21Toys & the Learning Revolution

Our story starts in a likely place for the origin of a learning revolution – in school. In 2012, after quitting her day job, Ilana Ben-Ari took a dare – she believed that she could change education with toys, and she set out to prove it by founding Twenty One Toys.

Inspired by thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson who claimed that schools kill creativity, Ilana believed that toys could bring creativity back to life in students. She believed that toys could be the new textbooks. Because toys can teach what textbooks can’t: creativity, collaboration, and most importantly – empathy. And she had the perfect tool for this, her thesis project from University…

Inventing the Empathy Toy®

As a design student, Ilana knew all about the importance of Empathy. As most industrial design students learn, empathy is the beginning of the design process and Ilana had a big design challenge ahead of her. Partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Ilana was given a brief – to design a navigational aid for the visually impaired.

She jokes that her school thought she was going to design a blackberry with really big buttons, but instead Ilana took a different approach. After reading about visual impairment for a few days she decided instead to speak to those living with visual impairment, as well as their friends and family.

To her dismay, she discovered that there was a huge social and emotional gap between the visually impaired and sighted community. These children missed 30% of class time, normally had an adult supervisor, and had to practice something called Orientation & Mobility, the foundations of which were “Where Am I?” “Where Am I Going?” and “How Do I Get There?”. She decided at that moment that she would design a game that incorporated those foundations, but that visually impaired students could then play with their sighted classmates. And thus, the Empathy Toy® (or as it was called back then – the Connexions Toy for Empathy & Creative Dialogue) was born.

Ilana's TEDx Talk on the Invention of the Empathy Toy®

That same year the toy won “Best in Show” at a design competition from the Association of Chartered Industrial Designers (ACIDO). Ilana took the obvious next steps; she tried to sell the toy to a company – but no company existed that was interested in developing a toy for empathy. So she shelved her idea and didn’t return to it again for a few years.

Selling Empathy

One idea kept returning to Ilana over the years – an interesting observation that had sparked her thinking. While she was spending her days at schools testing out the Empathy Toy®, she was also prototyping it at night in her design studio, trying it out on fellow designers. And she discovered something interesting – the toy was just as challenging and rewarding for the visually-impaired elementary students who were playing during the day as it was for the sighted designers who were playing at night.

So one day, Ilana decided to take the leap and start Twenty One Toys. She moved to Toronto and started sneaking into every education conference that she could find. She would leave the Empathy Toy® on tables and walk away, waiting for educators to surround the toys.

This worked, and eventually, Twenty One Toys made its first sale to a school board in Ontario, Canada. This was thanks to an educator who found Ilana on Twitter and shared Ilana’s TEDx talk with their SuperIntendent. One month later Twenty One Toys received a purchase order large enough to pay for their first production run of the Empathy Toy®.

The following week, Ilana and Twenty One Toys received the C2MTL Emerging Entrepreneurs Award, the Centre for Social Innovation’s Youth Agents of Change Award, the Youth Social Innovation Capital Fund, and the Spin Master Innovation Fund which allowed Ilana to bring onboard teachers and designers to help grow this learning revolution.

Toys are the New Textbooks

In the early years of Twenty One Toys, Ilana and her team were able to visit schools that had purchased the Empathy Toy to find out two important things: not only why they got the toy but were they actually using it?

What they discovered was that it wasn’t just guidance counsellors who were using the Empathy Toy®, but also French teachers, business teachers, student leadership programs, and even educators running makerspaces. Another discovery was that when the Twenty One Toys team went to a school to do a demo of the toy with teachers, that demo would end up looking more like a professional-development workshop. These insights led to the development of the guidebooks that come with the toys today.

The Educator’s guidebook has over 50 ways to play with the toys under the four main sections of “Creative Dialogue,” “Teamwork & Collaboration,” “Autonomous Learning,” and “Making Connections.” These lessons were directly inspired by the stories the Twenty One Toys team were hearing from actual teachers who were adapting the games for their classrooms.

