Using Train Sets to Stimulate Language Skills

The first year I started working with preschoolers, I had several students who were on the autism spectrum who        L O V E D Thomas the Train. I soon  discovered I had several children not on the autism who loved Thomas the Train.

Ok so 80% of my caseload were obsessed with this little blue train and his little friends.

So off I went to buy myself my own set. This, along with my Marble Race Game are two of my most used toys I have ever used in therapy. Both of these toys have multiple parts that I use to work on requesting and use as reinforcement. In addition, the toys themselves provide endless opportunities for language learning.  Here are some things I target while using my train set:

  • vocabulary
  • MLU
  • requesting skills
  • questioning skills
  • basic concepts
  • following directions
  • diving directions
  • problem solving
  • predicting
  • sequencing
  • counting
  • color ID
  • eye contact
  • joint attention
  • articulation
  • fluency

Here are some of the specific ways I use my train set to teach and stimulate language skills:

  • The first thing I do is show my students the different parts of train set and label them. If the child is non verbal, I will introduce him/her to pictures of the different parts that we will use to request items later (PECs).
  • Next, we will assemble the tracks. The exact way I will do this will depend on the child’s current level of functioning, language skills, and goals. If the child needs to work on requesting, this is where I start. The child will need to request each piece of the track until the track is built. We may also work on eye contact during this time. If the child does not need to work on requesting but rather higher level skills, I may use each track piece as a reinforcer after the child has practiced a skill (articulation drill, vocabulary, grammar, etc. I will often use picture cards of some sort along with the train set).
  • Like in my marble game, each piece of the tracks are labeled so that they can request the pieces by name. I have two sets that use together, one that is blue and one that is brown. Then the pieces are either straight or curved. (So a child can ask “Can I have a brown straight track please?). In addition to the straight and curved pieces, there are other pieces like switchbacks that we label and use for requesting also.
  • Once the track is built, we will place the different items around it. I have trees, signs, buildings, etc. In my former district, I also had this really awesome wooden block city (I need to buy myself one). We sometimes would also build entire cities around the train tracks to work on vocabulary, grammar, MLU, etc. The set had a police station, fire station, hospital, post office, store, etc.
  • At the end, I save 5-7 minutes to PLAY without requiring a ton of the child/children (reward for all the hard communicating during the session). I often will use this time for modeling language and new vocabulary I might want to target during the next session.
  • Some days, I might have the train set already set up, and then use the trains and other pieces to work on language through play. For example, my sets have the battery operated trains so we might work on turn taking with the trains, or work on first, last, middle by making a long train with several cars. We might target stop and go with the trains. Honestly, the possibilities are endless!

What toys can you not live without in your therapy sessions or at home with your kids?



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    • Katie says

      I just fixed the link! It should take you to the set I own. I also own a second set that I don’t think is sold any more, and it has blue tracks. I use them both together.

  1. says

    Cool. Came across your train-based ideas on Pinterest. On the topic of trains, I offer a free download of a set of train visuals which I designed to help teach some elements of conversation (beginning, middle, end, on-track, switch-track, off track, etc). You can download them for free: I sell a complete Conversation Train set on my website. Take care, Joel Shaul, LCSW

  2. says

    I love the fact that you have found a use for Thomas in helping kids learn better communication! What a better way than a toy they enjoy? I never thought about it, but now I’m thinking I am going to have to get a little more use out of Thomas here at home with my little guy –
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