People using empathy toy

Empathy Toy Empowering Employees Through Play

August 17, 2017

The empathy toy teaches employees a valuable skill overlooked in organizations: empathy.

Are we turning into a society of jerks? Research indicates that we are becoming less empathetic. For example, U.S. college students have demonstrated a 75% drop in empathy in just over 30 years. This is according to research based on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), an empathy survey which has been administered to tens of thousands of American college students since 1979. The research, which was led by Sara H.
Konrath and published in Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2011, found a particularly steep drop after the year 2000.

The IRI survey — which includes questions like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” — so obviously measures empathy that it would be easy to guess the “right answer” and game the results to make yourself look kinder. It may be less a measure of empathy than of how much empathy is valued: the fact that college students no longer seem to want to be perceived as nice is perhaps even more telling than their low empathy scores.

“Tender feelings” is not a quality typically espoused in today’s cutthroat, competitive business world. The rise of social media and the cult of celebrity have seen an accompanying spike in narcissism. To address this, progressive employers worldwide are changing their hiring habits. In the past, they were more likely to hire based on skill or I.Q., but now they are looking beyond those qualities and seeking emotional intelligence, also known as empathy.

Unfortunately, empathy is not a skill that our educational system often teaches — a gap which the Empathy Toy was born to fill. Originally designed for visually impaired students as a thesis project, its creator Ilana Ben-Ari quickly saw the wooden puzzle blocks had a further-reaching potential. “I realized the toy had applications that were much broader than exclusively [for] the visually impaired community and children,” she says.

A few years after the toy won a number of design awards, Ben-Ari started up her company Twenty One Toys. The Empathy Toy is now being used in Kindergarten to Grade 12, in postsecondary education and in workplaces in roughly 45 countries around the world. Educators, healthcare professionals, HR managers and others are using the toy to hone the skill of empathy.

“What’s amazing is that we started [exclusively] in education,” says Ben-Ari. “[But] we’d go to a school and demonstrate the toy, and end up running a professional development workshop with the teachers. And so much of that is because empathic communication has no age limit.”

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One or more players start by building a structure made out of abstract wooden puzzle pieces. Once finished, they disassemble the structure, only to blindfold one or more of the participants and then have them reassemble the structure with guidance from the group.

“So, what ends up happening is that in five to 15 minutes, players get huge insights about how they deal with patience, frustration, but most importantly how they creatively communicate with each other. So, no matter if it’s a group of 10 or two, a group of six-year-olds, or a company and its CEO, the game ends up being a reflection of the dynamics of the group,” Ben-Ari says.

People of different ages can play in the same group, and she has some amazing examples of intergenerational play, such as the Twenty One
Leaders program in Winnipeg, where high school students play games with much younger students as part of an empathetic leadership program.
Ben-Ari says that one of her favourite anecdotes is how often the toy goes missing because people have brought it home to play with their children.

Likewise, CEOs are playing with their junior staff. Clients of Twenty One Toys include Scotia Bank, Bank of Montreal, United Way and FedEx.
Participating organizations get the toy and a guidebook explaining over 50 different ways to play it. The toy company can also run a 90-minute or three-hour workshop on empathy as it relates to a specific organization.

“We can run the trainings for you, but we are also excited about you getting empowered so that you can do it yourself … through the toys and guidebooks,” says Ben-Ari, adding they’ve also launched online training.

While the toy itself has not changed much since its inception, new applications are constantly being discovered.

“Once we put the toys into the hands of facilitators and educators, they start inventing their own variations of the game,” says Ben-Ari. In one, 24 people guide one blindfolded builder; in another, you play via text messaging instead of through verbal communication. There is also a version where one person guides multiple blindfolded builders, and one where directions must be given in the form of a question. The guidebook is based on the case studies conducted in the toy’s first year, when it was used in over 50 schools, but Twenty One Toys is constantly in the process of uploading various digital updates to the guidebook, as educators from around the world regularly submit new ways of playing the game.

“We’re working right now to connect our community in 45 countries, so they can share their uses,” says Ben-Ari. “I know occupational therapists were using it for those with autism. Putting it into the hands of professionals who say, ‘I know how I can adapt this for the work I’m doing’ — that’s what’s constantly evolving and being added.”

Meanwhile, she is working on creating more toys that will teach other 21st-century skills. The next toy to be launched will be the Failure Toy. Ben-Ari says that every conversation about empathy naturally led to a conversation about failure. What happens when you don’t understand someone? What happens when you get frustrated? What happens when there’s a breakdown in communication? What does it look like when there’s blame involved? She found that the collective answer was “failure.”

The new toy will be similar to the Empathy Toy in that it will be a collaborative game, but it will focus on encouraging discussion about failure. As failure is an inevitability in all of our lives, the idea behind this toy is to promote openly addressing failure — including becoming better at recognizing it, better at dealing with it and looking at it as a skill. Ben-Ari points out that, in music and sports, failure is expected and talked about, as opposed to in education or the workplace where it often isn’t.

Adding a second toy to the company at its current size might be a daunting order, but the people at Twenty One Toys have been hard at work ensuring that all the roads are well laid to successfully launch the new endeavour. Almost everyone using the Empathy Toy is already on a waiting list for the Failure Toy. Ben-Ari also said she knows what the next six toys to be launched by Twenty One Toys will be, divulging that the next after the Failure Toy will be an Improvisation Toy.

“Failure is prototyping. It’s understanding that if you’re trying anything new, it’s not going to work the first time — and it probably shouldn’t work the first time. If it works the first time, either you’re the luckiest person in the world or you’re not asking enough questions,” says Ben-Ari. “Improvisation is about building on other people’s ideas and being more open-minded instead of focusing on [whether] we’ve never done something before and deciding it won’t work — looking at how can we shove away our preconceived notions of rules or what’s possible and have a bit of fun.”

The applications for these toys are endless in virtually every aspect of life, and the workplace is definitely no exception. Some organizations are using the toy not only with existing employees but also for job interviews. Ben-Ari is always happy to talk to people about how the toy can be used in their organization. “I want to talk to the users,” she says. “We’ve connected people from around the world to each other to share ideas.”

For more information about the Empathy Toy and about the Twenty One Toys company, visit and Take the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) to measure your own empathy.

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Rebeca Kuropatwa
Rebeca Kuropatwa ( is based in Winnipeg, MB. She writes human interest stories and more for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines and other publications across North America.

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