The Power of Failure (Ilana Ben-Ari)

Season #2 Episode #23

What skills should our children learn to succeed in the 21st century? Industrial designer Ilana Ben-Ari shares how she approached the problem through design thinking and why she developed the Empathy Toy and Failure Toy for her company Support this podcast visit:


Ilana Ben-Ari: Kindergarteners are like 90%, creative geniuses, and 21 years until the age of 25. Less than 2% are still considered creative geniuses. It's educated out of us. And when we look at failure specifically, I mean, I like to say that school is a poorly designed game. We stopped playing, and we start counting. And then if you go into like the startup tech entrepreneur space, it's all fail fast fail often.

John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path to Learning podcast where three ordinary guys explore the world of education,

Jay Irwin: what's working, what's broken,

Scott Bultman: and what we can do to best advocate for children.

John: I'm John Pottenger.

Jay: I'm Jay Irwin.

Scott: And I'm Scott Bultman. And you're listening to the Path to Learning.

John: Well, today is an exciting show everyone. We've got Ilana on the show. And Scott, why don't you tell us a little bit more about her?

Scott: Ilana Ben-Ari. She's an industrial designer from Canada, who started a company called 21 Toys ( all spelled out in letters. And she has developed some very innovative toys, The Empathy Toy, The Failure Toy, we first got connected with her because she sponsored the Kickstarter, she was one of our backers for when we did our pitch video. And so over the years, I've had some contact with her and now seem to be the best time to have her on the show. So we're really excited to have her here.

Jay: Yeah, in my mind, it's like if you had to create the perfect poster child for the modern day Froebel, she would be she's it?

John: Yeah, absolutely. And it's hard to see, obviously, in the podcast, you can't see this material. So we're going to be posting stuff there. But yeah, you've got to check out what she's doing visually.

Jay: Yes, he's overcome all kinds of odds. Yeah, get to where she's at, and the things that she's taking on using wooden manipulatives is pretty incredible.

John: But there's a lot to learn. So check it out.

Scott: Alright, here we go with Ilana Ben-Ari.

Scott: Well, thanks for taking time to join us. We've been waiting to do this for quite a number of years. You were one of our Kickstarter supporters six years ago.

Ilana: Yeah, I can't believe it's been six years.

Jay: We can.

Scott: Well, the joke around here is that our project itself has become a failure toy. So ...

John: What a segue, Scott.

Scott: We needed to go to the expert on failure toys, so we can figure out what we're supposed to have learned from.

Ilana: I was literally mass producing The Failure Toy throughout 2020. And it was quite the meta project.

Jay: Oh, my gosh, yeah.

Ilana: I would recommend it. I think this is, if anything, this has been an incredible year for failure and resilience, both just getting everyone on the same page. We're all going through very different, but also similar stuff. And it's also brought to life a lot more of the work that we do around empathy, especially this past year.

Jay: Yeah, what an opportunity for that.

John: So for the people who may not know about your work, can you give us a little introduction to, you know, The Failure Toy and just kind of your journey to this point?

Ilana: Sure. Yeah. So thanks again, for having me. I started my own company 21 Toys just over eight years ago. So my background is industrial design, which is product design. So I'm a toy designer turn social entrepreneur, and 21 Toys we're a training and development toy company. So we use toys to teach what textbooks can't. So skills like empathy, failure, creative collaboration, that the experts around the world share the future of work, but we stopped teaching and valuing them after kindergarten. So our big mantra is kindergarten works. It just couldn't stop at kindergarten. And so this idea that we have this workforce, we also have just students as well, who're entering, you know, post-secondary, or leaving high school. We're asking everyone to be creative, collaborative, destructors. But we stopped playing, we stopped valuing all the skills that got us there. So it's I built it out of rage and anger, my own education. I'm a recovering A student. But I think studying design and then understanding how emotional intelligence, play and creativity all are connected, is kind of what led me down the path of deciding to start my own toy company.

Scott: Well, I certainly relate to the rage part of it. Actually, we actually ... I think there's a lot of connections, we could have a long conversation about it. But so you started with the Empathy Toy. And I'd like to have you talk a little bit about this sort of the trajectory of the different things that you're working on. I had developed Braille alphabet blocks about 20 years ago. I was really kind of surprised that no one had made blocks for the visually impaired. So anyway, there's a lot of things that you've done, that I can definitely relate to But more importantly, I think for our listeners, is that you've kind of followed in a very Froebelian path. Froebel observed children and developed products. I like to think that the Froebel Gifts were a really an amazing act of industrial design.

Ilana: Absolutely.

Scott: So I'd like you to kind of talk a little bit about what got you going in, in the social entrepreneurial in this and then kind of starting with Empathy Toy and moving through Failure  and to where you're at now.

