The actress and activist is partnering with the UN on extra-educational new episodes of Thomas & Friends

By Kate Hogan
September 12, 2018 01:44 PM
Michael Simon/

Toothbrushing time has become a teaching moment in Olivia Wilde‘s house.

“I beg my son to turn off the water when he brushes his teeth,” she tells PEOPLE of Otis, 4. “He doesn’t understand — like, ‘Every time I turn on the tap there’s water.’ I have to explain to him how limited the resource is, and that opens the door for broader conversations.”

It’s all part of Wilde’s hopes to educate Otis and his little sister Daisy, 2 next month, about issues like poverty, gender equality and climate change. And now she has another teaching tool: Thomas the Tank Engine.

Last week, Wilde, 34, was part of a panel that spoke at the United Nations about the new Thomas & Friends: Big World! Big Adventures! series launching on Nick Jr. this month. The beloved franchise partnered with the UN to include storylines based on the organization’s sustainable development goals into Thomas & Friends episodes.

“It really hit home for me because of the focus on early childhood education,” she says. “I realize how important it is to shape and direct kids’ storytelling from the earliest age. I love watching these episodes: they’re purposeful, and something that benefits my kids’ psyches, helping build a foundation in them to help them handle the world.”

Outside of Thomas & Friends, Wilde says she often reminds her kids (with fiancé Jason Sudeikis) “that they won the life lottery. Everything they have access to is privileged, so they have a responsibility to conserve resources and to be kind, embrace gender equality and understand the value of their education. If we can raise a generation that thinks that way, I really think the world will improve.”

Olivia Wilde at the UN on Sept. 7, 2018
Michael Simon/

As for those who might raise an eyebrow at the idea of promoting screen time, Wilde promises this is “thoughtful” content.

“We watch together and they can ask me questions,” she explains. “This makes them feel responsible to their global community, and you look for any way to do that when you’re a parent.”

Wilde points specifically to gender equality, which is addressed in a new Thomas & Friends episode. “I noticed how quickly it came up with my kids — how quickly they identify as girly or boyish, how they really restrict themselves so early on,” she shares. “My son will says, ‘Boys are stronger,’ or ‘Boys like blue.’ I question where that came from, where he’s getting these simplistic influences.”

To combat that, “I try to expose them to content that breaks up that paradigm,” she says. “A lot of issues we’re seeing in today’s culture, like the Trump administration, #MeToo, are related to early childhood education on gender equality. Instilling kids with better values early on might help us avoid some of these really old-fashioned identity politics in the future.”

But at the most basic level, Wilde says these Thomas & Friends episodes give her hope.

“There are so many difficult things happening in the world that make us feel hopeless. I think this will be a way for kids and parents to feel optimistic about their effect on the world personally,” she says. “There is a lot of negativity in the world, but this can help instill some kindness.”