Twenty One Toys & the Learning Revolution
Our story starts in a likely place for the origin of a learning revolution;— right outside of school.
Starting with Big Ideas
The different components that would eventually grow into Twenty One Toys started way back when our founder, Ilana Ben-Ari, was studying Industrial Design at Carleton University. Ilana had learned a lot about the importance of empathy in design; taking on the perspectives of the people you’re designing for is the first step in the process. The more you can stand in someone else’s shoes and feel with them, the better you’ll be able to design something that solves a real problem or meets a real need.
When it came time for Ilana to do her thesis project, she was partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and asked to design a navigational aid for people who are blind or have sight loss, and she knew exactly where to start. While instructors and classmates expected her to design a Blackberry with really big buttons, Ilana had a different idea. After doing a few days of research, she decided to go out and flex those empathy muscles; she went to meet young people who were visually impaired and their friends and family.
It didn’t take much research to discover that what blind and visually impaired children wanted was to more easily connect with their sighted classmates.They weren’t just experiencing a disconnect from their peers because of their disability, they literally had less time and space to do so. Missing about 30% of class time and having an adult sitting with you all the time can be real barriers to getting to know your peers.
In her research, Ilana also learned about Orientation and Mobility, a foundational set of skills that help blind and visually impaired people navigate the world independently. Orientation and Mobility is based on three questions:
- Where am I?
- Where am I going?
- How do I get there?
Ilana decided to design a game that would incorporate those questions and the concepts related to Orientation and Mobility, and she wanted the game to be playable by anyone, allowing blind and visually impaired students to connect meaningfully with their sighted peers through play.
After a lot of testing and experimenting, the Connexions Toy for Empathy & Creative Dialogue was born.
These days, we call it the Empathy Toy.
Right out of the classroom, the Empathy Toy won Best in Show from the Association of Chartered Industrial Designers. It was on the road to success, so Ilana tried to sell the toy to existing toy companies.
Luckily, no one was interested in developing a toy for empathy.
So, Ilana put the Empathy Toy on a shelf, and headed out into the world of work, but the idea wouldn’t leave her alone.
Do Schools Kill Creativity?
During this time, Ilana was watching TED Talks, and one of them had her almost yelling at the computer screen in frustration. It was Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation titled “Do schools kill creativity,” the most watched TED Talk of all time. Ilana saw her own educational experience reflected in his stories of schools educating the creativity out of children, and it hit a nerve.
Sir Ken Robinson knew that creativity is one of the most important skills for the workplace and life in the 21st century, but that it was undervalued in our education systems. He advocated for investing in developing creativity, and he believed in using play to do it. That nudge was all it took for Ilana to pull the Empathy Toy off the shelf and start an education revolution, and a toy company of her own. Twenty One Toys was born.
Getting the Empathy Toy into the hands of teachers required a lot of creativity and persistence, and only a few months into starting Twenty One Toys, an educator saw Ilana’s own TEDx Talk and shared it with their school board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. That first sale was large enough for Twenty One Toys to do our first ever production run of Empathy Toys. Right after that, the awards started pouring in, and word about a wooden puzzle that was teaching the most important skills for the 21st Century started spreading.
When we went to deliver the toys to our new friends at Dufferin-Peel, they asked us to give a demo to 30 educators. This quickly turned into a team building workshop, and the educators were gaining huge insights into what empathy meant for them in their roles. We quickly realized that they weren’t the only adults who were looking for playful professional development, and in no time we were delivering workshops for diverse corporate teams of all sizes who shared our values.
A New Category of Educational Toys
The Twenty One in our name isn’t about a number of toys we’re inventing; it’s about the twenty-first century that the toys are designed for. Still, Ilana had ideas for more toys, and now that the Empathy Toy was an award-winning success, it was time to start work on the second toy. Designing the Failure Toy while keeping up with all of the excitement around the Empathy Toy was challenging, but after a lot of research, collaboration, experimentation and, of course, some failure, the Failure Toy was ready to make its debut.
We launched on Kickstarter at the end of 2019, surpassed our funding goal and then made plans to start production in early 2020.
A Whole New World
We had built some extra time into our schedule for the Failure Toy production, but not quite enough to account for a global pandemic and the accompanying shipping crisis. We’d been planning a year with more travel than ever before to deliver Empathy and Failure Toy workshops; we even started off the year with sessions in Egypt!
Suddenly, our close knit team found ourselves working from home with our flights cancelled, offices and classrooms closed, and a world in need of a lot of empathy and resilience.
We didn’t know what to do other than what we’d always done: practice empathy, creativity, be human, and play. Fortunately, our global community was on board, and we got to work figuring out how to play online. For the first time, we were able to have our global community of toy educators and facilitators meet each other and play together. Our workshop clients welcomed us back to play with their teams, except now their team members were appearing in Zoom windows. Our Global Play Sessions gave us incredible opportunities to connect, and led us to play together more than ever before.
Things continue to evolve and change, which has required us to stay creative and curious; we now deliver workshops for both the Empathy Toy and Failure Toy online, in-person, and for hybrid teams. We’re also working on new ways to offer training and resources to our community and, of course, another toy.
The Future of Work is Human
If we’ve learned one thing along the way, it’s that the future of work truly is human. There will always be new technology, new trends, and new challenges, and change happens quickly.
What isn’t changing is the importance of empathy, resilience, and creative problem-solving. Leaders who show empathy are thriving, and the value of effective communication is becoming even more apparent in online and hybrid work environments. Failure is inevitable and the world has proven that it’s an unpredictable place to live and work; resilience and grit make a huge difference when things aren’t going according to plan. Creative problem-solving helps us all to find solutions to problems with tools and systems that didn’t exist last year.
We’re also betting that we’re going to keep needing play in classrooms, boardrooms, and home offices. These days, you can find the Empathy and Failure Toys in over 50 countries, played in dozens of languages by everyone from kindergarten students to CEOs, from interns to retirees. Play is one of the most important ways that we can learn, no matter our age or experience, and we hope that you’ll join us in making the world a more empathic, resilient, and playful place.