Ilana: So the way that my program works, I'm in Canada. So I studied at Carleton University in Ottawa, which at the time was considered the top product design program in Canada. And in your fourth year, your thesis year, you're matched with an organization, and you're given a brief. And so the organization I got matches with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. And the brief was to design a navigational aid to support the visually impaired. And what I responded with was, I thought, Okay, well, they're probably gonna expect me to make you know, like a Blackberry ... Blackberry with really big buttons, or like a walking stick that makes lots of noise and lights. But similar to what you said about football, I mean, design starts with empathy, empathic observation, and empathic listening.

Ilana: And so we met with ... I met with 30, to 50, folks who were born or developed visual visual impairment, but I also spoke to their friends and family. And then I met with their orientation and mobility trainers. And I adapted the brief, so it was still about designing a navigational aid. But what I focused on was that there was this huge social and emotional divide between the visually impaired and the sighted community. And specifically with kids, it was like they were missing something like 30% of class time, because they couldn't be in the class at the same time, they have an adult with them for most of the day. And sometimes that's a privilege because the school can afford to have those supports. Sorry. And then the third thing was that they do this orientation mobility training. And the foundations of it are, where am I? Where am I going? How do I get there? So I thought, you know, if I designed a game, I didn't know it'd be a toy at the time. But I thought, if I design a game with the foundations of "where am I, where am I going, how do I get there?" But I made it instead of exclusive to that community, I made it inclusive, so they could play it with their sighted classmates. And I thought that, that that could be a really interesting, you know, experiment, or brief, especially because in my process of interviewing, and speaking with folks in that community, I was really awkward. You know, I was like, still a few years out of high school. I was quite young and I was trying to be so nice that I would trip on my words. And it was just, it just felt very awkward. And I felt bad and guilty about that. And there was just all this shame. And so I just thought, "Man, we just need to it's just, it's just two different worlds, we just need to kind of create a bridge."

Ilana: You know, when we had this one girl that I followed, who's eight years old in fourth grade, and her name was Emily. And I had the pleasure been able to get to know her over the course of a few months. And she tested out the what ended up becoming the empathy toy. And she during recess, if one of the kids didn't come up and get her and said, "Hey, come play with us," then she would essentially just, she wouldn't necessarily participate in recess unless there was an active like introduction. And so there are just so many small barriers. And she was amazing. And her friends were amazing. And I remember the first time I tested the toy with the students. And the way that it works is it's an abstract wooden toy that you play blindfolded. And so one or more folks are given these abstract wooden toy pieces that have different textures, materials, there's not Braille, but it's very tactile. And it connects in hundreds of ways. And so we chose, you know, I can choose one of like hundreds of patterns. So Emily has this built pattern, and she's describing it to her, her classmate her one of her friends who has loose pieces. And so you can play this with a group of two or 200, we've now expanded it and there's there's actually 50 different variations of playing it. But at the core of it, is in five to 15 minutes, you end up getting huge insights into how you deal with patients frustration, and creative communication. And I'll never forget, when Emily started to play it, she was feeling these pieces, and I designed it so that half of the pieces, for the most part, you'd probably would feel like or look like an arrow or a similar to directional imagery. And I chose it the other shapes were abstract and didn't have a name. Because you're forced to kind of create a language for something that doesn't have a name. And I remember she picked one of the pieces. She was like, "this is a flower piece." And I was like, "how did you get to flower?" and her friend went, "No I don't think it's a flower piece."

Ilana: But okay, fine. We'll call it a flower and just even in that little nap, like negotiation of well, what are we calling? We're both talking about the same thing. We want to call it different things, but we're both talking about the same thing. Where do we spend our time? Do we get on the same common language? Do we continue to use our own preferences for how to communicate and so it just kind of opened this whole window into the possibilities of how far This could go. And so I would essentially during the day, test it with, you know, kids in elementary like younger years. And then I go to my studio at nights and test it with sighted the sighted adults. So anyone from you know, 20s to 50s in my class, some of them are like engineering grads, and this is like their second career. And they started playing, and they had probably the exact same frustration and conversations that Emily was having with her classmates. And that's what kind of sparked this idea that, you know, the toy could be for multiple ages. So right now we say it's ages, like "six to CEO" or "six to 99." You can learn everything about until 100. Like if you're 99, you can, there's still a window to still kind of keep keep learning these skills.

Ilana: But as a student, I saw the toy over and over again, just kind of elevator bring to life, these conversations that otherwise weren't having in a fun, playful way that we could get serious and uncomfortable, but still stay in kind of a safe place. And then the school I ended up between and winning this really prestigious design award. And then I was encouraged, like many designers are to find a company to sell my idea to. And yeah, the good news is no one was interested in starting an empathy company. So I ended up starting with myself.

Scott: Well, that's great. How are you? It's been great to see you all, you've done it for the listeners, you've done a TED talk, where you kind of do a example of the use of the empathy toy.

Ilana: So we play it live on stage. And I tell Emily's story and dive more into the design process. Yeah.

