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Empathy Exploratorium

A tangible ecosystem to cultivate empathetic skills between children, parents and families through exploratory activities.

Photo of Svenja Richter
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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

I entered the EC challenge with a set of activities to foster empathetic skills between children. During the process of the EC Prize (feedback from my mentor, further conversation with parents, teachers and friends) I started to realise that this is an opportunity to show the possible impact of social emotional interventions so I started to conceptualise a series of interventions to foster empathetic behaviour between children, parents and families to intervene against an increasing lack of empathy in our society. Children as young as five are struggling to read other’s emotions, and becoming less empathetic. This is seen as one result of the increasing time they are spending with smartphones and tablet devices. The effect on children’s future development is massive. Empathy, is the foundation of our social life and makes society possible in the first place. A study led by Sara H. Konrath of University of Michigan found that college students’ self-reported empathy levels have been declined over the past 30 years, with an alarming drop in the past 10 years. [Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-Analysis. S. Konrath, E. O’Brien and C. Hsing in Personality and Social Psychology Review. Published online August 5, 2010.] This study visualises a transformation in our social abilities and also demonstrates how important it is to be tackled from an early age on because a child undergoes a striking physical and psychological development from birth to six years of age. From the age of two children start to develop their social behaviour so starting with simple activities from this age is definitely plausible. Responsive and nurturing parenting is the key to optimal early childhood development. It allows the young brain to develop in a way that is less aggressive and more emotionally stable, social and empathic. This ecosystem could help to cultivate a greater ability in relationship skills, self-awareness and social awareness within a global society. The prospect in this project lies in the opportunity to empower many people with the societal skills we need in the time of digitalisation, starting with the generations born into this adventurous digital era - children. This is just the beginning of an increasingly important mission to share the passion for empathy and social interactions by empowering a universal community through accessible and intuitive tools to cultivate empathetic skills in exploratory and engaging experiences.

Name or Organization

Svenja Richter


I am based in London (UK). Testing in UK, Germany, Switzerland and plan to do first trials in US.

What is your stage of development?

  • New Innovator, with less than one year of experience in ECD


  • Individual

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

The goal is to cultivate empathic skills between children, parents and families in this critical stage of early child development, in order to build a foundation for social skills and to empower them for the technologically enhanced environment they are growing up in and beyond.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

The Empathy Exploratorium will be a tangible ecosystem for children, parents and families to grow together in their social emotional skill set. The idea is to foster understanding of listening, emotional perception and perspective taking through exploratory activities and engaging experiences for example through encouraging children to make their own. One part of the Empathy Exploratorium ecosystem will be located in an educational environment. Children have the opportunity to learn empathic skills with each other, supervised by a trained professional, the teacher. The current state of the art is to be taught social skills through storytelling and pictures but there are not many activities through which children can explore and learn those skills together in an engaging activity. The other part of the Empathy Exploratorium ecosystem will be woven into the family culture. By starting to engage parents from an early point on enables them to create a culture of empathic relationships with each other. This will be guided by encouraging activities for parents and stimulating parent-children interactions in which they build and create together. The system envisions a modular structure so it grows with the child/children which also elevates the interaction of younger and older siblings through which younger children learn much faster as seen in mixed age group classrooms. The activities are usable universal as there is nearly no language (in written form) involved which m

