Top 10 Ideas for Using Thomas the Tank Engine as a Teaching Tool

Thomas the Tank Engine has become an obsession for many children on the autism spectrum. Thomas stories, originally written in the 1920s by a rather hidebound English curate, may not be up to modern American standards for narrative quality or moral content. But Thomas and his friends can do a great deal more than line up. With a few engines, freight cars, tracks and story books,you can motivate, engage, and even teach your child on the autism spectrum.

Recognizing Facial Expressions

Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends run the gamut of emotions, from happy and sad to embarrassed, anxious, scared and more. Thomas videos and books include the whole range of expressions. Try imitating them together, naming them, or searching for the "scared" face among all the photos.

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Playing Out Emotions

There's a pecking order among Thomas and his friends. Express passenger engines are king, while freight cars are the bottom of the barrel. How do the freight cars feel? What do they do? How do the big engines react? By playing out these scenarios, children with autism can role play empathy, anger, frustration and triumph.

Building Fine Motor Skills

They cost an awful lot, but you CAN get Thomas tracks second hand at yard sales and through eBay. And they're well worth the trouble. They're rock solid, easy to work with, and a terrifically motivating way to work on fine motor skills. For a real motor challenge, let your child pilot a loooong train up and over a bridge and around a curve.

Building Turn Taking and Social Interaction Skills

Building a Thomas track can be a long, involved process - and a rich opportunity for building many types of skills. To improve word, number and shape recognition, ask for "one curved track," "two straight tracks," and so forth. Take turns adding pieces to the track. Use found objects to enhance the layout - for example, adding a cow to the track (as in one of the stories).

Working on Color Recognition

What color is Percy? Can you find a blue freight car? Here's a green engine! Sort by colors, find one of each color, create an all-blue train, and much more.

Working on Number Recognition

Thomas engines have numbers on them, but they're not very meaningful. To make them more meaningful, try adding brightly colored numbers to each engine or freight car (use masking tape so you don't mar the engines permanently). Then work with your child to line them up in numerical order. If that's too easy, do it backwards, by twos, and so on.

Building Abstract Thinking Skills

You can work on abstract thinking skills in several different ways. Books are great for "what's going to happen next?" conversations. Thomas is about to plunge into the ditch on page three. What's likely to happen on page four? As your child gains skills, he may be able to infer what a character might be thinking, planning, or feeling.

Working on Science Concepts

Many kids on the spectrum really enjoy hands-on science, and Thomas offers opportunities to learn. Here are just a few "try its": place an engine on top of a bridge and ask your child to predict what will happen when you give it a little push. Then experiment to find out! Use the magnets at each end of the engines to explore attraction and repulsion - or see how many paper clips Thomas can hold.

Managing Frustration

The truth is, moving a magnetic train around a wooden track can be very frustrating. Many kids enjoy making long trains, and they fall apart easily. What happens next? Try writing and sharing social stories about what to do when the train falls apart - and then practicing anger management when the real thing occurs.

References for This Article

Hannah Brown, "Autistic Kids Make Connection with Thomas," New York Post, July 26, 2000. Page 57.

The National Autistic Society, London, England. "Do children with autism spectrum disorders have a special relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine and, if so, why?" Research undertaken by Aidan Prior Communications. February, 2002.

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