Wednesday, 16 December 2015

'Getting Them Young' - Are We Doing it Wrong?

For any hobby to survive, it needs new people coming in. But is the hobby as a whole missing something?

For years we've heard people bang on and on about "getting young people interested" and while this does make some sense, it is very much flawed. Firstly, children lack the buying power to actually have any real influence on the hobby as far as I can see.

The newcomers who have the money to spend which can make a difference are, I think, the thirty and forty some-things, who are either returning to the hobby or are making a start with it. They have the time and money to properly enjoy things. The increasing standard of ready made stock has no doubt done a lot to draw them in along with the massive leaps forward with the hobby in terms of control systems and scenic materials. No doubt the internet has helped things too - it is so easy to browse pretty much anything.

Despite this key group, we still hear people saying we need to get children interested. On one level this is true, as many people are those returning to the hobby after years of cars, jobs/careers, families, etc. In order to return you must have been somewhere in the first place! Children will find the hobby a struggle on pocket money - those who are heavily or actively involved tend to be those like me, with a parent or close relation interested. So you help them, and they help fund your hobby! In essence anyway!

But to really grab a child's interest, are clubs and exhibitions getting it wrong?

Plenty of shows have a 'Thomas layout', and for the most part, they're terrible. Creations rushed in clubrooms so "there's something for the kids" - from personal observations many are frustrating as the trains are not very controllable. They set off like performance cars and have no degree of control beyond very fast and stop. Little more than toys - and how many adults think that this crap will draw a child into a long term hobby?

My little boy, Thomas, loves trains. He loves running things on 'grandpa's layout' - at home there are trains and books and the same is true at both sets of grandparents' houses! He comes to shows with us and he has really enjoyed having a go with things like the Lego layout which appears at many northern shows (very good and far better than the Thomas layouts I've mentioned!). But one thing has stood out for me. It's when he's had a turn operating a 'proper' layout.

Thomas operating Colinton at Scalefour North earlier this year.

This picture was taken at Scalefour North earlier this year. Not an obvious show for a child I admit, but this was repeated at Manchester a couple of weeks ago. He has been invited to have a go with a couple of layouts at shows - there was a delightful 3mm layout, Newfields Wharf, and Thomas saw an older boy, maybe eight or nine, shunting from the viewing side. So he said "I'd like a go!" I told him to ask the man if he could. So he politely asked and spent about fifteen minutes shunting! He got far more from this than the Thomas layout elsewhere in the show. Similarly at Warley a week before he had had a go with the Shelfie, Paul Marshall-Potter's lovely minimalist layout. Experiences like this are great!

Also at Manchester I was talking to a very nice and helpful man on the MERG stand about their DCC system. As Thomas is bound to operate and help with my layout, I asked if it was OK if he tried it on their demonstration layout. Kindly they obliged and he managed it very well. Now I will admit that not every child would react like Thomas and be as careful, but I think when a child takes an interest, you can tell they're not going to be destructive...

The key to these examples is that they were proper layouts which worked well and were built to a high standard with stock which worked very well. They were not collections of cast off track and equipment hurriedly assembled in a damp club room. Thomas, and any other child given the same opportunity, can see just how satisfying the hobby can be. I could see how much satisfaction he got from the experiences.

We want to sell our amazing hobby as one which can be taken seriously and be satisfying, entertaining and sociable all at the same time. We owe it to the hobby to take new entrants of all ages seriously and not dumb down based on age and experience.


  1. Hi James,

    I think its great that young Thomas has been invited to operate those layouts and those responsible are to be applauded.

    Over the years I've found that if you give the youngsters a little responsibility and trust them, then they respond in a positive manner. Our eldest grandson treats my models with respect and really enjoys being given modelling tasks. He built most of the PCB track on my sector plates, wired them up and has also built some wagons. Naturally I'm around when he's handling a soldering iron or electrics, but its usually a case of just explaining and demonstrating the finer points to him and he's away.

    1. The attitude and kindness of those exhibitors I mentioned was fantastic!

      I'm quite sure they can tell how a child is likely to be too! But I do remember the looks of horror one year when I was demonstrating at Scalefour North - my parents had brought Thomas (I think Suzi was having a day studying!). The looks on faces when he sat at my table and handled the models were brilliant! But he was careful and was clearly used to handling models - I've no worries with him!

      One thing that really upsets me with the hobby is that I've noticed a difference in how people talk to me at shows, depending on whether I have Thomas with me or not. Generally if I am on my own (or simply not with Thomas at that moment) I'm treated like a 'modeller' but a surprising number of exhibtiors will patronise and talk down to me if I have Thomas.

      Do they assume I'm just out to find something to do? Stop a bored child complaining?

      Quite a sad reflection of attitudes if this is the case.