On September 7th, Mindr sent a delegation to an event hosted by the United Nations launching its partnership with Mattel and Thomas & Friends (otherwise known as that "choo-choo" show that your children love). As part of Mindr's The High Chair, a curated networking experience centered on professional goals, we brought 14 innovative and change-making mamas to the UN to discuss trains and the Sustainable Development Goals, and to learn more about how your child's favorite train show is finally getting some strong female characters. Olivia Wilde was there to share her experiences as a mother, advocate, activist and storyteller. #MINDRMAMA of two Katie Poulin gives us the inside scoop, with photos by Mariliana Arvelo of Stylish & Hip Kids Photography.

I’d like to say that television viewing in our household is a rarity. For the first two years of my older son’s life, I was working full-time and our caregiver Anna spent many of my son’s waking hours with him. Like most first-time parents, we tried to do things by the book. We generally adhered to the AAP’s recommendations on media use (limit use before 18 months, from 18-24 months - limit use to ‘quality’ programming, and watch with your child.) This was doable because I was employed outside the home full-time and I had Anna, who I was paying to to tell my son that she did not know how to turn on the TV. Fortunately, he was young enough to believe her.

Photos by Stylish & Hip Kids Photography.

However, after my second child was born, I left my job, and began to handle the vast majority of household and child-rearing responsibilities on my own. I suddenly found television to be an absolute necessity in retaining my children’s attention long enough to fully accomplish a task as simple as unloading the dishwasher. My new approach was one of harm-reduction. If my kids were going to watch TV, then the programming needed to pass my test of being in line with our family's values and be somewhat educational. Thankfully, right around that same time, a new study came out that demonstrated a correlation between preschoolers’ viewing of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and their socio-emotional development (in particular, self-efficacy skills and empathy). This put my mind at ease and our show repertoire expanded beyond Sesame Street.

My boys are both train-obsessed and we enjoy the occasional Thomas & Friends, so when I received an invitation to join the Mindr delegation and attend All Aboard for Global Goals, an event co-hosted by the United Nations and Thomas & Friends to discuss how to inspire the next generation of global citizens, I was in. The event at the UN featured a panel that included Maher Nasser, from the UN Department of Public Information, Ian McCue, Senior Producer of Thomas & Friends, and Richard Dickson, President and COO of Mattel, along with Actress Olivia Wilde as a special guest. Since my academic and professional background is in social work and public health, with a particular interest in media, youth and health, the event was right up my alley.

The roundtable event was the culmination of an 18-month collaboration between Mattel (the toymaker that owns Thomas & Friends) and the United Nations in an effort to reimagine the 30-year old train TV program, by making its characters more globally diverse and gender inclusive. As Mattel's Richard Dickson put it, the company aims to "teach and empower the next generation of critical thinkers to imagine the world in a more purposeful, powerful way." The UN was a perfect fit for this collaboration. UN Women’s Africa Program Advisor Tolulope Lewis-Tamoka described the scope of guidance provided by the UN in details like the appropriate colors for a new character Nia (whose name means “purpose” in Swahili”), the strong African female engine. Other changes included improving the gender balance of the Steam Team (the previous 6:1 male to female train ratio is now 4:3), and having the female trains play an integral and lasting role instead of disappearing to the sidelines a few episodes after being introduced. The UN’s involvement also expanded Thomas and his train friends’ horizons beyond the fictional island of Sodor, allowing them to experience new cultures when they visit countries. 

It is the hope of the UN that by translating these goals into everyday language for children, they can learn these concepts early and grow into more responsible adults.

Another goal of the partnership was to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) into the children's program. The SDGs are an ambitious global agenda adopted by the United Nations to be accomplished by 2030. They address a broad range of global challenges including reducing inequality, improving cities, addressing climate change, reducing waste and eradicating hunger (among others.) I had a general sense of these goals, but was particularly interested in how a TV program geared toward preschoolers, about talking trains on a fictional island, could incorporate global issues of this significance.

How could this seemingly unconventional collaboration provide a blueprint for change that can be readily embraced by our tiniest citizens? The panel described how they were able to incorporate six of the SDGs that they found most relevant and translatable for young children, including quality education, gender equality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, life on land, and clean water and sanitation. It is the hope of the UN that by translating these goals into everyday language for children, they can learn these concepts early and grow into more responsible adults.  

Young children learn through purposeful play and through stories and through these stories, absorb values and morals. They learn about the world through stories.

One of the overarching themes of the day was the notion of storytelling. Olivia Wilde spoke about the power of storytelling in her personal/family and professional life. She spoke of the gratitude she has for her journalist parents whose occupation was to tell and share stories with the public, not unlike her chosen career, acting. I was particularly moved by Olivia’s admission that her parents did not shy away from exposing her and her siblings to things other parents might have found inappropriate for young children. Olivia said she does the same with her children. She strives to “expose [her] kids to as much as possible in a thoughtful way.” Young children learn through purposeful play and through stories and through these stories, absorb values and morals. They learn about the world through stories. Especially worlds different from theirs. 

Upon returning home late that afternoon, my two and four-year olds greeted me at the door wanting to know about my meeting with Thomas. The three of us were mesmerized by the new short-form educational videos (narrated by and starring Thomas and his male and now female buddies). Granted, my kids are captivated by anything on a screen, but I certainly felt more responsible showing them video content of Thomas’s friend Nia talking about how girls can do all of the same things that boys can do, or how my kids can “re-use, re-purpose and recycle”- than other shows which shall remain nameless. I have added to my to-do list to set the DVR to record Thomas & Friends’ new season and I really will make more of an effort to watch it “with” them, rather than using the time to empty the dishwasher for the 2nd time that day. Maybe I should be paying a little more attention to that SDG on responsible consumption and production. 

Katie Poulin is a #MINDRMAMA of two boys (Silas, 4 and Asher, 2), who lives with her family in Lower Manhattan. She is a social worker and expert on issues concerning HIV-infected and affected children, young adults and families, having worked with this population for almost 9 years at Mount Sinai St Luke’s Hospital in NYC. For more information on the United Nations and Thomas & Friends collaboration in promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, check out AllAboardForGlobalGoals.com