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Empathic traits have declined over the past 30 years. We need empathic skills no less than previous generations, especially as we spend more time in a digital bubble. It is important for children to develop these skills from an early age, because of the potential impact on their development.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The Empathy Exploratorium fosters face-to-face interactions which are crucial in the early child development to learn empathic skills such as emotional perception. Children are less able to learn how to read facial expressions through a screen then in face-to-face interactions with another person. The first pillar in the Empathy Exploratorium ecosystem is therefore the empowerment of parents. I learned from my research at Family Links (Annette Mountford) how much a relationship between parent and child can get damaged when the parents don’t understand the principles of empathic behaviour. If they don’t know how an empathic relationship and communications with their child should feel like it will be hard for the children to learn it as there is no direct role model. The ecosystem guides the parents to build an empathic relationship between them and fosters an understanding of the principles of empathy through little empathy challenges woven into their daily routine. The second pillar is called the Empathy Exploratorium FamilyKit. This kit is for children from birth to 6 years and focuses on building a culture of empathic interactions and an atmosphere of trust through activities in which parents build with their child/children their first simplified Empathy Exploratorium based on shapes and colours. Through this playtime they start to learn first aspects of listening to each other and self-awareness. This encouragement for face-to-face interactions creates a social experience which is transferable to other activities for example while traveling in a car. The children close their eyes and listen to a parent who describes something they can do with their hands - a moment of empathy between parents and/or siblings. The third pillar is called the Empathy Exploratorium HeroKit which consists three activities and focuses on the educational environment (but is not only limited to it). Each activity focuses on a different aspect of empathy. The first on relationship skills, the second on self-awareness, and the last on social awareness. Through a playful and exploratory process they expand their understanding of human interaction and the impact of their behaviour. Relationship skills This is an activity for two children. One child is blindfolded, they are the follower. The other child is the guide, who has to direct the follower to place balls on a board to create a picture together. Only when they listen to each other can they achieve the goal. Self-Awareness This activity gives children the space to reflect and discover their own, and another’s emotional language. They have to express emotions to each other through facial expressions and then choose eyebrows, eyes and mouths to fit the emotion. Social Awareness Activity cards show different scenarios with a character. The children have to guess how the character might feel in this situation and then place an Emostone on the board. If they chose the correct Emostone they are allowed to move their piece forward by the number of places on the card. The activities from the FamilyKit and HeroKit are modular so younger and older siblings or friends can play it with each other and learn from each other. Future development could include instructions on how to build empathy exploratorium in nature to engage a group of children in exploring their surrounding.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Children = Through a playful and exploratory process they expand their understanding of human interaction and the impact of their behaviour. Throughout their live they will develop these skills and help them to deal with challenges. Teachers = have difficulties to teach social skills in an engaging way. These tools can support them to foster empathic skills between children in a playful and tangible way. Families = involving them in the process of encouraging children social skills will also support them to build a stronger relationship with their children. I also realised that adults have a lack of understanding of what empathy/empathetic behaviour actually means so this will be an opportunity to refresh their social skills. Many people = A growing social awareness and empathic interactions will be especially important regarding the trend towards megacities and co-living in urban environments.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

In the longterm I hope that the seed of the Empathy Exploratorium leads to a wider positive societal perception of the value of empathic interactions with each other and also the positive impact on collaborations for example in generating innovative ideas and business efficiency. A growth in social awareness will have a positive impact on how we live together, how we interact with each other in private and in public with strangers and how we communicate.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Unique idea on translating the abstract and intangible topic of empathy into tangible experiences with a societal learning impact. Just by doing this project I stimulated many discussion with people around me, with visitors at exhibitions where the activities were displayed and at the workshops. Many people feedback (especially teachers) that this is very much needed to help them teach social skills to children.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Empathy is a topic of importance to all children. I would like to work with as many children, schools, families, parents, grandparents or organisations as possible. I am thinking of a system in which schools that buy the Empathy Exploratorium can gift one to a school in another community. And also an open source version so people could download instructions and build the kit themselves with materials they have.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

This project was turned into a two day empathy workshop with 25 children at the Museum of Digital Art in Zurich, at the invitation of We Are Play Lab, a non-profit organisation aiming to reimagine learning in the 21st century and empower children to fulfil their potential. The success of the workshop has begun discussions about implementing these activities into the learning objectives of primary schools in the UK. To validate the impact of the activities for an educational context I developed a self-reporting approach to measure emotional intelligence, and referred to the work of Carsten Zoll and Sibylle Enz (A Questionnaire to Assess Affective and Cognitive Empathy in Children). The project was made up of three activities to cultivate empathic skills. The questionnaire I designed assessed this learning: before and after each activity the children were asked to imagine scenarios in which they behaved a particular way, they then used a pictured emotion scale of how their behaviour might make a friend feel. There are two schools in Switzerland which are interested in taking part in a pilot project to test the Empathy Exploratorium long term.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

