Product Type: VTech Toy Train
Newest Review: ... it with moveable pointers where children can learn how to tell the time. The station also has a top platform with 5 different steps, each... more
The designers need to get Training
VTech Smartville Alphabet Train Station
Member Name: cmh4135
VTech Smartville Alphabet Train Station
Date: 30/12/08, updated on 21/08/09 (155 review reads)
Advantages: Composite toy with many learning and play features
Disadvantages: Poor design and confusing elements
My purchase of the Alphabet Train Station was a rather spur of the moment decision. It was bought online, with no research, as it seemed like a real bargain. Being V-Tech I thought it would be great. On reflection I wish I'd known a little more about it, and the accompanying Smartville range, before parting with my money. Having said that, it's a popular toy in our house and does have some qualities that make me stop short of saying "don't buy this".
On paper, at least, this toy packs a punch, combining many features that would usually only be found on separate toys into one neat package. There's an alphabet function (unsurprisingly), object naming, animal and animal noise recognition, a clock, a 5 note keyboard that also teaches colour and shapes and facility for good pretend play with characters, accessories and a train. The Alphabet Train Station is the key piece in an expandable world that can include a fire station, post office, park and so on.
I guess most people would think of this toy primarily as a train set that also teaches the alphabet. That's what I thought at least. Unfortunately this is not quite the case. True enough there's a track and an engine but that's as close as it gets. The train is a simple plastic vehicle which, in theory, can be pushed around the track to activate the letter squares on the track into action. Pressing a single square will give a letter sound (or object name depending on mode) and pressing two or more together will result in one of those toddler-loving-parent-loathing tinny tunes being played. Trouble is, your average toddler doesn't seem to have the skill or coordination to understand this and accurately achieve the result they desire - they'll get random noise and letters with a delay that means they don't associate the written with the audible. Inevitably, in the first instance, the train will be abandoned and fingers used to press the letter squares on the track.
At this point you'll appreciate the other major design function. The track sits immediately in front of the buttons and main "hot spots" that are used during play. This means that the child ends up sitting or standing on the track to reach the alluring buttons (and keyboard/clock/function selection) adding even more confusion as buttons are pushed without the child realising. This would have been easy to remedy, the "station" part just needed to be offset slightly, but clearly no one thought.
You have to take care if you have a child who pulls themselves up on toys - the station will tip forward quite easily (due to the fact that the track is hinged to fold away) and can cause a child to fall.
One of the unusual features of this toy (and the rest of the range) are the "hot spots" which can be used by the child to identify characters and accessories. Basically circles with raised pins in them, the "hot spots" are receptive to the child placing a character in them. The character will then say what it is (e.g. "I am a polar bear") and, when removed, will make an appropriate animal noise. This could be very good but for the fact that, were it not for these "hot spots" many of the characters would be hard to identify! The polar bear looks rather like a cat. The thing that looks like a horse is, in fact a cow and the leopard is, we're told, a cheetah.
Accessories can also be placed on the "hot spots". These include litter bins ("feed me litter"), a phone and a flag ("it's windy!"). Less sophisticated hot spots around the track will produce train-type noises.
Although this toy is expandable with other buildings and character sets it's worth noting that only the train station "hot spots" will correctly identify all of the animals and accessories. If you put a train station character onto a post office "hot spot" for example, the post office will not be able to tell you what it is. This is very confusing for a young child.
As the child grows the toy continues to confuse. The letter sounds (in one mode) alternate between the letter name and the letter sound (e.g. "dee" or "duh" for "d"). This means that when teaching a child, if you follow the conventional phonics system you can end up confusing the child. They go to find the letter "duh" and the toy tells them that it is a "dee". It's a minor issue but did cause us some considerable problems for a few weeks as my son failed to understand that it was the same thing.
For its many design faults this is still a toy that I'd (begrudgingly) recommend. It's one of the few toys that has grown with my son. We gave him the set for his first birthday and, a year and a half later it still gets good use. He plays with it in a very different way now to he did and I'd actually say that all of the functionality has been used.
The toy seems to be quite sturdy although we have lost the functionality of the letter "D" for some reason. The track folds up neatly (although doesn't detach from the station) and so storage is fairly easy (although it is this plus point that causes the massive downside to the design of the toy and makes play difficult for the younger child).
The toy does live up to V-Tech's reputation for providing educational toys but alas it falls short on design (and is too confusing). It does have the advantage of being a toy that can be played with as intended or as the basis for good pretend play. If you are tempted by the "Smartville" range then this is the key piece - without it, although you can use the additional pieces on their own you won't get the full functionality and interchangeablity that this piece allows.
Summary: The key to the "Smartville" range this toy has longevity but poor delivery at various stages.
- Hornby R4512 Brighton Belle Car Pullman
- Hornby R4523 GWR Composite Railroad
- Hornby R6365 Breakdown Train
- Hornby R4526 GWR Night Mail Railroad
- Hornby R4524 GWR Brake Railroad
- Thomas the Tank Engine Thomas trackmaster Brave Belle
- Thomas the Tank Engine Thomas take n play King of the Railway set
- Thomas the Tank Engine Thomas Take n Play Iron Bert Engine
- Thomas the Tank Engine Thomas Take n Play Iron Arry Diesel Engine
- Thomas the Tank Engine Thomas Take N Play Hector