ago

    My son is train OBSESSED. When we lived in San Diego we would always go to the model railroad museum...and he would just flip out. We could make a whole day out of it. he would study each and every detail of the table and track and squeal when the trains rolled by. We live in TX now and there is nothing really in our town like that and we have talked about opening up our own model railroad museum for Sampson (our son) to fill and create tracks in and invite little tours in.

  • andiespecialtysweets

    Jason and Andie from andiespecialtysweets said 6 years ago

    We can sooooo relate, Caleb! Our boys went from wooden trains to Lionel, and the whole to-scale, layout. Now they are building their own scale models. We (parents) already have a soft spot for miniatures, so this will be a hoby/work in process for years to come. Because of our boys, our whole family has become fascinated with steam locomotives. : )

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 6 years ago

    I always wanted model trains, but I think they were out of my parents' price range. I loved riding on this small train that used to run around a local department store when I was a little girl. Unfortunately, it turns out (at least in my opinion) that actual interstate train travel is pretty awful. The models are better.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 6 years ago

    My model farm was definitely the best toy I had growing up. I had loads of farm animals & used to buy new ones every week with my pocket money. All the "buildings" were made from cardboard boxes & the "fences" were made from sticks glued together. Hours & hours I spent crawling around on the floor arranging the farm... rounding up the sheep, milking with the cows, feeding the pigs & chickens. It was a familiar world as I live in a rural area & have many farming friends, but my own miniature version was better than the real thing somehow.

  • kadydesigns

    Denise Vining from kadydesigns said 6 years ago

    My girls had a train table when they were little and they spent hours playing with trains and building different tracks. They are now 20 and 18 now and I will save the table and all the track, trains etc. for my grandchildren someday.

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 6 years ago

    We just sold our boys trains, wodden tracks, and troublesome trucks. Good bye Thomas. You will be missed...

  • OliCreations

    Francesca from OliCreations said 6 years ago

    This is really sweet...and don't worry...for my brother and I it was legoes and while we grew up and don't play with them anymore we still have a lot of memories connected to them and we still kept almost all the legoes we had. Your son might stop playing with the trains but he will definitely not forget them!

  • DeepSilence

    Sonja Bikić from DeepSilence said 6 years ago

    nice

  • MagpieQuilts

    Ann from MagpieQuilts said 6 years ago

    all 3 of my sons loved to play with the Brio train set we had for them when they were young. It's back out now and my grandchildren love playing with it, slowly pushing the train along the track, making up stories in their heads! even if it's only for a season of their lives, it is great to watch and play with them with a cherished toy.

  • JKistlerStudios

    Jennifer Kistler from JKistlerStudios said 6 years ago

    So bittersweet is the passage of time! My boys outgrew their beloved wooden Thomas trains a while ago, but we kept them. They never had a table, we always knew it would be too small, and train tracks sprawled across the cozy living room rug sometimes, and often in their "play room" (the unused dining room). I've been thinking a lot lately about how sad I'll be when they outgrow other things I enjoy doing with them. Cherish every moment!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 6 years ago

    A little boy's dream!!!

  • OliveSpoonStudio

    Michael and Erin Waite from OliveSpoonStudio said 6 years ago

    Oh, this made me tear up! My little guy is at this same stage, and also building up on blocks to make more levels on the table. They are his great love, and he recently got his hands on a poster advertisement of all the trains available. He sat beside me and plotted out which trains he wanted for which birthdays, from his next one which will be 5 (in nearly a year), all the way up to his 12th! Outwardly I smiled, and inside I whimpered a little bit... Oh, time...

  • tripathismriti

    Smriti from DesiFabrics said 6 years ago

    Lovely post! I am being nostalgic and remembering my beautiful childhood days.

  • nativestrandsjewelry

    Rachel from PeppersJewelry said 6 years ago

    Nice colorful trains! Great post!

  • VibrantTrains

    VibrantTrains from VibrantTrains said 6 years ago

    OMG! I love trains!!!!

  • sweedishxbunnies

    Maria Turner from sweedishxbunnies said 6 years ago

    ..brings back memories :)

  • finefeatheredfinds

    Anita DiRenzo from infinefeathers said 6 years ago

    This article sounds so familiar! My son is a total "Train Head". We have now an expandable train table as part of our living room set, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

  • FantasticaIdea

    Roberta from FantaIdea said 6 years ago

    Here a son into train with huge table with long train track that takes almost half of his room! Wooden trains are the best! Old memories are recent now for us!

  • jcarenson

    Jane from MyLittlePeachCrochet said 6 years ago

    Oh, this made me tear up a little. My son is in the same phase. He wakes up talking about trains and his whole day is spent imagining stories about trains. I am amazed at his creatinity. The food on his plate at lunch becomes tunnels and bridges and freight cars...how can I tell this little imagination to stop for a moment and just eat! I love the little wooden trains too. They are really so beautiful to look at and play with. I will enjoy each minute that my son wants to play with his mommy and his trains!

  • Wholesaletoys

    Wholesale Toys said 4 years ago

    Great post,nice train.This is really sweet.

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