Scott: And you've got a YouTube channel to have some other videos where people are interested in that kind of stuff. So you made the jump from empathy to failure?

Ilana: Mm hmm.

Scott: How did that happen?

Ilana: There's a funny thing that happens when you put toys in front of adults, and then you tell them to play. They immediately, not all of them, but a large majority think that they're going to fail. February, they're going to do bad at empathy. It was such an interesting behavior. So the way that the product and then the business developed, I started 21 Toys. Because I was actually inspired by Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on do schools kill creativity. And I remember just like screaming at my TV screen or my computer screen, and just saying, Yes, 100%. And I thought, you know, I think toys have a place in school beyond kindergarten. And so there was a school that saw that that Ted Talk, and they put an order in. And that's how I was able to finance our first production run. But then when we would go into schools and demo the toy for the teachers, it ended up being a professional development workshop for the teachers. So right off the bat, it was just the age range was huge. And then we're just in so many different environments. So right now we're in over 50 countries, but in just as many schools as we are in workplaces, including banks and law firms. And then I started seeing more adults play. And that's when I started to see "Wow, they're really worried about getting this wrong." Like they're really there's a lot of anxiety around failing at empathy.

Ilana: And so almost every conversation where we talk about empathy leads into conversation about failure. And now that we have the failure toy, which we've mass produced throughout 2020. So we've just gotten them into everyone's hands. So many of conversation on failure, talk about empathy, and this idea of a different perspectives, and are there different ways to look at what failure truly means. So you can't really define failure without, you know, defining success. I have a plan for the next seven toys. But I think failure just felt like such a wonderful set like, next step past past empathy, because I think it just, there's so much stigma, and even just the way we define it can just be really damaging. So can we ask for a sneak preview on what the next great, great thing to take on would be? So unlike I think a lot of folks definitely would say 2020. And this past year, for sure. Empathy failure for sure. Our our joke internally is we've always had this as our plan for the third toy, but COVID will definitely be influencing this, it's going to be about improv. So improvisation. The way that I look at it is empathy. failure and improv are the design process. So empathy is research, failure, is prototyping and iteration. And improv is brainstorming. So it's being able to build on other's ideas. And for anyone that is creative, or inventing or making anything, those are the core three foundational skills that allow you to be an incredible creator and an inventor.

John: Um, do you find that people are surprised with the concept of failing? It seems like maybe we know that empathy is something we should be trying to teach or bring about. But failure is not something you hear people it's all about succeeding and grades. Can you talk a little about that?

Ilana: Yeah, I mean, I would say in music and sports failure is called practice, but we don't have a word for it, in the way that we learn. It's just this thing that's to be avoided at all costs. There's a study on creative genius out of NASA that I think there's also a TEDx talk on this, something like kindergarteners are like 90%, creative geniuses, and 21 years until the age of 25, less than 2% are still considered creative geniuses. It's educated out of us. And when we look at failure specifically, I mean, I like to say that school is a poorly poorly designed game, where we glorify marks, and so successes 10 out of 10, nine out of 10 is not success. It's closer to success than failure, but it's not success. And so we stop playing, and we start counting. And we stop asking why. And we start asking, you know, WIBOTT, which is what I like to say, it's just like, "will it be on the test." And everything is designed that way I was as a recovering a student, I figured out how to be good at school, it was not the same as being good at learning. And I think, right now, the a really interesting moment, we're in his school, I think, is struggling with it. Because the way it is designed, I mean, marks matter. We're not removing necessarily marks, but they tell a singular story. And so if that is the only measurement and the only way of success, then of course, that is going to be given a lot of attention. So I'd like to say that in school, we kind of practice for lack of better words, failure, abstinence, which is we don't talk about it, we don't teach it, we just hope everyone figures it out. And failure is not just conversation we should be having with quote unquote, the "F students," it's just as important with the "A students," the "students who have it figured out that are too scared to try anything new, because they might fail."

Ilana: So we kind of have this like lack of conversation in education. And then if you go into like the startup tech, entrepreneur space, it's all fail fast, fail often, you know, break things. And while I think that's really noble, and it's exciting that they're trying to rebrand failure, it's very intense, like, that's a very big leap. And we're not really getting into the middle part, which is, what failure truly means, which is how do we react to disappointment? How do we compare ourselves to others? How do we set up success measurements? How do we navigate feeling like we've let other people down? And that's all internal work? How do I react to all of those complex emotions? And then how does that interact with the other folks that I work and play with? So if I'm risk averse, but three other people on my team loves taking risks? How does it influence how I collaborate or how I show up? So the inspiration for the empathy toy was about multiple perspectives, and how do you see through other people's eyes, essentially, and create common language, the failure story builds on that. And the failure story is really about the game is set up so that you have always more than one group with the exact same puzzle pieces and the exact same challenge. And they are trying to build on an unstable structure. So there's this big wooden wheel. And you have these kind of triangular pieces, some of them have embedded magnets, some don't. And you're given five minutes to build a structure as ambitious, or as safe as you want. And you are encouraged, the riskier you get, the higher the reward. But the bigger the consequence, every time a toy falls, toy piece falls, you lose a point. But in addition to that, you change teams throughout the game, or you stay in your team, but the dynamics change. And so the failure toy is about building a story. So that you immediately are bought in for the most part, people really don't like seeing things fall. But you'll be really surprised if you're young or if you're older, in five minutes, how passionate and devoted you become to this structure that you just made balance. And the last thing you want to do is change it or take it apart or risk make change. And so that's where we really dive in with with the Failure Toy. So like the empathy toy, it's about creating an environment and using a game to spark conversations that we otherwise aren't having. And without saying this is the right way to do it, or this is the wrong way. It's really just we all have very different ways of interacting. So let's focus on better understanding our own reactions and behaviors and the behaviors of those around us.

