Model railroading is a hobby that can easily last a lifetime, and is suitable even for very young children. If your child or grandchild has shown any interest in trains or models, there’s every reason to expect (s)he will enjoy playing with toy or model trains. It’s also a highly educational hobby which should definitely be encouraged. However, all scale train sets are not created equal, and there are some things to be considered before rushing out and buying anything.
Firstly, toy and scale model trains are not the same thing. Toy trains are made for kids, are extremely solid and durable, and are normally towards the larger end of the scale range (often O scale). Typical manufacturers are Märklin and Lionel, though confusingly these manufacturers also produce model trains. Scale models are made for adults, and sacrifice a bit of durability for greater detail. They also come in all sizes, with the most popular scale being HO (OO in the UK). If you buy from a decent hobby shop the staff will be able to advise you about whether a specific locomotive or set is of the toy or model variety. If you’re only able to buy from a general toy store the staff may not be very knowledgeable about trains, so do some research about the product you intend to buy online first.
For the youngest kids, say in the 2-5 year old range, scale model trains are definitely not suitable, and will be broken or eaten in short order. The more durable Märklin/Lionel-type toy trains are also not your best bet, as they are likely to be dropped on a foot or thrown through a window. Fortunately there is a solution – wooden trains such as those made by Brio. These are fairly indestructible, and still provide two of the most appealing aspects of model railroading; the slot-together track pieces allow your child to be creative, creating any layout (s)he wishes, and they move without being pushed (battery-powered rather than mains for safety).
If your child is a little older, toy trains may be best. The exact age at which heavier metal toy trains become appropriate is a judgment call, and depends on the child. Both battery- and mains-powered toys are available, and of course the latter should only be given to kids who you’re sure are safe plugging things into wall sockets. Go for good quality (such as higher end Märklin or Lionel toys) and you’ll find both interest in them and the trains themselves can last years.
Normally I’d only recommend getting HO scale model trains – the kind used by a majority of adult modelers – for teenagers. Having said that, there are plenty of circumstances in which a younger child may get on fine with them. Firstly, you may either already have a layout or be looking to get into the hobby yourself. In this case you may anticipate working together on your layout with your child, and with adult help and supervision a child as young as 8 could probably have fun without too much frustration and damage to the layout. Secondly, if your child is already into another hobby which requires a good level of manual dexterity, such as painting model figures, (s)he may have no difficulties at a younger age. Finally, if your child is a bit younger but fancies having a go at ‘proper’ model railroading, by all means let them; just be prepared for the occasional breakage.
If your child shows more than a passing interest in model railroading, you may want to see if they want to join a club. There are model railroading clubs all over the United States and Europe, and although there are fewer elsewhere they still exist. Almost all are open to children, and despite the lack of young members in some your child may still have fun. In the US at least there are also some clubs exclusively for children – have a look at the ‘Youth in Model Railroading’ website for more information. A club is a particularly good idea if you’re not personally interested in model railroading, as experienced members will help your child overcome many of the problems which can vex beginning hobbyists.
In closing, I’d like to point out that toy trains were the most popular toy for boys in the States in the 1950s (and were not unpopular for girls), and their appeal has not diminished with the passing years. Toy and model trains will provide most kids many hours (and for some, decades!) of fun. The only difference is that many new toys and in particular video games now compete strongly for children’s attention. I’ve already written at length about the personal development benefits of model railroading, but I’d just like to mention here that for a child playing with trains of any kind will offer opportunities for growth and learning equalled by few pastimes; an interest in history and geography, great practical skills, creativity, and the ability to plan and do research are just a few of the traits which can be nurtured.