Reviewed by Louise Totton
Lots of us parents have just had the bombshell dropped upon us that for the foreseeable future, school has been cancelled and we are now responsible for educating our kids, to the best of our ability. So many of my friends are panicking about just how they are going to achieve this – the vast majority of parents aren’t trained teachers, have little knowledge of the National Curriculum and find lots of the ways that kids are taught things these days baffling; phonics, chunking and partitioning certainly weren’t ‘things’ when I was at school. As a former teacher, and someone who now works in exams management myself, I am absolutely confident that no-one will be expecting anyone to become a teacher overnight! We are all as stressed as each about the current situation with money worries and trying to find a way to work from home whilst still looking after our kids (in my own case, it’s sharing out the one laptop when I now need to use it to work from home), and I think we all need to be realistic about exactly what we can achieve. The chances are, we’re going to be stuck with the current situation until September, so we have to consider just how realistic it is to try to replicate anything like a school day at home without causing tears, upset and frustration for all concerned. Especially when we can’t even leave to house for a few hours to get some space and perspective.
We have made the decision in our home that we can treat the current situation as an opportunity to engage in the kind of learning that the kids can’t as easily get at school, so we’ll be teaching the kids some basic cooking skills, gardening with them and doing lots of educational playing. And I think we are so lucky at the moment with the sheer wealth of toys on the market that are not only fun and engaging but also have real educational merit and provide learning potential. Gravitrax is one of those toys!
Gravitrax is, basically, a more grown up version of a marble run. Aimed at anyone aged 8+, it’s a fun and engaging way to learn about engineering and construction as well as gravity, magnetic forces and physics. I say aimed at ANYONE aged 8+ because it is definitely not just for the kids, and my partner and I have found ourselves, tinkering with tracks and layouts long after the kids have gone to bed! The Gravitrax system is based around the Starter Pack, which is the basic set, then multiple add-ons and expansion packs so you can really get your imagination going and build some quite involved and complicated tracks. We were sent the Starter Pack (£44.99), as well as the Building Expansion Pack (£19.99), the Zipline Expansion Pack (£9.99) and Transfer Expansion Pack (£9.99).
The starter set contains: 4x cardboard base plates, 2x plastic transparent levels, 18x track pieces (3 different lengths – 3x long, 6x medium, 9x short), 12x small height tiles, 40x large height tiles, 21x curves, 3x junctions, 2x switches, 1x 3-in-1 block, 1x vortex, 1x magnetic cannon, 4x basic tiles (with inserts), 2x catchers, 1x freefall, 1x splash, 1x landing, 6x magnetic metal balls (different colours), 1x launch pad, 1x finish line, 1x instructions, 1x construction plan booklet and 1x task booklet.
Gravitrax isn’t like your standard marble run. The set is based on a honeycomb type of construction; the four bases have a hexagon type of pattern that is then built onto with hexagonal height tiles, junctions, inserts and platforms. These pieces are then connected with the track pieces which allow the magnetic, metal ball bearings to run along the track.
The instruction guide that comes with the starter set is a fabulous introduction to the system and will have everyone confident in how to use Gravitrax in no time. There are plenty of different example tracks to try to build, all of which are graded by difficulty and have step-by-step instructions to follow. There is also a challenge section in the book too for when you get more confident, which gives you a partial track layout and challenges you to complete the track. Honestly, it sounds easier than it is!
We found that the kids got to grips with the building system really quickly. The pieces of track attach easily into the building pieces and because of the honeycomb building structure, the tracks are pretty stable once they are built. Some of the pieces that come with the track are great fun – in particular, the magnetic cannon adds a fantastic extra dimension as it uses magnetism to provide a big burst of speed, giving your run extra oomph and even propelling the balls up hill!
The set also includes junctions and splitters which add a bit of randomness to proceedings – you then add track to both sides of the junction and its great fun seeing which directions the ball will fire in. But as well as the fun element, we think Gravitrax is a fantastic STEM toy. There is an awful lot on engineering that can go into constructing some of the tracks, as well as huge elements of problem solving. For example, when you do use the magnetic cannon, it fires the ball with such acceleration that unless it’s either going uphill or has a long run-off, the speed can cause it to overshoot the track. It didn’t take the kids long to work out that this was why their balls were firing off the track, but actually solving the problem took a lot of thought. Getting the balance just right so enough of the energy was spent without using so much that the ball can’t go any further takes a lot of thinking about and I can tell you the sense of achievement when you get it right is immense!
The expansion packs are a great addition too, and I would suggest that once the kids have an interest in this, they will just want to keep building! The Building Expansion Pack has been incredibly useful; it contains: 2x Base Plates, 1x Transparent Level, 8x Large Height Tiles, 4x Small Height Tiles, 2x Switches, 1x 3-in-1 tile, 1x Vortex, 1x Finish Line, 4x Basic Tiles, inserts for basic tiles: 2x Catchers, 1x Freefall, 1x Splash, 1x Landing. This adds massively to the range of tracks that you can build, especially when the kids are using their imagination and are constructing a track from scratch. When they are mid-problem solve, finding that you are a height tile or two short is pretty frustrating so these extra pieces are fantastic.
We found that the Zipline Expansion and the Transfer Expansion were fantastic fun and really added to the novelty of some of the tracks that we built. Just like the rest of the pieces, you really have to think about where you are putting them and height placement to get them to work properly and accurately but we found that we all relished the challenge of doing this, and again, it really encourages problem solving and the need for patience. We already had a small collection of Gravitrax that we had picked up from a charity shop, so were lucky enough to have been able to add the Catapult and the Hammer to our tracks too. Every single one of the pieces worked accurately every time (once we’d worked out the proper configuration), and they all added an extra dimension and sense of fun to the tracks.
We have already been having great fun with this whilst the kids have been off school and it’s a great addition to our plan for hands-on learning whilst we’re stuck at home. It really does provide some great learning opportunities, from engineering to magnetism to forces, gravity, and problem solving and logical thinking. It works best on a flat, hard floor or a large table if you have one as a spongy carpet can make for a slightly unstable surface.