A toy that teaches empathy

Canadian industrial designer Ilana Ben-Ari’s puzzle game teaches the creative skills children won’t find in textbooks.

From the Series

Empathy Toy by Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys.
Empathy Toy by Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys.

Toronto-based industrial designer Ilana Ben-Ari has designed a toy that promotes creative communication and fosters empathy.  The Empathy Toy is the first in a series for a design thinking toolkit in development by Twenty One Toys,  Ben-Ari’s small start-up.

The Israeli-born designer was inspired to make something that nurtures creativity in the classroom as a counter to the strictures and systems that English educationalist Sir Ken Robinson has spoken out against in his work. 

I believe toys can teach the skills that textbooks can’t and, like all design my projects, I’m starting with empathy, says Ben-Ari.

The Empathy Toy is a puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other.

Participants get a set of five puzzle pieces. Each piece is different in shape, size and texture, and connect to one another in hundreds of different ways. A player creates a specific pattern and guides the other players, who are blindfolded, to replicate it.  “Playing the game well means having to imagine another player’s position and requires participants to work together in developing a common language to solve problems,” explains Ben-Ari.

The accompanying guidebook suggests other games to play with the puzzle pieces and encourages players to come up with their own. Ben-Ari hopes this will increase the collaborative and creative objectives of the toy.

The Empathy Toy, originally Ben-Ari’s industrial design thesis project at Carleton University in Ottawa, was redesigned into an educational toy after she discovered that the biggest educational barrier for the visually impaired is communication. Along with her business partner, Gonzalo Riva, Ben-Ari developed the project into a navigational aid to bridge the communication gap between visually impaired students and their classmates.

The toy is being distributed to over 300 schools worldwide where Ben-Ari says she hopes it will unlock creativity and kickstart discussions around skills.

MIT Media Lab’s Global Minimum project will also be using the toys in its newest initiative in Sierra Leone, called InLabs, which tasks students between the ages of 13 and 19 to identify problems in their communities, design solutions and continually test their prototypes. “Empathy is a key skill [that] youth in our programme will strengthen to accomplish this goal. We look forward to introducing the Empathy Toy to help our youth build the confidence and skills necessary to conduct fieldwork. Play can also illuminate to youth the challenges and value of building empathy to create social impact.”