Friday, February 6, 2015

I play with trains

I like trains.

In particular I like American trains, and even more specific, I like American model trains. It’s one of my hobbies and pastime as far as my memory goes back to the age of 3 or 4.

Why am I ‘coming out’ and let you know?

I recently was discussing with a work colleague the lack of skilled labourers and engineers coming out of schools and into the workplace. It appears most of them seem not know how to handle a screwdriver, let alone be able to put up a shelf ‘plumb’, or are at the very least, very uncomfortable with it.

I concluded that this must be due to the fact that they are not really exposed to that type of technology from an early age.

Computers is another matter, they all know at least the basics of IT skills, and many know how to write programs, develop apps etc. Develop virtual worlds on game consoles etc.

That’s all very well, but that shelf is not going to put itself up, that wiring is not just magically there (believe it or not, but wireless technology needs wires to work) , and that engine is not going to get its head gasket replaced with the press on some touch screen. It needs a pair of hands, a good eye, skills and the right tools to complete that job.

It is my belief that our children are not exposed to the right toys that may spark an interest in engineering and technology to the same extend as I was when I was growing up.

Walk into the average toy shop, and you will often struggle to find things like Meccano, wooden ships , model railways, technical Lego. Plastic kits, RC modelling supplies , etc. Part of that is due to the fact that the likes of Toys-R-Us are big chains, interested in volume and quick turnovers. Toys like the above are often on the shelf longer, and that is not what they want, that’s not good for their business model.

So you have to find speciality shops, and that is not somewhere a parent would walk into with their children, they are hardly ever in the high street.

When was the last time you walked in a shopping mall, or high street , passed a toy shop, and saw a train running rounds on an oval track, kids glued to the window watching it go round, a big Lego or Meccano crane in the corner etc etc.

Instead, it’s a big bundle of ‘toys’ which are heavily promoted on the TV, Disney channel etc. They leave very little to the imagination, and the staff walking around in these shops often have no knowledge of the type of toys I’m referring to.

It’s time that is turned around, to show children there’s more than ‘My little pony’ ‘transformers’ ‘Disney toy story’, and game consoles.

My example, model railways, is an extremely diverse hobby. It is multi facetted, it can involve woodwork, electrical engineering, fine mechanics, digital technology including computer control, and creative work such as painting and sculpting etc . In the US it promoted by a model railway organisation and publishers as ‘The Worlds Greatest Hobby’ , due to the many aspects involved.

The ‘toy trains’ spark an interest in the real thing, and as children grow up, they will start to wonder how they work, and from there an interest in various engineering technologies may be developed.

Playing with ‘toy trains’ gradually evolves in the desire to build a more and more accurate model of the real thing, it could involve railway automation, digital sound and lighting controls, logistics (time tables and freight routing), and realistic looking landscapes, all the while developing their related skills.

Similar development will happen with other types of technical toys, and it may through play, lay the foundation for a future career in an engineering profession, or a related professional skill, the likes of which are currently in high demand (and seemingly under valued by society, but that’s another topic).

All of this won’t happen if children do not get exposure to ‘technology’, ff adults remain ‘secretive’ about their hobbies for fear of being called a ‘train spotter’ a ‘foamer’ or ‘nerd’.

It depends a little on the country but in the UK it seems when you have a model railroad, you have a ‘train set’, have no relationships, you live with your parents , and spend your times on a railway platform wearing an anorak, and wielding a notebook and pencil. While those types exist, the vast majority is not like that.

Being interested in model trains actually means that you are in good company: Rod Stewart, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tim Berners-Lee, Donald Sutherland, Pete Waterman, Roger Daltrey are just some famous celebrities and scientists involved in that hobby, and are generally looked up to or admired.

So if you are too, let the world know.

Once the interest is there, the demand will grow, the toy shops will start stocking it again, and future generations will have sufficient electricians, carpenters, mechanics and engineers in place to help build a prospering economy. At the same time, they might just have gained a great hobby that brings a distraction from demanding jobs.

And me, I can say ‘ I play with trains’, what’s your secret?

If you have a technical hobby, do you dare to share?

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