Toddler Play

Parent Q&A

  • My almost 3 year old has begun asking me to "help" her stuffed animals (or toothbrush, or whatever) talk. This is all well and good except sometimes she has a very specific idea of what the animal should say, and she gets quite bent out of shape if I say anything else. (e.g. "Noooooo!!!! He says, 'where did you go?'")  This really annoys me and I do not wish to interact with her in this way. Looking for any insight into this behavior or scripts to set this boundary when she specifically requests "Can you help him say x."

    Just to clarify we do play together sometimes as each of us talking for an object, or it works its way into our daily routines (e.g. the washcloth monster coming to eat his lunch). That's totally fine, I don't mind it in general and am happy to set the boundary of "not now" when I can't. It's specifically the request for me to say specific things that drives me up a wall (and seems to really agitate her). 

    Thank you!

    This is totally normal kid behavior, though it's understandable to find it annoying. My 4 year daughter does this, and when I talk to other parents of kids 3-4 it's the same story. My daughter also asks me to make up a story, and then dictates the entire plot. In both cases I play along for as along as I can take it, and then redirect to another activity.

    hi, i'm sure that a psychologist could explain what is going on developmentally for your daughter, but it seems completely normal to me.  I'd urge you to play along with her requests which are not exactly major.   I promise you that with all things related to your child, this too shall pass.   Just try to not be annoyed and be playful with her.   This is not a fight you should be fighting since there will be other more important issues later!   I know you're feeling annoyed but I so wish I had a little one to play with right now!!!!

    I SO remember this phase. My husband and I still laugh remembering my older son's mandates on how/what to play and say when he was just your child's age. Our very favorite, his order to us as he sat with legs under the rocking chair, as if driving a forklift: "You say: 'It's not a good day for forklifts.'" He is now 29. He long ago stopped driving an imaginary forklift and ordering us around.

    My wise grandmother's advice about parenting applies here. "When you think you can't stand it any more, it changes."

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Toddler son obsessed with trains

August 2002

My 21-month-old son loves ''choo choos'' (trains). Should encourage this obsession or redirect it?

Right now the only train-related items we own are ''The Little Train that Could'' book and one ''Thomas the Tank Engine'' book. I am afraid of him becoming one of those kids who must have every single Thomas train item or Brio train gadget, who insists on spending the entire day at the Tilden Steam Trains, and who wants to talk ad nauseam about the minutiae details of trains.

Every time I bring books home from the Berkeley library to read with him, he finds the pages that have pictures of ''choo choos'' on them and only wants to look at those pages.

He has other interests as well (watering our garden, reading books about animals, hiking, riding in the bike trailer, searching for rocks, drawing, etc.), so perhaps I should cultivate those interests and let the ''choo choo'' obsession fade away without new toys or books from Mom and Dad. Any thoughts from fellow parents of ''choo choo''-obsessed boys? Danielle

Our son loved trains when he was little, wanted to read the train books, see trains, and watch those dopey Thomas videos all the time. We wish we'd bought the Brio or compatibles, they're nicer than lots of other toys. He got over it slowly, now at 11 he enjoys trains mildly but saves his obsessions for role-playing computer games... Avi

My advice is,,, you do not need to worry about it.

While he may like trains so much that it seems even obsessive, this can be a great gateway for him to learn so many things from it.

My son, who is now 3 years and a half, also loves trains, particularly The Thomas the tank engine. It all started when we bought just one Thomas book when he was around 2 and a half. He loved that book, and we read it every night for 6 months. Through it he learnt about colors, numbers, sizes, emotions of each trains, etc. Eventually we bought one train, and he played so well with it. 3 months later on his birthday, we gave him 2 more Thomas character trains. Now he creates stories with those train sets, and have lots of fun.

Although he sometimes asks why he does not have other Thomas character trains, I just tell them that they are probably busy doing there jobs in the island of Sodor, and they may or may not come to visit him. He is fine with this explanation, and do not complain about it. He has a basic train tracks, a hand down from his older cousin. Although some parts are broken, he does not ask for a new one, since we just say we cannot keep buying new parts, instead he can figure out how to play with those broken ones. Then he often find solutions (problem solving skill is there!!!) For example, he does not have train stations, but he just put wooden bricks next to a track, and for him, they are perfect as train stations.

