Twenty One Toys & 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. 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 students. 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 step; 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 with fellow designers. 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.

Eventually, Twenty One Toys made its first sale to a school board in Ontario, Canada, 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 the 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: why they purchased the toy, and if they were actually using it.

They discovered 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. The team also discovered that when they went to demonstrate the toy to teachers, it 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.

All of our toys now come with detailed guidebooks that support teachers and facilitators in playing the toy right out of the box, no training required. The game variations, lesson plans, debrief questions, and workshop themes were informed by actual users of the toys. 

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 in 2013. 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 about the importance of education and how it sets us up for life in her Creative Mornings Talk, “School is a Poorly Designed Game”.

Soon, Twenty One Toys had 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. You can find the Empathy Toy in places from museum education programs to job interviews.

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)

Join our global community!

Order your Empathy Toy today and bring 21st Century Skills to life.