Toys Are the New Textbooks

It’s easy to look back longingly at kindergarten, when our days revolved around games and play. But those lighthearted kindergarten routines provided the perfect environment to develop some seriously important skills: empathy, creativity, problem solving. Kindergarten was all about learning through play. And those skills are becoming more important as we move into the new world of work. According to the 2016 Future of Jobs Report, huge disruptions will change the way we work. New jobs will emerge and old jobs will be wiped out by automation and robotics. The report estimates that by 2020, 7.1 million jobs will be lost. And more than a third of the job skills crucial for the new world of work aren’t yet considered necessary in the workforce. Thankfully, the report isn’t all doom and gloom. There are skills we can hone to prepare us, and they aren’t the technical skills of the past. According to the report, social skills are the key 21st-century skills: we’ll need emotional intelligence, creativity and collaboration to thrive. And the importance of play in developing these skills is starting to get attention. In other words, it might be time to revisit those old kindergarten lessons.

Play your way to empathy

If so-called soft skills will become the most in-demand workplace skills, how can we start practicing them now? That’s the big challenge. Skills like empathy and creativity are difficult to teach. You can’t crack open a textbook and study your way to empathy. We learn empathy through our experiences with others, beginning with play. And we have to practice throughout our lives to keep these skills sharp. Empathy is a lifelong learning process, guided by play.

According to a paper from the University of Pittsburgh, we learn to read other people’s emotions, share our own feelings and overcome challenges through play-based learning. Play is one of our first teachers. Yet as we move through grade school, we’re taught to view play as the opposite of work and learning. Some programs are doing away with this view. At the University of British Columbia, play is an important tool for teaching young kids tough subjects. UBC Child Care Services teaches kids, between 16 months and five years old, heavy topics from environmentalism to residential schools and reconciliation. The staff rely on play that’s grounded in respect and empathy to explore these complex subjects.

Play is anything but frivolous: games give us skills that are otherwise tough to teach, but are central to the 21st-century workplace. It’s time to give play its due and recognize toys as the new textbooks.

The Empathy Toy

…is a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other.

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Where have all the creative geniuses gone?

You probably spent part of your life as a creative genius, although you might have been too busy playing to notice. According to a study by George Land and Beth Jarman, 98% of kindergarten kids scored at a genius level for divergent thinking. At 10, 32% of the same group scored as creative geniuses. And by 15, only 10% met the genius mark. Looking at adults, the study found only 2% made the cut. From the day we step out of the kindergarten classroom, we start shedding our creative abilities. What happens to our creativity as we grow older? How can we hold onto it?

Ken Robinson, an author and speaker, delivered a Ted Talk called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” He believes creativity is as important a skill as literacy. But our schools don’t seem to recognize that. Mistakes are a natural part of exploring new ideas, but in school, failure is presented as something to avoid at all costs. Instead of teaching kids how to solve problems creatively, kids are taught to recite the right answer, whether they understand it or not. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and inventor, perfectly summed up the problem with this approach to teaching:

“If I ran a school, I’d give the average grade to the ones who gave me all the right answers, for being good parrots. I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes and told me about them, and then told me what they learned from them.”

– Buckminster Fuller, Architect

It’s no coincidence that we’re most creative when given the time and space to explore the world through play. As we grow up, and toys are replaced by textbooks, creativity takes a back seat to logic and rules.

Do grades kill innovation?

Students focus a lot of time and worry on their grades. But what if good grades come at a steep price? A study at New York University found an inverse relationship between GPA and innovation among college students. The higher a student’s GPA, the lower their ability to innovate. One possible explanation is that students who place more importance on innovation are more likely to view their education as an opportunity to discover new ideas, rather than focusing on memorizing facts to make the grade.

It’s not surprising that a company like Google, where creativity is king, doesn’t even ask its job applicants for GPAs and college transcripts. Their decision to ignore grades wasn’t made on a whim: Google crunched the data and found there was no correlation between college grades and a person’s ability to excel at the company. According to Laszlo Bock of Google:

“I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment … You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

– Laszlo Bock, Google

In the new world of work, learning how to succeed at tests won’t help people thrive. Embracing 21st-century skills like creativity and empathy will help people excel in the workplace of the future.

Toys beat textbooks for 21st-century skills

While play is often seen as separate from work – its opposite, even – it’s helpful instead to see the importance of play in developing 21st-century job skills. Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, championed the idea that toys and play can teach kids the skills they need to succeed at work. For Froebel, play was a key component of educating the whole child – mentally and physically – so they could use their imaginations and bodies to explore their ideas and interests. In his view, play is our primary tool for learning.

Today’s kids will need to be adaptable and creative to thrive in the new world of work. By one estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t even exist yet. And it’s jobs that rely on human skills – creativity, empathy, collaboration – that are least likely to be wiped out by automation. The future of work is human, and the future of education should focus on our uniquely human abilities. Play is the best way to learn and practice 21st-century skills. Textbooks are too theoretical to teach complex skills like empathy and creativity. Toys can teach these skills, to both kids and adults.

We created the Empathy Toy to fill this learning gap, and help people of all ages give their 21st-century skills some much-needed exercise. The Empathy Toy is the first in a family of toys designed to practice 21st-century skills. Discover how it can teach people to better understand each other, from classrooms to boardrooms to your own living room.

It’s time to stop viewing play as the enemy of work, and instead recognize how much they complement each other. Play does the hard work of teaching us vital skills like empathy and creativity. And as the world of work demands these 21st-century skills, toys and games for play-based learning could have more to teach us than textbooks.

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