I think it is wonderful for him to be able to have something that he loves so much. I do not necessarily encourage him to stick to his love of trains, but I certainly do not discourage him from playing with it. He will outgrow it as he gets older, (or he may become one of those adults who likes to have a real miniature train tracks in his attic!) Mika

Kids' obsessions can get tiresome, but for the most part I've always enjoyed my son's passions and encouraged them. My son (now age 7) loved trains as a toddler, too, and we spent many enjoyable hours on the Tilden train, playing with his train set, reading books about trains, and haunting the remainder table at Pegasus looking for new books about trains. (One of my favorites from the remainder table was the beautifully illustrated Choo Choo by Virginia Lee Burton -- she's the one who wrote and illustrated Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, among other kids' classics.) Not only do I think such obsessions are harmless, I believe kids learn and develop their brains by focusing on something, like trains, and learning all they can about it. Memorizing minute details about trains -- I suspect, though I don't have studies to back it up -- trains the brain (no pun intended!) to learn and memorize and organize the world as the child gets older. Why not just go with your child's enthusiasm? Why squelch his passion? You have no obligation to buy every Thomas or Brio train, and you don't have to spend every spare minute at the Tilden train. And by all means encourage other activities, too, as you're already doing. A few years down the road your son will move on to other interests and you'll think nostalgically back on when he loved trains, and when a trip to Tilden was all it took to make him happy. We used to bring a snack with us and ride the train three or four times in a row -- it's a beautiful ride and I don't regret a minute of it. Finally, if this train obsession is bugging you, just wait until he's school age and becomes interested in things like Pokemon or baseball cards or whatever. My son gets a small weekly allowance now, and out of that he can indulge his current obsession -- whether that's buying Pokemon cards and memorizing everything about those strange creatures or saving for a Star Wars Lego set. Its my experience that you can't squelch these interests if they're really strong. So unless you really think your child's obsession is harmful, go with it, and enjoy! -- Dana

I guess that I don't really see any problem with the obsession, other than it can become annoying to you. My son is 3 1/2 and is still very much train obsessed. As tired as I am of hearing about trains I see no problem with it, and actually because he likes trains so much he loves to be read train books, both stories and books about trains. His hand eye coordination and fine motor skills are exceptional and I beleive that it has to do with all the time he spends playing with his trains (we are one of those families with all of the Thomas and Brio stuff) Now I'm actually seeing a real surge in the development of his spacial reasoning and he can put together complex tacks, using a variety of track sizes, styles bridges etc all by himself. Trains also have taught him to play by himself and have helped develop his imagination as he creates complex scenarios with his Thomas trains and he has them all talking to each other, using different voices etc. I would certainly rather have him obsessed with trains rather than guns, Pokemon etc. In addition to trains my son loves baseball, soccer, painting, puzzles and his Goldfish. I will admit that I am VERY tired of the trains, but in the long run I've seen a lot of value. Good luck anonymous

Perhaps I am missing the point...but what is wrong with trains? My son too loves trains. I find it a good thing as he loves to play with his Thomas the train set both by himself and with me, we love to go to the steam trains we even love Trader Joes' because they have a train around the dairy section. I think that this is very common with toddlers (esp. boys) and not an ''obsession'' that should cause concern. You mention concern over him wanting all of the Thomas paraphaneilia - of ocurse he will want it all but it is your job to explain to him why he can't. Perhaps you can use this as an opportunity to teach him about money and teach him to save money to buy a train every now and then. Amy

My now almost 4 year old was obsessed with trains for about a year, or longer. He wanted to go see them everyday at Jack London or Emeryville. Fortunately, my husband and I work so we did not have to do this ourselves everyday, and we have a wonderful babysitter who accomodated, and we thought it was charming. All the conductors got to know him and waived enthusiatically and honked when passing by. We did go every time he wanted to go, when possible, and when we couldn't he would sometimes have a fit, but it would blow over. He did also like train books and Thomas trains, but he did not beg for every one or every gadget, not because he might not have wanted them, but because we have never succumbed to that kind of begging for anything, so while he tried, he didn't really press it, and also because we did have a fair number of trains for him to play with at home, left over from his older brother. As all things do, his obsession passed with time, and now I kind of miss those train visits. You can also visit any of the toy stores, which we did, and your son can play with the displays there. You can explain that you can't have all that stuff in your home because it's too big or too expensive or whatever. I would also explain to my son that if there was something major he really wanted, he could ask to get it for his birthday. All in all I think I got away with buying him maybe 2 trains, not as birthday gifts, during this whole period. Not too bad. I think if you combine satisfying his interest and being enthusiastic about it yourself, with setting certain limits, you will survive, and maybe even enjoy. We certainly met quite a few other parents of train obsessed boys down at Emeryville (at least you can get a decent lunch down there!) Raissa

I know more about trains than I ever thought I'd want to -- and superheroes and buses and bugs and building and comics and music and Australia and Jeff Noon . . . . .

