Teach Through Toys: Trains

Teach Through Toys: Trains

Age level: Preschool, Early Elementary, Upper Elementary

Description: Trains are such popular toys, it seems silly to describe them. However, as I use trains a lot to teach students with autism and other developmental delays, it is worth noting that my particular train set incorporates six different types of train cars of varying colors, multiple types of tracks including hills and crossings, trees and shrubs, buses, cars, road signs, blocks to create a variety of buildings, and three different sizes and colors of people.

Skills & Modifications: Many of the preschools I have been able to observe have a train set as part of the supplies in their classroom, and that train set is typically brought out at almost every opportunity by the students. When you see a typically developing child play with a train set, you see them engaging in a wide variety of skills through the building of tracks, arrangement of trains, discussions with peers also playing with the trains, and enactments of different train scenarios. However, if you see a student with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental delays, you will frequently see them rolling the train back and forth at eye-level, building the exact same construction of tracks each time, or fixating on one particular train car without ever building a longer train.

Because many students with ASD are highly motivated by trains, it is a tool I use to foster a variety of skills.

  • Manding – The very nature of trains allows for many opportunities for a student to mand (or request) for items or actions.
  • Cause and Effect – For early learners, trains offer basic cause and effect play, including rolling a train down the hill, crashing trains, or putting down crossing gates.
  • Problem and Solution – When working with more advanced learners, I will have them engage in small play scenarios with me in which each of us is either playing the role of a train or person. For example, I might be a person, and say “Oh no, I missed the train! What am I going to do?” And the student will come up with a solution such as “You have to wait for the next train.” or “Wait, I’ll come back and get you.” When I am working on problem and solution with my students, I engage them with novel problems each time, and once they have mastered offering a solution, I may object to their solution within reason (for example, “I can’t wait for the next train. I’ll be late for school!) and have them offer me a second solution (such as, “You’ll have to call a cab.) I work in New York City, where students are much more familiar with trains and cabs, so this is an appropriate problem and solution scenario for my students, but may not be appropriate if your student is less familiar with such concepts.
  • Adjectives – You can introduce adjectives in terms of describing trains, but you can also use trains to demonstrate the adjectives fast and slow.
  • Imitation – This is a great way to have students practice imitation in the natural environment. Sometimes I will have trains available for both myself and the student and play a game of “Can your train do this?” Then I will make my train roll across the floor, down hills, under bridges, etc.
  • Matching – For some students I do not allow access to the train cars until they have helped me build a track for the trains. I will spread out the different tracks (or for early learners put out an array of 3-8 tracks), then hold up one and ask them to find another one that looks like it. After they have found the correct one, we will put them together. I do not do this for every single track (they may lose their motivation and decide they don’t want to play with trains after all.) But it’s a good context for practicing matching in the natural environment. This is why matching is important after all: So you can find something that you’re looking for!
  • Scanning – While the activity described above involves scanning, there are many other points that I may practice scanning with the trains. For instance, I may say that I am looking for the blue train or the stop sign and have the student help me find it. Sometimes as part of the imaginative play story we are creating, I will have a train or person hide (but be partially visible) behind a tree or building, and have the student (or the train or person the student is playing with) find what is hidden.
  • Peer Play – You may have the opportunity to play with a typically developing peer or with a sibling. What’s nice about most train sets is that there are so many pieces and most have duplicates, so it’s less likely that a student will get upset about the pieces the other students is playing with. (Unlikely, but as we all know, not impossible!) For early learners, trains may be an opportunity for parallel play.
  • Sorting – This is another toy in which students can practice sorting during clean up. I have one bag for the train tracks, another for the houses, another for trees, and so on.

Pros: The positive aspects of trains are simple: they’re highly motivating and there’s a multitude of skills involved in playing with them.

Cons: If you are working with students with autism spectrum disorders, they may have some rote or scripted play with trains that is difficult to break through. Trains may not always be the best place to start with these students if you have access to other toys and items that are equally or more reinforcing for them.

Cost:  The set I have is $49.99 at Lakeshore LearningShould I buy this? My set is pretty comprehensive and I do highly recommend it. Some students are not as motivated by my set because they are specifically reinforced by Thomas & Friends. This is an important consideration if you are using the trains to work on language skills for early learners. If you are a parent, I think that a train set is a great toy for your child. There are so many activities you can do with it, it is age appropriate, and most sets are pretty sturdy. As a teacher, this is one of those toys that I carry with me almost every where I go.

ABLLS: B8, B18, B19, C34, D1, D2, D20, F3, F5,

VB-MAPP: Mand 1, Mand 2, Mand 3, Listener Responding 5, Social Behavior and Social Play 4, Social Behavior and Social Play 5, Motor Imitation 3, Listener Responding 9, Independent Play 6, Motor Imitation 8

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