What Can the World of Social Impact Learn from Toys?

Talking toy-making, play, and change-making with Ilana Ben-Ari, founder Twenty One Toys

Why It Matters

Social entrepreneur Ilana Ben-Ari makes toys to teach empathy and failure. Learning through play isn’t a new concept, but there are emerging ideas here that could punch up social impact leadership.

What did you play with during the holidays when you were a kid?

My mom is this wonderful combination of feminism and brilliance. She studied chemistry at Oxford, so I got all those terrible gifts that were all about learning. As a kid, I didn’t fully appreciate it, but now as an adult I appreciate how much the toys I play with shaped my view of the world, which was both about being curious and learning.

The whole toys in the workplace thing — it was a tech trend. Now, more serious skill-building toys are making inroads in the workplace. Why is this?

If we look at what the future of work looks like, it’s not about excelling in reading, writing, and arithmetic, it’s skills like creativity and collaboration.

Play unlocks such an incredible level of understanding and learning that is not just individual, but is shared and collected and continually practised.

There are so many levels of observation, active listening, and exploration. That’s where we’re going to be able to innovate, when we stop saying play instead of work or arts instead of science, it’s about all of these things interacting together.

It’s one thing to play with toys and learn through them, it’s another to change entrenched outlooks and behaviours of adults. How does the toy drive daily practice?

I’ll use our Empathy Toy at Twenty One Toys as an example. It is an abstract wooden puzzle where one or more players are given a built pattern and they have to describe that pattern to one or more players so that they can recreate it. Within five to 15 minutes, you get huge insights into how you deal with patience, frustration, and — more importantly — how you creatively communicate. Whether you’re a group of two or 200, a group of kindergarteners or non-profit CEOs, the game brings up significant insights quite quickly that you can use as a metaphor for real-life scenarios.

There are two aspects to toys I can think of: One is the use, the learning through play—and the other is the journey to make the toy, the craft behind it. What have you learned about the craft of toy making?

All the toys I’m working on are about unlocking insights and influence that can enhance your emotional intelligence. Empathy can be taught. Failure can be taught as a skill. You think: What’s underneath failure? It’s about blame, it’s about shame, it’s about accountability, it’s about judgment. Failure is so layered, sometimes you’re on the right track for your design and your ideas, but you really need to trust yourself and trust the process because so many things that look like it’s not working are it almost working and you know when to keep pushing or step back and regroup. You have to trust your instincts listen to others, but also to yourself.

There are so many people across the country working hard to create social change everyday. In your mind, what can the world of social change learn from the world of craft, craftspeople, and toy-making?

There’s a bit of danger where the design process is all about finding the right problem and then using the design process to discover a solution. The idea of prototyping and testing—putting something out there and assume it’s not going to work—and doing rounds of tweaks, revisions, and iterations. This is part of craft. It would be impossible for a craftsperson to succeed in the charity grants world. If you’re going for grants, you typically have to tell a funder what the problem and the solution is and how you’re going to fix it, and when the funding comes, you have to have results that match was what promised. There seems to be this gap in the relationship: we shouldn’t be telling you we know all the answers. Take that from toy making.