by • May 20, 2013 • UncategorizedComments (0)2175

Unexpected Lessons in Communication and Empathy

For the past two weeks, a 10 piece 3 dimensional abstract building game has been the centre of intense and unexpected learning in my classroom.

The game has 3 players, 2 are blindfolded. The third player is the class who must remain silent throughout the game.

We began the game with a discussion of empathy. I was surprised at the number of students who could define empathy. Clearly, the emphasis on character education in our province has begun to take hold.

The premise of the game is simple enough. While the two players are blindfolded, a third player builds a structure for one of the blindfolded players. That player must describe the structure to the other blindfolded player who must build it.  The atmosphere throughout this game was intense. Sometimes the entire class sat silently, completely absorbed (and frustrated) watching for as long as 30 minutes until the builders experienced success. This has been, without question, the most powerful tool for teaching communication that I have ever come across.

At the end of two weeks, I asked students to reflect on what the experience of 21Toys had been like for them, as well as what they had learned about communication, empathy, and what it must be like to be blind. Below are a few of their responses.


The experience of playing the game 21Toys and watching someone else play was extremely different as when you were playing the game you were in control and experimenting was an option. This was an amazing experience as you were placed in a blind person’s shoes and I believe your thinking process was different. Although one of your senses was disabled, your mind thought ideas through more thoroughly resulting in a different perspective on things. Overall I benefited from this experience as now I can understand certain circumstances in a different way which affects my ideas and thinking path. I learned that communication is one of the most important things to excel at in life as without it certain things may be unclear and this may affect where you end up in life. Talking is a must, without it you will suffer and may not solve the problem. On the other hand, when you are observing a situation keeping quiet may be the best choice; placing yourself unneeded in a problem is not necessary it will just complicate your life and others.

When the first two people were in the “hot seat”, it made me think that when I was in the hot seat, it would be easy. This was just not the case! The game looks so easy when you are watching someone else doing it, but it is just not true.  The game was very challenging, describing the figure to someone else made me frustrated when they didn’t understand what I meant, and when I was trying to build the figure, I got so frustrated when I didn’t understand what they meant. So I think the best way to “win” the game is to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. After I tried this technique, the game went a lot smoother, and my partner and I actually got the puzzle done much quicker.

I have experienced playing the game , but I have not experienced success. Mostly for the reason that I was stopped, honestly, I think I could have gotten the puzzle with the pieces that were given to me.  It is a difficult task but if you can explain what you are feeling to the person in a very understanding way, chances are you will have success. But I think it’s very fun. Personally, I enjoyed the experience. Observing the actions that are taking place and being able to spot what they did wrong made watching the game enjoyable. Some people have a hard time sliding pieces into place such as myself, but I like that the game is frustrating and the more frustrated you get makes the end result amazing. Also, I love the fact that it’s a communicative game and it shows you how well people are at giving and receiving instructions. I was never good at that.

I learned that in explaining to someone that can’t see the same thing as you, that every little detail is important and how everyone infers things differently. When people can’t see the same thing, both people try to put a mental picture in their heads and almost always its different from the others’.

Even though I didn’t get to experience putting the toys together or give instructions, I still got to watch other people try it out. I got to see other people’s reactions when they solved the puzzle and when they didn’t solve it. I realized when I was watching … was how some people worked well together and some did not. I have also learned that sometimes in life things don’t go as planned but you can’t give up because of one little bump in the road, you have to try to figure out a way.

I learned that both the person that had to give instructions and the person that had to build the object had very hard jobs and they both had to have good communication with each other. They had to have confidence but not too much because what happens is you get so confident that you mess up. I also noticed that when two people were partnered that didn’t get along or didn’t really talk to each other much then it would take them longer to complete the puzzle or they didn’t complete it.

For me 21 Toys was a learning opportunity. It helped everyone get a better understanding of empathy…. As a participant I learned that to be a good communicator you have to be able to picture yourself as the other person to truly understand how you need to explain it.

21 Toys has been amazing and a real eye opener.  It has taught me many things, for example, after using the first set of toys that were given to our class I have learned what it must feel like to be blind by taking away our vision and putting us into a situation where we had to use our words instead of actions to create the shape. As an observer I now have empathy for blind people or the visually impaired. After watching peers struggle to describe with their words how to make a creation I now understand that it is a much more difficult world for the visually impaired. As a participant, I was the one who was extremely confused and frustrated.  When I used to think of blind people I didn’t pay attention to the most important part. That they can’t see.  I used to think that they could see everything that was happening, but their eyes were closed. Now I know that they can’t see at all but their communication skills more than make up for their inability to see. The game and the blindfolded part really showed me what it feels like. That is the moment when the definition of empathy was truly revealed in my head. That is the moment I will always think about when I see or think about visually impaired people.

As an observer it was very hard not to speak up and help them because to us it looked so easy.

What I learned about communication is that different people need to be communicated to differently. … I also learned to keep the person calm when communicating with them because if they get frustrated then havoc will be struck in your operation of building the object.

I like how the designers for the mind game made the pieces, for an instructor they could be completely in the blind about the pieces and how they are until when they actually start to notice that there were little metal bumps on one of the pieces and then it got harder to communicate. I felt so much pity for the receiver not knowing what the shape looked like.

My ability to have empathy for other people has changed greatly due to this game.  This is because when you describe a shape you have to think “okay he can’t feel what I’m feeling” so you have to dig really deep and use all of your senses to describe this shape really well to the other person building. … Well communication is very important when playing this game  because of all the small details. So the explainer had to think really hard with his or her senses to really figure the shape out. Once you have done this you have to put into words what you know about the shape for the other person to build your description. So I taught myself that you have to be very specific but at the same time very smart with words.

21 Toys was a very different game from what we do in everyday life. You feel as if the normal explanation of something was not going to work so you have to use different ways to get the person to understand.  This really makes you somewhat frustrated … you have to find a new vocabulary and explain it differently.  You also have to check up on them a lot because you can’t see the person so you have to make sure you’re on the same page and to do that requires a lot of questions that in the audience sounds very repetitive but when you are actually doing it you realize that what you have to do to be successful is experiment. For me the game was a way of realizing that we have to use different strategies but they are useful because we have to use this in real life so I think it was a very good way of understanding communication in a whole new way.

The game really made me feel empathy instead of pity. I never really knew what it would be like to be blind and even with the game I don’t think we can fully understand what it is like to be blind, but it does give you a sense of the challenges of being blind.

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