We visited every train in N. California. Go to Sonoma, Sacramento Train Museum, Tilden, Niles Canyon. Enjoy it. It will evolve to another passion. Mom of a Teen

Passions like this are what makes life full! My son at 3 was obsessed with construction machinery. We had to stand for hours and hours looking at construction sites and reading about machinery. I learned all about things I never heard of like front-end loaders and gooseneck lowboys. The next year it was dinosaurs. Every book we read had to be about dinosaurs and we spent so much time on campus and LHS looking at the dinos. He could say pachyencephlalosauras without even blinking. By 1st grade it was baseball cards and players and statistics and that held his attention for a long time. Now he is 19, in college and still so much loves his sports trivia, goes to at least one As game a week, hangs out with friends to watch games, even plays a little. He just wouldn't be the same kid now at all if he hadn't been able to indulge in his passions when he was little. Your little one will do trains for a while and then probably move on to something else. In the process you will learn stuff you never knew before! Enjoy it! Ginger

PS: there is some great advice about where to take kids to see trains here:

Sounds so familiar. My 25 month old son is obsessed with trains, as was his dad, who continues to be an adult rail fan. I've learned somewhat reluctantly to enjoy the rides on scenic trains near vacation spots, been through lots of train museums and become very familiar with Thomas the Tank. My niece is also a big train fan who was formerly obsessed with dogs. I think it is normal for small children to be very interested in certain things in phases, as they learn more about the world and can communicate their interest to you. I don't see a train obsession as a bad thing necessarily, as it can be used to teach a lot of positive things. My son plays with model Brio type trains which has increased his hand/eye coordination assembling trains and also his puzzle (good for math in the future) skills fitting the track together. There are many simple train toys not just the expensive Thomas ones. Also he loves to read the Thomas books which have good vocabulary and content I think. He enjoys watching and looking at trains and doesn't necessarily have to have them all when we go to a toy shop either. My husband actually volunteers at the Tilden Train and there are quite a few kids and even teens and young adults who show up there with or without their parents to volunteer too. I can sure think of worse things to be doing (especially a teen) than to be interested in trains, to develop mechanical and building skills and volunteer their time for something that gives such pleasure for up to 1000 young riders and their families a weekend day for only $1.75 a ticket (and free under 2!!) through the beautiful Tilden hills. As obsessions go it's pretty wholesome. Just to reassure you my husband says that most boys lose their interest in trains when they can drive cars and discover girls, so maybe not a bad thing to let them enjoy before they outgrow it.

Luckily for me I have found that many of my son's friends share the obsession and enjoy playing trains together, and that the scenic tourist railroads are generally located in beautiful places you'd want to tour. Grin and bear it and you may find yourself having fun too. Surrounded by Train Freaks

I come from a family of train obsessed men and they have all turned out to be well-rounded individuals with non-train oriented professional careers. I wouldn't worry too much. My father has been obsessed with trains since he could walk and talk. Now he takes a vacation on a train every few years or so, and has a model layout in his basement. I think it's great, and I'd have no qualms in encouraging my son to go along with his grandpa. I also think it sounds like you need to set some limits before you head off to the Tilden time is enough. If he protests, then he can not go at all. Why is this such a bad interest, anyway?? It could be a lot worse...he could be obsessed with guns or the like. Mom who loves trains

I think it's normal, and even pretty cool, that your 21 month old son is into trains. I'm not even sure I'd call it ''obsession'' as you do - I'd call it a wonderful capacity for fascination, zest, curiosity, attention. And I'd let it run its course or develop as it will, especially since he has other interests as well. Remember, it might be tough, but you can always say ''no'' to the Brio trains and accessories, just as you can say ''no'' to any overpriced fancy toy.

My best friends' son is 5 and has been the same about trucks since 6 months. His first words included the ''beep'' sound made when trucks back up. As you feared in your message, at age 5 he now is a font of arcane knowledge about trucks and can identify truck parts I never thought existed or mattered. His mom was worried at first. It bugged her that the relatives bought him more and more trucks, and she filled the house with other toys, but he didn't care, he ignored everything but the trucks. His parents are both Ph.D.s with minds full of arcane knowledge of their own specialties, so maybe a capacity for attention and fascination runs in the family?

