Field Notes on Creating an Empathy Toy

Submitted on Thu, December 19, 2013


It may seem odd to teach twenty first century thinking skills with wooden toys—until those skills are closely examined. Empathy, creative dialogue, and collaboration are often cited as essential for our age because they endure as valuable competencies in the midst of accelerating change. While the shiny devices of today will become tomorrow’s white elephants, skills that help us better understand each other will continue to grow in importance. We believe that these skills can be harnessed and honed through the use of simple toys that draw attention to the complexity of the players—because that mushy processor between our ears is in no danger of becoming obsolete.

Talking with educators over the past year has made us realize that empathy is actually a complex web of interrelated skills. It exists at the intersection of vivid imagination, sophisticated listening skills, highly adaptable communication, and mindful self-assessment. We also learned that past educational methodologies were not designed with such sophisticated webs in mind. Traditional education generally presents complex concepts by separating them into smaller units—curriculum is divided into specialized courses, history is told as a series of discrete eras, science and math teach students to isolate variables, and so on. Empathy, however, is a process that is greater than the sum of its parts. It cannot be taught through reverse engineering.   

Simple wooden toys, on the other hand, can provide a tangible experience to help players understand this web of skills holistically. The Empathy Toy is a 3D puzzle game which requires creative collaboration. Once players have completed a play session, there is a discussion to focus on the many dimensions of empathy that it required. The easy to comprehend, physical experience of play ends up as a revealing metaphor for how these skills are applied (or overlooked) in other areas of the players’ lives. And because wooden puzzle pieces do not auto-correct language or thinking, interactions with them are clear reflections of the players.  

Empathy and the implementation gap

After many discussions with teachers, we have learned that there is hunger for empathy and play-based learning. We have also come to understand the reality of the “implementation gap.” Despite the desire at all levels of education for innovative new approaches, the fact remains that teachers have a tremendous amount on their plates already, making it difficult to implement new programs. 

It was the teachers themselves who built a bridge across the implementation gap. They showed us how empathy is actually an ideal partner to current academic protocols. We have talked with educators who have used the Empathy Toy to teach a wide array of subjects and concepts—from career skills to social constructions of gender. They brought empathy to the foreground of what they were already teaching, and showed us how empathy enables a host of other skills.  

Steal our ideas, please

The ideas underpinning the Empathy Toy have come from many sources. In addition to the amazing work being done by the teachers we have encountered, we have also been inspired by some much older concepts. Friedrich Froebel, the 18th century inventor of kindergarten, demonstrated the power of play when his toy-based approach to education inspired a generation of innovators—including Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Wassily Kandinsky. We also owe a debt to the Italian designer Bruno Munari, who spoke poetically about the power of tactile objects to “make air visible.” Our humble attempts to give twenty first century thinking physical form is a very deliberate tip of the hat to his work.

Given the countless people who contributed ingredients for the Empathy Toy, it would be unfair to jealously guard its secret sauce. So, here’s the recipe—feel free to try these play techniques with students or colleagues, and modify to taste:

  • Allow time for meaning-making after play by encouraging players to unpack questions like “how did that go?”, “what did you feel?”, “why do you think you made those choices?”, and “was that the only way?”
  • Strip away directions to make games more open-ended. Then ask players why they made certain choices and not others—they won’t be able to say, “the rules.”
  • Have players think of new ways a game could be played—turning them into experience designers and amateur psychologists.
  • Get players to work collaboratively in a game role that is normally individualistic, forcing them to get to know another person’s needs and thoughts.
  • Finally, don’t focus too much on complete resolution. Many games are created to reach a singular outcome. However, the most rewarding play leaves players with lasting questions which will continue to excite and challenge them.


This post was written by Gonzalo Riva (@GisforGonzalo), COO & Lead Strategist of young start-up Twenty One Toys (@21Toys), and Ryan Burwell (@BwellRyan), the company’s resident teacher and Education Lead. Twenty One Toys develops toys and workshops for 21st-century learning—to unlock the elusive skills of empathy, creativity, failure, collaboration, and more.

You can join the toy revolution by supporting the Twenty One Toys campaign on Kickstarter to make a new, more affordable Empathy Toy (and get one for yourself) right here.