Jay: So for a teacher or a parent that's listening to this and saying, I man, I want to get a hold of this tool. How much of the magic so to speak is I mean, obviously, the the tool itself is designed so beautifully and it for our listeners, a lot of the shapes are these geometric shapes made out of wood grain, which I want to ask you about later to how you've arrived there. But they're just beautiful toys and you can instantly see something magic about it. How much of the magic though is really in the toy and how much of it is in that conversation and the facilitation around the toy?

Ilana: Oh, that's such a good question. So I would say first off, I am not a facilitator. I went through the education system. I'm a designer, I would say with the empathy toy. Anyone can play that And get to a certain level of depth with a conversation. I did not understand the world of really of education or facilitation until I started 21 Toys. And I have seen situations that otherwise would have been maybe a few conversations back and forth, the ability for teachers, and coaches and facilitators to build from that is pretty phenomenal. So I think of it like any tool, it really it sets the stage for your expertise. So if you're novice, it's a really good jumping off point, to kind of get folks in a playful mindset where they're ready to talk. But it's also an opportunity for you to continue to improve and hone in your own facilitation if you're new. But we also have incredibly senior and experienced facilitators that not only use our toys in their program, but I mean, we've had schools create, we have a school that created an empathic leadership program with our toys, we didn't give them the guides to do that. What I like to say is, I think the second you put play into folks hands, you kind of give them the agency or the license to be creative. As a very small side note, when I was starting 21, Toys we have no investors. I'm a first-time female founder. So I paid for toy prototypes. I was a karaoke DJ. And so that's how I kind of funded the early prototypes. And I used to joke that with karaoke, people do not want to get on stage like some folks do. But the majority of folks do not want to get on stage. But if you find that one right song, and they sing it, they are not getting off that stage. And so I think I see the same thing with the toys, where there's this kind of "what is this? How do I ... Oh, I don't know, can I do this?" It's a complex. And then the second they start to use it, then we continue to get stories of all the different ways that toys are being used for anything from guidance, counseling, design, thinking, leadership, to we have a lot of folks in diversity inclusion that are using our toys. So it's quite agile in that way, which is really exciting as a designer just to see all the different ways it's being used.

Jay: Can we dig in a little more to that design? I mean, there when you look at these toys, Don't look at it, if you're driving, don't Google it. When you look at these toys, you instantly see I mean, they look so modern and relevant. And they also look like they could be 300 years old at the same time. How did you ... What was your inspiration there? How did you get to that point?

Ilana: Yeah, I'm so glad you asked. I don't get asked that. So often. That was a really, really important choice. So when I was in school, and studying design, there's definitely a preference towards plastic. And the early prototypes are in plastic. But I knew from day two of starting 21 Toys, it was really important for me for us to go the route of like ethical manufacturing, but also the the richness, it's we use like walnut and maple woods, which are just so wonderful. But the texture and the weights, and especially with the Empathy Toy, the feeling of it is so important. And so that's kind of continued on with the Failure Toy. But the other thing I want to say is when we talk about skills, like empathy, failure play, when I look at the tools that we use to teach different skills, so if we think about the STEM skills, we've got really expensive high end tools and materials. And then when we're teaching how to be nice, or design, it's usually string spaghetti, you know, marshmallows, there's nothing wrong with that. And incredible educator can make anything into a lesson. But I worry that that's giving us a conscious or subconscious idea that this is a nice to have. This isn't as serious, this isn't as important. So for every toy that I've designed, and also the future toys, they need to look like art, they need to look as valuable as the skills that we're trying to encourage. And so that was a that's a really, really important part of the brief. So I'm not done designing until they don't just function but they're beautiful. And speaking to Froebel and as an industrial designer, but what I love about the story of Froebel is he inspired Buckminster Fuller, he inspired Frank Lloyd Wright, he inspired so many designers and architects that understand the importance of material, not just for function, but the story that they tell. And it's so important for us that the story that we're telling are this is valuable, this is important, this is something we need to pay attention to. So I knew from day one that making sure that and I hear this from the failure story, especially which I'm really proud of is that it really does look like an art piece. It's just, we're trying to do a lot of things at once, but heavily heavily influenced by Froebel. And if you look at our packaging, the wooden box the way that it slides open, that's entirely taken as inspiration from the way that he designed his Gifts.