By the way, my friends' 5 year old son is also a sweet, happy, somewhat reserved child who is also now ''into'' Bob the Builder, Playmobil toys, insects, riding a bicycle, etc. He has friends. His parents do get sick of the truck talk, but he's into so much more than the truck talk that it's okay now.

Also, I believe that it's part of the Reggio Emilio method of teaching to start with the child's fascination and develop other interests from there. For example, you can teach music by singing train songs, teach sharing by having him play with trains with others, etc. Good luck! Diane

Please let your child ''go with'' his ''obsession'' with trains. My two boys experienced years of imaginative play centered around trains. We traveled to Niles Canyon, Sacramento, and various miniature train tracks (Pt. Richmond, Walnut Creek), plus built our own train table using generic tracks, a few Thomas (expensive) characters and Brio or less expensive cars. Their hours of play with trains eventually turned into hours of play with cars and action figures, and is equivalent to girls playing with dolls, doll houses, Barbies, etc. Trains are great scenarios for imaginative play which you should encourage at any age. It also doesn't have to be an expensive hobby. Check out used toy stores like Toy Go Round- you'll find that many boys have an early healthy obsession with trains. If you'd like more info, please feel free to contact me. roehl

My three year old son love trains and it has been a great thing for him. He has learned colors, numbers, morals (really!), and all kinds of interesting stuff from the Thomas series. His verbal skills have blossomed, and his attention and focus are amazing. I think it a really sweet, engaging activity/obsession. train mom

My 18-moth old is obsessed with ''toot toots,'' too, and I've encouraged it, as much as you can encourage any passing fancy. We check out books from the library about trains and buy the ones he seems to like the most. We go to stores with train tables and he plays with them for hours. We've gone to watch the trains go by and are about to take a trip by train. It started with videos, I'm afraid, and after some initial hesitation, we gave in and let him watch one Thomas video per day. He already knows the names of all the engines. We just got him a starter figure 8 Thomas set and he has learned to hook the trains and tracks together to go over the bridge and through the tunnel, though he gets frustrated at times and throws them. He also carries around the train catalog like a blanky and sometimes whines a bit, but he can't vocalize any particular request for toys yet, so I just take that as a sign we need to visit Zany Brainy and play with the train tables there. Though the Thomas stuff is expensive, you can find it used or dole it out for special occasions. (Just because he wants it doesn't mean he'll get it.) Perhaps this all sounds horrible to you, but I think it's a good developmental step for him. It teaches him hand-eye coordination and dexterity to play with the trains, and now that he says the names of all the characters on the videos, he's starting to grasp the concept of his own name and his friends' names. Besides, he just likes them, so what's wrong with that? Like you, I also think it's wise to encourage other interests, and my son has many, but right now trains are the tops. I think that as parents, we should try to encourage our kids' interests and hobbies, even (perhaps especially) if we don't share them. Whitney

My husband was obsessed with train and bus schedules as a school age child. His mother was very supportive taking him to the main station to get maps and schedules, and as he got older letting him go on expeditions by himself. He became a city planner. He now works for a transit agency! Whenever one of our friends wants to know how to get someplace, even in other cities, they call him. trains to transit

From my experience with two kids (boy and girl) I feel these ''obsessions'' at different ages are normal. Some kids become more obsessed than others. My son was completely into trains at the same age as your son. The obsession lasted at least a year. We gave into it and let him absorb himself in trains. We read train books, visited trains, watch Thomas movies, and built endless tracks. He started his first imaginary play with the trains, and sometimes he even took them to bed with him. The train obsession ended, but we moved onto other interesting topics such as dinosaurs (you'll learn to pronounce all the names) and sea life (especially sharks) and less satsifying (for us) icons such as Pokeman. Now he is a 10-year-old sports fanatic who wonders why 2 year olds are so obsessed with Thomas and why 5 year olds are so obsessed with Pokeman! Kids are different in the level of their obsessions, though. My daughter has a set of obsessions and moves in and out of them for a few days at a time. She even hauls out my son's dinosaurs and trains from time to time and fixates on them for a few days. So I say go with it, let him enjoy his interests, and try to keep your composure when he wants to read the SAME Thomas book for about the hundredth time. It will pass and you'll find yourself wondering why Thomas drove you nuts as you are reading the same dinosaur books over and over again and being begged for the Land Before Time movies. Maria