Toy Designer is Changing the World Through Empathy

Nov. 5, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

Ilana Ben-Ari, inventor of the Empathy Toy, has been making waves near and far by bringing the transformative power of child’s play to thousands of schools and offices in some 50 countries.

Ilana-Ben-Ari

Ben-Ari’s expanding collection of toys, workshops, and training programs places crucial emphasis on toys teaching what textbooks cannot, with the accent on empathy.

“Empathy is the number one job skill,” Ben-Ari told the CJR in an interview. “Empathy, resilience and creative-concept problem solving have never been more relevant. These are skills that we are taught in kindergarten but then we stop.”

Ben-Ari is a multiple-award winning design entrepreneur, Ariane de Rothchild Fellow and TEDx Speaker. Her company, Twenty One Toys, has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Bloomberg.

The Empathy Toy has been praised by Time magazine as a technology that is “reshaping the future.” The Empathy Toy is the first in a series of toys Ben-Ari has designed to tackle and challenge what and how people of all ages are learning. The toys invite kids to be creative and to explore curiosity.

The Empathy Toy is a blindfolded collaborative puzzle game that can be solved only when players understand each other. In less than 15 minutes, players must recreate each other’s puzzle patterns without sight. Players can be as young as six or as old as 99, and a group can be two or 200.

As Ben-Ari explained, “Each toy piece has a different shape and texture. One player starts with a pattern of assembled puzzle pieces, and everyone works together to recreate the same shape with the matching pieces.”

The Israeli-born designer and social entrepreneur credits her early years living on a moshav near Carmel as the catalyst for her success.

“Growing up on a moshav left a huge imprint on me,” said Ben-Ari. “The importance of community is a different way of existing in society that has influenced both the products that I design, as well the reason I went into social entrepreneurship.”

Ben-Ari’s parents met while students in Israel. Her father was from Winnipeg and the couple moved back to Canada when Ben-Ari was six. She graduated in industrial design at Carleton University in 2006, and founded Twenty One Toys in 2012. Now in her 30s, she lives in Toronto.

Her goal is simple: “To positively impact the world.”

Ben-Ari originally designed the Empathy Toy in university as a navigational aid for the blind. “It took a number of years before I had the chutzpah to decide I was going to start a business,” she said.

Last year, she launched the Failure Toy – a game of balance and experimentation that helps players build healthier relationships with failure.

“It teaches how you manage risk and how competition and expectations play into your behaviour,” Ben-Ari explained. “You have these abstract pieces and you have a limited amount of time to make a shape that is as ambitious or safe as you or your team wants it to be.”

The game, she said, makes players just uncomfortable enough to gain insights into how to better handle patience and frustration.

Ben-Ari draws inspiration from the inventor of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, who also came up with a series of abstract educational tools he called gifts.

“Twenty One Toys stands for 21st century skills,” said Ben-Ari. “Froebel designed twenty toys… we like to say we are picking up where he left off.”

The next plaything will be dubbed the Improv Toy, which builds on her earlier work. The idea is that empathy, failure, and improvisation are foundational to human development. While empathy “is key to understanding a child’s inspiration and research phase, and failure is all about prototyping and innovation, improve ties into brainstorming and collaborative ideation,” says Twenty One Toys’ website.

You (and/or your children) will have to wait a while to try it out.