Scott: Well, I think more than just the cosmetic thing you've really nailed it because Froebel was about giving children simple, geometric wooden materials but to draw out of them their own ideas, which is all your stuff does it so beautifully. So did you know about Froebel much I mean what you would you had back then Kickstarter, which was great, but I never know how people come to find out.

Ilana: Yeah, it's crazy. I found out about Froebel, I had started 21 Toys, I started the idea and started writing about it. And what I did in my first year, because I never started a business before. age, gender, profession, none of those things were really rooting for me to be like, you can be an entrepreneur. That was not exactly what was being told to me. So I figured, I have no idea if I can start a business, let alone a social enterprise. I don't even know what that necessarily means. But I have this toy. And, you know, I was just trying to get a feel for what would it look like to even start a business? So I started writing, and I wrote about things that I had learned. So I started off with a lot of things from Sir Ken Robinson. But I also read about like Sudbury Valley Schools, and Rudolf Steiner is a big inspiration. And so I started writing more and more. And then I happened upon Friedrich Froebel.

Ilana: And I will never to this day, forget where I was sitting. what time of day, it was when I was like, "Yes, this is this is what I've been trying to do. And I haven't found the words for it." And it was incredible to me this idea that kindergarten was designed through a series of gifts, and not just through a series of like toys that he called Gifts, but that they inspired some of the greatest creative geniuses of our time. And just the thread of that gave its it gave me a framework and a validation for what we're doing. And also it's quite cheeky, because I think I believe that Froebel ... I don't think they came to fruition all 20 but he designed 20, I believe that he came up with 20 ideas, I think he only made, I think he only got to about 10 physical Gifts or so I'll lean on you, for fact checking that. But I like to say that with it was already called 21 Toys at that time. But I just thought that would be really amazing. We're like the 21st toy, we're just kind of picking up where he left off. And really 21 Toy stands for "21st century." So it's really about what the future of skills and and work and learning are?

Scott: Well, I think you have picked up on it. I think you know, these ideas about empathy and failure are things that Froebel hadn't really worked on. But you know, it's fascinating to me that designers when they stumbled upon it, they see it, they get it. And I think a lot of it has to do with that observation and empathy. I'm just amazed. I hate to say anything mildly negative. But I've been very frustrated that the early childhood community just doesn't want to take a look at the person that invented their field. I just I don't know why but but what I am encouraged by is that designers get it. As soon as they see it. They know what this stuff is and how it's meant to be used.

Ilana: I think, I think because designers are experts at doing things for the first time. And I think we're experts in doing things that are complicated and messy, and don't necessarily fit within a box when I extend that to like a toy designer or game inventor. The way that I like to describe it is, "I exist within the tension of contradictions." So I'm constantly trying to make people just uncomfortable enough that they're comfortable. So that like when I'm designing a game, the weird way that I'll test it is like, do they hate me right now, when they're playing with like, are they mad at me? And I it's a very subtle shift from being mad at me for the situation I put them into to being utterly bored and not understanding why they're there to laughing. And to just uncomfortable enough that they're laughing and they're learning. And there's that tension and that friction. And I think when we talk about innovation, you essentially you're holding two contradictions at the same time. And that's where that magic happens. So when we talk about empathy in the design process, as well, definitely as a design entrepreneur now. On one hand, I have to be I need to be humble, curious, open, what is it that you think I need to be really like like an anthropologist and incredibly curious and have no opinions. And then in the exact other hand, I need to be very, very clear on my vision, I need to know that no one's going to get this till I've created it. And I'm not getting any to have, you know, a healthy dose of arrogance or confidence. And I need to live in both of those worlds at the same time. I can't live in just one of those worlds. And I think that is very complicated. And so when we look at Froebel work it comes off is so simple. That's because it is allowing for complexity it is allowing for all those variables and that nuance in how we show up as humans. And it's really hard to fit that into a scheduled class, or a curriculum or a program or an environment that requires a lot more structure and repeatable outcomes and measurements. And so I actually think those two things are just very much intention where designers are about trying new things and reinvention. And I think a lot of the folks that end In institutions like designing for education, they can absolutely be creative. But I think there's a lot of gatekeepers that within it. And sometimes that that tension can encourage some incredible creativity and invention, but sometimes it can just mean that there's just a lot of pushback.

John: Yeah, I was reflecting on a lot of what you're saying, and the word play just keeps coming to mind. And I wonder if, you know, you talked about some of the workshops that people are just afraid, like the empathy, they're afraid of failing. And I wonder if people have forgotten how to play. And that's really at the heart of you know, because when you play, you know, worried about failure, right, like you're playing? Would you agree with that?

