Making connections: The United Nations and Thomas & Friends

With over 1.16 billion YouTube channel views, the show’s new incarnation exposes preschoolers to key values like well-being, equality and more

Treat preschool children as global citizens—and the adults of tomorrow.

It’s a strategy that the United Nations (U.N.) is taking very seriously, with an ambitious initiative to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.” They plan to do so, in part, by teaching kids about the values of quality education, gender equality, sustainability and more—key themes that appear among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the U.N. established in 2015, and aims to achieve over the next several years.

They’ve tapped the storytellers behind Mattel’s Thomas & Friends television show, with its impressive 1.16 billion YouTube channel views, to reach children and show them what it means to bring these values to life.

“We recognize the power of the creative community and entertainment industry in reaching much wider audiences through storytelling,” says Maher Nasser, Director of the Outreach Division, United Nations Department of Public Information.

Working with partners such as Thomas & Friends translates our messages into everyday language that young people and children can better understand and relate to. Once children understand these concepts, they will grow to be more responsible adults.

The new series, which airs in more than 110 countries and in 57 languages, and a new feature film called Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! The Movie incorporate some of the Sustainable Development Goals organically into their storylines, adapting them for preschool audiences.

For example, one of the new characters, Nia, is the show’s first African female engine. The Nia character was developed with guidance from the U.N.’s Africa Program Advisor, Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka, and introduces the Sustainability Development Goal of gender equality.

“We deliberately showed this female engine having equal abilities as the male engines, and being able to support other engines to carry out tasks,” explains Lewis-Tamoka in a recent interview. “Nia shows young viewers that girls can do just as well as boys. Girls and boys all face challenges, regardless of their gender or where they come from. They all have dreams and aspirations and they all want to fulfill their potential.”

Introducing themes like education and empowerment to young kids can have great impact, says Lewis-Tamoka. “Children form ideas and learn stereotypes very early. A lot of this is learned by seeing what’s around them. So reaching them through a popular animated series is a good strategy.”

With a young audience so formidable in size and global reach, Thomas & Friends may well move the needle—and spur change.