Engaging children from an early age

Mattel’s Ian McCue on the collaboration behind the new Thomas & Friends

Keeping up with world events these days can be challenging enough, let alone explaining them to three-year-olds. But for over 30 years, Ian McCue, the director of creative content for Mattel Creations, has been translating complicated topics into accessible stories for children. With his latest Mattel project—the relaunch of the Thomas & Friends series—he’s not just helping kids learn about global issues, but encouraging them to think about their relationship to the world in an entirely new way.

In collaboration with the United Nations, Mattel aims to teach families about six of the global organization’s Sustainable Development Goals through the Thomas & Friends series. With new female characters and timely storylines, the show helps preschoolers understand the values and responsibilities of global citizenship.

Here, McCue talks about how Mattel and the U.N. worked together to bring the updated show to life.

Q:  While they’re universal, the Sustainable Development Goals are complicated for a preschooler. How do you translate abstract concepts like gender equality and responsible consumption into entertaining stories that toddlers can relate to?

A: Thomas & Friends has never been an overtly educational show, but an entertaining one with themes of social and emotional learning, values, life lessons, and simple messages about teamwork or friendship or acting responsibly. Children will watch a show, and they’ll enjoy the colors and music, but the story arc sometimes they don’t quite get. It’s really about getting children to turn to their parents and ask questions. That’s really what we want to happen.

It’s really about getting children to turn to their parents and ask questions.

– Ian McCue

They know their home and their school, but it’s a very small bubble they live in. When we did “The Great Race” episode, for example, we introduced engines from China and India, and saw a lot of kids turning to their parents and asking, “Where’s China?” and “Where’s India?” They start learning about the bigger world, and parents can search online and look up a map of the world, find China and have a bit of fun with it. We felt we could similarly have stories in the series that touched on the Global Goals, along with shorter content and the website to support the episodes.

Q: What are some of the changes you made to the classic Thomas & Friends show?

A: One of the changes we’ve made is that Thomas is now the storyteller. He is the one telling the audience about his adventures, so we are now able to use him as the spokesperson in both the episodes and supporting content. I think that will certainly help get the message through stronger to a young audience because it’s coming from a character they love. It’s having that aspirational ambassador for the kids—Thomas—who can say to them, “You can do your bit.”

Q: With hyper-fast news cycles today, and parents struggling to explain bigger topics to small children, it seems productive to ground them in a more inclusive vision of the world to begin with, and their role in it. Is that a goal here?

A: Absolutely. I think we all want to paint a world that is perfect to our children, but, of course, it’s not a perfect world. So, if we can teach our young viewers about looking after the world, looking after wildlife, realizing the importance of education, all those little things … if we can do a bit of the parents’ work for them and make it easier to continue the conversation, I think that’s a good thing. That’s when, for us, the response to this would be rewarding.

Q: What was it like collaborating with the U.N.? What happens when a team of children’s entertainment writers and global policy experts come together?

A. It was amazing to be there. In that setting, at their headquarters for the first time, I’m thinking, “Well, hang on, the U.N. deals in big grown-up content.” But they really understood those challenges. Everyone was always helpful and productive. It was a fabulous collaboration.

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