Ilana: I mean, with the Failure Toy ... I had a little moment, we were testing it with adults. And at this point, I have a team of educators, but also a lot of facilitators who, up until 2020, we're flying around the world running workshops. So we actually have a lot of examples of the early stage prototypes of the Failure Toy with adults. And I just thought, okay, when you play the Failure Toy, people are nervous, they're anxious, they get worried. And then we went into a grade four classroom, to start testing it with younger kids. And I was just like, this moment of like, we don't need to teach them failure. There's like, their fault, fine. I was like it, we ended up having a session asking them to give, help us give advice to the adults, who were so scared of playing with the Failure Toy. And they ended up giving us just some of the most wonderful insights, and to get over the fear and to be more playful and for failure. And I think when when we bring it failure now, and I'm so excited, because it's just really early days, that we've now got 400 toys out into the world and counting as of just a month and a half ago. So we're gonna, I'm really excited to hear stories, more of how it is being used in classrooms around the world. But already, we're just hearing that it's giving a space for kids to feel okay about the idea that they can play. And then we can talk about well, you know, competition. So they're building their own set, and they look over and then there's two other tables of kids whose toys are taller or when it's fallen over? And what does that look like or feel like? So there's a lot of opportunities to talk about, not just the fear of being of taking risks. But what does it feel like when you think that you failed? And every Failure Toy workshop ends with a question. So you've, you change the dynamics, play multiple rounds of game play, so you end up with a matrix where every player should, for the most part, have a different point system, because they're gaining and losing points based on the teams that they're in. But we can switch it up so they get different points. And so we end up at the end of every failure workshop with asking the group who won. And it's an entirely up to the group for each individual to recommend someone and they can run them recommend themselves or another player and give an example like given a reason for why they think that they won. And so we end up having these conversations saying, well, the one with the most marks should win. Well, no, it's affiliates are the wonderful, lowest marks. And then someone inevitably says, Well, what are the marks represent? And then we get into it. So that to me is one of the best values of the failure. Also, we have this really adorable failure award that says "Failure Award,"and it's, it's very beautiful.

Scott: Yeah, well, it's so inspiring, because I think everybody will agree, especially over the past year or two, that we need more empathy. And, you know, the reason why we're doing the documentary is that we started with this type of system for young children. And as you said, they they start out geniuses, we have to process it out of them. And if we can illustrate how that's been done through the system, I think, you know, if we could just take the pressure off, we'll get all of that genius back again. So it really is in to me, your company is the you know, the the Froebel inspiration for the 21st century, because you're you're focusing on those things that we definitely need more of. So I'm really excited to see what what's coming. And so you got seven ... see this is this is the intriguing thing I know of two of them, but you've got five more coming. So that's great.

Ilana: Yeah, I just need to figure out when I get to design them. Yeah, being a design entrepreneurs has been its own journey. I've learned so much. I essentially used what I learned in school about designing a product, and then I applied it to a business. So we've grown really, really organically and every decision we make is human centered. So after we made our first I would say, I made it my first 100 sales of our first production run. I immediately brought on board, a teacher. He's incredible. He's our director training facilitation now, Ryan. But he was in the classroom for 10 years. And so he came he came with me and we spoke to all of the teachers that were using our toys and we just said, Okay, well, you were excited about it. But did you use it? Like we know that you've purchased it, but have you .. what have you ... what has happened? And that's when we really started to see mostly, almost all of them said, "yeah, we use it for guidance counseling or use it with the kids, but I think we broke it, we changed the game." And then they tell us all the ways that they broke it, to make it into a different lesson. And we just thought, "No, you didn't break it. That's actually amazing." And that's what led to the guidebooks that we now have. So all of our toys come with guidebooks, and they're all crowdsourced from just all the different ways that the teachers have been using using the toys.

Scott: Are you compiling all of this feedback? I would love to read the book where you kind of outline all the things you've heard and learned.

Ilana: Yeah, well, I mean, the guidebook is a reflection of the different game elements. But as we're trying to figure out how to tell our story, as we're building the business, and as I'm designing the toys, I did write a Medium post about failing to launch the failure twice. So it was not supposed to take me three years to design. And I wrote about it, I'm happy to share that that medium post, but it's I found it, it was really interesting to reflect back on it, where I thought, okay, the way to design this toy is just to give myself a deadline. That's it, I just need a deadline, and then I'll finish it. And turns out, no, that's not what I what I needed was privacy. I was bringing too many people into the early stage of the design process and my design processes. I know what toys we're designing, but I haven't designed them yet. I've been giving myself the brief. And then I reach out to folks in education and in corporate learning and development. And then I asked them, and I interview them, and then that informs the brief. And then I start designing and I start creating. So yeah, I learned a lot about just the importance of when collaboration is appropriate. But also when collaboration when you're inventing something, can actually be a distraction, and can stop you from actually just listening to your to yourself. So we figured it out. But yeah, the failure toy. My joke is, if you ever think of designing a Failure Toy I don't recommend it, it's really difficult. Highly rewarding, but very, very difficult.

