Can These Toys Teach Kids Empathy?

How a learning exercise for the visually impaired evolved into a new toolkit that could help children unlock compassion.

Empathy–when you inhabit a feeling with someone–is considered one of the most important traits to teach a child. But empathy isn’t something you can dial up on demand. It’s challenging because, as Dr. Brene Brown points out in her 2010 TED Talk, it requires vulnerability and some work on the part of the empathizer.


Two entrepreneurs are currently raising funds for a toy that they say could unlock empathy in K-12 students. The Empathy Toy isn’t too different from basic building blocks, save for several notches and grooves that allow them to lock together. Students have to verbally guide a blindfolded peer through a manual–and somewhat abstract–construction process.

“They’re dealing with something that is both frustrating and hard to describe,” cofounder Gonzalo Riva says. “It starts to reveal a lot of assumptions in their thinking that need to be resolved.” The toys are designed around obvious cues like “the square side,” forcing kids to unearth a sense of what the other person is experiencing.

If that sounds like hippie logic, consider the genesis of the Empathy Toy. Riva’s cofounder Ilana Ben-Ari was originally creating a navigational aid for visually impaired people, with input from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. When the only test subjects were her fellow graduate students–none of whom were blind–she realized that the collaboration needed to get through the exercise is just as hard for everyone.

The project touches on several disciplines, one of which is education and how it’s evolved over the years. In the 1970s schools placed a premium on arithmetic and writing; today, the goal is to foster creativity and critical thinking skills. But these new age skills can’t be as easily taught with a textbook. Toys on the other hand, “can be the Trojan Horse to break through the structure of the typical classroom, without trying to dismantle the whole system at once,” Riva tells Co.Design.

Check out Twenty One Toy’s Kickstarter campaign here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.