Did I say "play"? I meant to say "work", because that's what a child's focussed attention is with any object or in any activity. It's their work, and should be respected as such. In fact, if you look at this article here about child development and Montessori theory, you will see a list of bullet points about learning through play, all of which a good session with Thomas and friends will satisfy.
Let's take for example the second point in the list, "creativity expanded using problem-solving skills". If you've ever tried to make anything more than a simple figure-8 or circular track with the Thomas railway, then you know that this activity is all about problem-solving skills. Just how can I get one more bridge into the scheme, how can I make this bit of track match up to that bit of track, and how can I make that shed hook up when I've run out of little pieces with two sticky-out ends?
Then there's the point about building muscle control and strength. This article here lists how delicate an operation it is to push along an engine and its trucks without losing the back cars, but even the youngest of children will enjoy passing the tactile pieces from one hand to another, turning their wheels, tapping them (bashing them) against the floor.
|Rocky and Killer pose with their collection|
(notice how they've grouped all the square faces together)
Perhaps most interesting of all is the connection to Thomas and a child's emotional education. Countless articles are written about children on the autistic spectrum and how Thomas makes an important developmental connection for them. In conjunction with watching the short little films, an autistic child benefits from a relationship with Thomas, ranging from language skills to facial expressions. A very helpful article about this can be found here.
I can personally vouch for the way that Thomas the Tank Engine served a purpose in emotional intelligence for Killer when he was about 2. He's not on the autistic spectrum at all, but we both derived great pleasure from his learning to imitate the different facial expressions used by the engines on the show: angry, happy, surprised, snooty, sad.
I'd like to hear from other readers about how they've perhaps used Thomas or other wooden trains in a "work" capacity. We have done all kinds of things mathematical, like sorting and grouping. I made copies of all the engines with numbers, from 1 to 12, and pasted them into a file to be part of a "math mini office", and I also trawled old Thomas magazines to cut and paste pictures from A to Z as a sort of alphabet primer (hint: go for a kite for "k" and a queen for "q").
Above all these suggestions, however, are those which emphasize the enjoyable, the sociable, the imaginative work which is more than child's play -- it's just plain purposeful fun!