John: I was just curious for for people who are wanting to dive more into any of these topics, failure, empathy, obviously, you you provide a great platform and tool for that is there is there advice or, or things you would say to those people who are wanting to learn more, or move forward with some of these things.

Ilana: So one of the wonderful things that has come out of the world going online is that we now host two or sometimes even four times a month, we host free workshops. So we have folks, and I'm happy to share that link with you as well. We're actually playing tonight, so it'll be 8pm our time. So we've got a lot of folks who are in Australia, and are on the other side of the world who also use their toys. So they get to meet our team, and they get to play. So we do workshops with the empathy toys, we're able to play it online, it's introduced by one of our facilitators who introduces a topic around empathy. So we'll share different studies, or relevant things that are happening currently. And then we play and then we we get a lot of time to debrief and connect. So we've been offering that to our community for I think it's been a year as of like last week, but I think we're just going to continue to do that. It's just been a really nice way to connect with folks that have been using our toys for years, but also for them to bring, bring new people in. And I'd also say we've had folks bring their kids in. So sometimes they'll be playing the toy, and then their six or eight year old walk into the room. And instead of being like, No, I'm on a call. Like, hey, do you want it? Do you want to join? join in? Yeah, yeah, so we've had kids join into play as well. So yeah, um, we're always looking for more folks to join. We were really small team. So everything right now it's just through word of mouth. That's how folks hear about us. So yeah, be more than happy to extend that to your community. So

Jay: Do you have any dreams or ambitions to scale this, so everybody in the world can experience this?

Ilana: Yeah, I mean, our mission is to create the world's first global community of toy educators and facilitators. Up until March 2020. Everything we're doing was in-person. So our toys are used in-person, we run in-person workshops, and we do in-person training and certification, now that we've figured out how to play online. So we haven't removed the toys, we just instead of Santa Claus, where we show up with a bag of toys, and then run a workshop, we're now able to ship parts of the toy pieces. So unfinished, so you get about half a toy set, delivered straight to your home. And then you can go online, and you can play it with other folks who've had toys sent to their homes. But you don't even need a toy to play. So if folks wanted to join any of our we call them global play sessions. If you're a builder, you would need a physical toy. But that's only half the team, you can be a guide. And we have a digital toy library. So you're able to access online images and photographs of the puzzle that's being built. But it kind of opened this world where we can take photographs where each person is only given one perspective of the same pattern. So you're literally building with the lack of other perspectives. So there's a lot more creative ways that we can able to adapt to being online, we've launched certification. So for folks who wanted to use our toys, but actually embed it into their business, so a lot of coaches and facilitators run their own workshops. So we have certification that we've just launched, we've got folks from the US, Canada. And also we've also got some folks from from overseas who, who are part of our small cohort right now. So they're embedding the empty toys and running their own empty toy sessions with their clients. But we're using a lot of that work to then build out an online platform so that any, anyone really with a toy, can get immediate access to more online learning. And then we're probably going to start hosting more online learning labs, which we've done in the past. So I'm just kind of looking to how to build that out. So we're using the everyday choice, always our first guinea pig. And then anything we designed for the empathy toy, we just go. Okay, now we can do that for the failure twice. So yeah, we've already getting a lot of folks who are asking to get certified and trained, which you don't need to do, you don't need to have the training. But there's just, as you can see, there's a lot of learning and just so many different avenues and opportunities for the toys, that we're really excited to kind of start building online communities.

Scott: Well, it's exciting. I mean, I think it's great that you're able to, to take the lemons from the pandemic, yeah,

Ilana: I don't look scared, right? That didn't come across. It's gonna be super easy, not a challenge. Where I'm gonna be leaning a lot on our community. So we also have less for we have empathy testers and failure testers. So we also invite folks, if they want to come on the ride with us, we're going to start testing things over over the summer.

Scott: Well, it's great, you're doing a great job. And it's important work. I thought it was interesting in one of the videos, where you talked about as a budding industrial designer, you realized that the children were where you needed to put your focus because it would mean it would provide the most ...

