By Dr. Deb Weber, Director, Early Childhood Development Research, Fisher-Price®
At Fisher-Price, everything we create – from toys to content – is designed with one thing in mind: kids. This kid-focused design process starts with our Play Lab. Since 1961, when it opened as a first-of-its-kind research facility for toy testing, the Play Lab has been the place where our experts meet with kids (the real experts) to watch and learn. It’s where my team of development experts and behavioral scientists go into a playdate and come out with important, relevant and useful information for toy designers and content creators. And recently, we were able to get on board at the very start of development for the new Thomas & Friends™ series, “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go™.”
After lots of careful (and fun) research on the show’s two to four-year-old viewers, we recommended that “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go'' content incorporate 26 Life Lessons. Why 26? Well, this is an homage to the original Railway Series, a set of 26 books by the Rev. W. Awdry, which first introduced children to Thomas and his friends in 1945. The 26 Life Lessons include a range of skills addressing the three pillars of early childhood development: social-emotional, cognitive and physical skills.
Specific lessons like:
- Friendship – Sometimes it can feel scary to introduce yourself to a new friend on the playground or to be in a new classroom full of unfamiliar children. Learning how to make new friends or how to be a good one is an important social-emotional skill needed throughout life. In the episode ‘Roller Coasting!’, Percy really wants to go on a rollercoaster so his friends Thomas, Kana, and Nia work together to make it happen - showing what real friendship is like.
- Taking Turns – Taking turns isn’t always fun, especially when you have to share a toy or wait for your turn in a game. Knowing how to take turns can help foster children’s social skills including self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as communication skills. In the episode ‘More Cowbell’, Thomas is elated when he finds a cowbell, until his friends start wanting to use it without taking turns. For Thomas, sharing the cowbell is hard but he learns that it's important to take turns and to share with your friends.
- Teamwork – Working together with a group of people to solve problems by using thinking skills to achieve a goal is an important skill to practice. Fostering children’s ability to work together as a team and to play together also helps develop their social skills while making new friends and building relationships. In the episode ‘Sir Topham Hatt’s Hat’, Sir Topham Hatt’s top hat blows away in the wind before making an important announcement, so Thomas and his friends race around Sodor trying to catch it.
- Self-Help – Becoming independent in daily tasks and activities such as getting dressed, eating independently, or brushing your teeth are all important skills and part of growing up. Giving children the opportunity to learn how to do these tasks on their own not only helps to develop their physical abilities but also to foster their social-emotional skills such as independence, confidence, and self-esteem. In the episode ‘Counting Cows’, when Thomas and Percy volunteer to deliver a herd of cows, they realize that the cows keep wandering off on their own adventures unless the two friends can both pay better attention. When they realize what has gone wrong, they have to come up with a way to fix it so they used their thinking skills and physical abilities while also fostering their sense of independence, confidence, and self-esteem when they resolved the issue on their own.
- Empathy – Helping children to develop the ability to sense other people’s emotions is important because it helps them to build their social-emotional skills including a sense of security and stronger relationships with others. Children often learn empathy from watching an adult, playing with friends, and by experiencing empathy themselves. In the episode ‘An UnbeLEAFable Day’, Percy has to deliver the mail on Halloween even though he is scared the legendary Ghost Train will come out! Thomas understands that his best friend gets scared a little easier than the others, so he offers to tag along to make Percy feel a little better.
On behalf of the Play Lab team, we are thrilled to support the introduction of age-appropriate, engaging life lessons to our preschool audience around the globe. “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go™” will premiere in the U.S. on Cartoon Network’s preschool-aged programming block, Cartoonito, on September 13 and on Netflix later this fall, with global distribution news to follow.