Inside the Educator's Guidebook for Teaching Empathy with the Empathy Toy®

The Facilitator’s guidebook is for using the Empathy Toy® in professional development, and details how to design your own games and workshops with the toy. The green section of the guidebook describes how to adapt the games by changing just a few basic components. The orange section has pre-made workshops on a range of topics including “Change Management,” “Effective Teamwork,” and “Diversity and Inclusion.”

Mass Producing Empathy

From a student project to a tool teaching empathy in classrooms and offices – the Empathy Toy® became a global tool thanks to the launch of its Kickstarter Campaign. This wildly successful drive of pre-orders supported the first mass-production run of Empathy Toys and led to Twenty One Toys reaching more than 1000 schools and offices in over 50 countries around the world.

The momentum continued to grow thanks to attention from publications like TIME magazine, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Design Indaba, Quartz, and Fast Company. The media was catching on to the idea that empathy is both important and possible to teach. Meanwhile, Ilana continued speaking out on the importance of education and how it sets us up for life through her Creative Mornings Talk “School is a Poorly Designed Game”.

This got the attention of Colleges and Universities including Seneca College and Sheridan College in Canada, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Twenty One Toys team of designers and educators worked alongside these post-secondary institutions to develop toy curriculums teaching the importance of Empathy to Executive MBA students. You’ll now find Empathy Toys being used in colleges and universities around the world.

“At Sheridan Continuing Education we're excited to be partnering with Twenty One Toys to look at new ways of answering the question, "How do we teach 21st Century skills?" We have trained several staff admin and instructional teams on their innovative Empathy Toy, and have begun the exciting journey of using its lessons to inform the redesign of our courses and programs. We are looking forward to continuing to incorporate their current and future toys into our program and working together to build the future classroom for lifelong and professional learning.”

– Michael Cassidy (Associate Dean, Continuing Education, Sheridan College)

Creating the World’s First Global Community of Toy Educators and Facilitators

From schools to offices, the Empathy Toy® is making a significant impact thanks to our growing community of empathic leaders. From museums using the toys as part of their Maker Education Programs, to the Mars Discovery District using the toys during job interviews, the Empathy Toy® has been showing up in new buildings around the world.

More than just a toy company, the Twenty One Toys team now runs Empathy Toy® workshops for organizations including banks, law firms, and hospitals. These are the first steps in building out a global community of toy facilitators – the ambassadors leading the learning revolution with toys and play, both becoming and fostering Empathic Leaders.

In May of 2016, the Twenty One Toys team was invited to Manitoba to receive an honour from the Mayor of Winnipeg. A high school was using Empathy Toys in a student-led empathic leadership program, and word of the results had reached the mayor’s office.

“Use of The Empathy Toy® in the school has resulted in an 85% drop in office referrals due to conflict over a three year period. That’s amazing!”

– Brian Bowman (Mayor of Winnipeg, Manitoba)

What’s next?

In 2016 Twenty One Toys was awarded the SheEO Radical Generosity Fund, which helped fund another production run of toys, support team growth, and opened the door to connecting with an entirely new community of empathy ambassadors. And in 2017, at the ArchAngel summit, Twenty One Toys was awarded the Moonshot prize to help fund the launch of a school program for empathic leadership called 21Leaders.

With the launch of the Failure Toy just around the corner, creating the world’s first global community of empathic leaders is just the beginning for Ilana and the team at Twenty One Toys.

Stay connected

Ilana Ben-Ari has been bootstrapping Twenty One Toys since day one and has been able to keep growing thanks to an incredible team, community, and organizations that share in this mission. While it’s still early days, she’s eager to stay connected with the next cohort of entrepreneurs. Ilana runs a live video-conference every few months called Coffee Tawks for designers, entrepreneurs, and students to pick her brain. If you’ve got questions around design, social enterprise, manufacturing, or the future of work, you’re invited to join the list to hear about the next event!

Connect with Ilana at Coffee Tawks

You're invited to have a virtual coffee with Ilana Ben-Ari, in a live group video chat, where you can ask her questions about her work, design approach and the lessons she’s learned while self-financing her own toy company.

Learn more about Coffee Tawks