Ilana: ... the most impact. Yeah, yeah, I mean, I, I just kind of always go back to when I was in school, I was, I wasn't born in Canada. And so I came here at the age of six. And I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I don't know if any of you if any of your listeners or any of you have heard of it, but it is a wonderful place to be from, but as a six year old, I was like, "Alright, day one is like day two." And and I knew my only way out of not just out of Winnipeg, but into my dream school was a full scholarship. And we just didn't have the financial means to get there. So I put that pressure on myself to be an excellent student, like an A+ student, I needed to get excellence roles,so I could get a full scholarship. And I just remember the way that my teachers encouraged me around math and science, I was in like accelerated math class. And that was great. But the second, I chose art as an elective instead of computer science, it was like I committed this sin. It was like, why would you do art? And I was like, why did you schedule art and computer science in the same time? And they're like, well, no one, we don't have anyone that's ever wanted to do both. And then they were shocked when I chose art over computer science. And so I just, it was just always, it was said out loud, or it was just, um, you know, subtly said, that's a hobby. That's like the art and creativity. Like that's cute. But that's not a career that's not that doesn't have anywhere near the same weight as these other classes. And that just, I just carried that through. So I think that's when we talked about the rage, it was just like, it didn't need to be that way. You know, we don't need to choose one over the other.

Scott: Well, having been in the toy business now for, I don't know, 35 years or so. There's a lot of people making a lot of stuff that ends up in a lot of landfills. And very, very few people, like yourself are actually doing this kind of work. So I just want to say again, that I'm just so impressed with what you're doing. And it's exciting.

Ilana: Oh, thank you for saying that. And I truly I think of the work that you're doing the stories that you're telling, and it's so exciting. When I saw your Kickstarter, I was like, we need to meet this person. I was like, I need to send him images. And I think you've ... you have built a story and given a language for ... it is crazy to me that not that more people don't know about Froebel and don't know about this history. Not just how it's influenced and shaped kindergarten, but the fact that like where Montessori schools have come from like there's just, we're surrounded by the influence of it. But we're so disconnected from it. And then when when I speak about the future of work and learning with other folks. I'm like the good news is we we've already solved this. Like how do we bring creativity how do we bring emotions into work and like we actually solved it, like kindergarten works. So we don't need to like reinvent the wheel. We just need to like I know keep the wheel going like let's just let's not say like so much of this idea that plays the opposite of work is crazy. The idea of it from a moment a kid is born to like this, you know the year before grade one. We know that play is part of their learning and development. No one's looking at a baby and saying like, "what's the return on investment? Like, what's the ROI on this like play session?"

Ilana: We know that it's valuable. And then we'd not only say, "Okay, well, now we're doing serious work, play is no longer part of that plays now recess." It's branded is kind of frivolous and unimportant. And that is the opposite of work. And so I think it's, I think we've actually solved for it. So it's not about necessarily reinvention. It's just about reorganizing, reorganizing the ways that we bring it back into the way that we learn and into the way that we work.

Scott: Well, but your story really isolates it, because as you mentioned, young children don't seem to have a problem with empathy or failure. But that something happens between that point and adulthood. And if there's any reason to do the story, it's to help people to focus their attention on those things that are, that are holding that down, that are, you know, getting rid of those things. And I think, once we eliminate that stuff, I think we we get back the natural empathy and playfulness, that we really desperately need right now.

Ilana: Yeah, and I also think, ideally, giving more agency and credit to teachers, because I don't know a single teacher that went into education that isn't because they want to develop the whole child like they want. They want these things as well. So yeah, it's just it's just figuring out how do we remove those barriers and those boundaries so that we can get back to the heart of it?

Jay: Well said,

Scott: Well, so inspiring to talk with her today. She's really doing some great work or whole crew.

John: Yeah, I just the importance of some of the things she spoke about, I mean, the importance of failure, the importance of empathy, and play, like those are the three words that I just that came through for me, and those are all things that Froebel, you know, was was leading towards. He may not have addressed failure specifically, or empathy. But that's what he was trying to get that learning process going. And she's exemplified it with what she's doing.

Jay: I definitely think Froebel would be smiling at her efforts, because it's pretty incredible.

Scott: Oh, she's definitely following the same path, you know, observing children, you know, asking the important questions that aren't currently being asked.

John: And we'll put all of the information to get in touch with her and what she's doing in her products and videos in the show notes for the people who want to check that out on our website as well.

Scott: So yeah, that was probably the most interesting part of the conversation for me was the effect of the pandemic was actually sort of a positive one, because now people from all over the world can join in some of these free events. And so I encourage everybody out there to take a look at that and get involved.

John: And just a quick shout out to everybody for for listening and for supporting us to, you can, you can continue to do that through our Patreon page learning. But uh, we just really encourage you to check out some of our other podcasts if you haven't done that already. And thanks for for listening in.

Scott: Yeah, and also, we are starting to put more things up on the Froebel USA YouTube channel. So if you guys go there, where people are asking questions, and we're trying to provide some of this until the documentary eventually comes out. We're gonna try to spoon feed it as much as possible.

John: And it's some good, good material. It's kind of like the top requested things that you're putting together. So it's a lot of good material that we're gonna be putting out there. Scott's our movie star of that.

Scott: I'm not taking the summer off after all, I guess. Anyway, well, we'll be back onto a fairly regular schedule now with the podcast. So thanks for joining us.

Jay: Thanks.


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