I did several participatory design sessions with experts (Annette Mountford, Jan Casey and Cristina Riesen), teachers, nurses and parents to help define the idea. When the first concepts were embodied I tested them with children and based on observations of how the they interacted with the mock-ups I iterated and developed them further. For example the first few generations of the self-awareness frame was too detailed. Sliding the cards in the slot was possible for adults and teens but younger children haven't yet developed the precision that was needed. Also the magnetic holding version was a total flop. Fixing the facial expressions as little cards on a stick like a ring binding made it very simple to change the facial expressions but the whole tool was still a bit too heavy for a children hand. That's when the cardboard version evolved and this also enabled children to make their own and adapt it to their needs (left or right hand preference). After each iteration I went back and tested how the changes got perceived which was very insightful for me, especially since it was the first time for me to work with children. An approach close to the user was therefore very important to me to understand and learn from early mistakes (such as pins as prototype elements) This work was the most rewarding I have ever done because children can be brutally honest which helps a lot when refining your idea and also warms your heart when they ask you when you are coming back with more activities :)

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

I would describe myself as an empathic observer and critical thinker with a passion for empathy, social interactions, cultures and future scenarios. Recently I started to explore the ethical issues surrounding artificial intelligence. And now that I mention this here I think it would be probably very interesting to explore this topic with children together. During my Master I spent half a year in New York and half a year in Japan. While living in those two contrasting cultures I realised that people spend more and more time communicating with each other via digital medias (especially in Japan) but less through face-to-face interactions. Some even feel intimidated by just knocking on people's door without texting before. So while I discovered people's behaviour in various cultures (also in Europe) I started to read about the shift in social interactions and how it impacts us. I found it very fascinating and now I have a little collection of books, a lot of pdfs on my laptop and a ton of articles saved on my phone. The most disturbing paper was actually the one from Sara Konrath which stated that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years which I found shocking and mainly motivated this project. I decided to focus on children because the possible impact on children’s future development was a great opportunity to intervene and it is very refreshing and inspiring to work with children. I believe that the early stage in children development is our opportunity to build the foundation for social skills and to equip them for the technologically enhanced environment they are growing up in and beyond.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

I am happy to be able to work with very kind people that guide me with feedback and input but I would be keen to collaborate with people more closely to elevate the activities to the next level. I am open for suggestions. At the moment I am thinking of: Social entrepreneur (business advice) Educational experts (activity iteration advice) Social/ Behavioural Researcher (Validate impact of activities > questionnaire) People that know where and how to manufacturer the first sets of Empathy Exploratorium activity collections

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

In the next steps I would like to send instructions to organisations working with children in the US to learn what might has to be adapted to the different cultural context compared to where I tested it already (Germany, UK, Switzerland). It would be great to be able to connect with organisations, schools, families, etc. to send material and gather feedback.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

Social entrepreneur (business advice) Educational experts (activity iteration advice & how to address it to the educational context) Social/ Behavioural Researcher (Validate impact of activities > questionnaire) People that know where and how to manufacturer the first sets of Empathy Exploratorium activity collections

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc). (Portfolio)

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

The mentorship was very useful to me. I learned a lot about possible ways to push the original idea forward. It was also very useful to hear feedback on which part of the idea wasn't clear in my application. It was great to get

Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

The original idea has changed from a single activity kit for children to the idea of building a whole ecosystem around cultivating empathic skills between children, parents and families. I would love to bring the idea forward of a system that grows with the children and fosters a culture of empathic relationships in early child development and beyond. I see the current stage as a starting point and I am looking forward to meet with interested people to develop it further and hopefully reach as many people as possible.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Iliriana Kacaniku

Hey Svenja Richter 
Welcome to the Early Childhood Innovation Prize. We're thrilled to host your idea and help it grow through our human-centered design approach and toolkits. I enjoyed reading about Empathy Exploratorium solution and agree that building empathy in children from the early childhood is becoming increasingly important in times when human relations are being influenced and driven by technology more than ever before. Since the Early Childhood Innovation Prize seeks to support solutions that will maximize every child's potential in the US during the first three years of their life, I am curious to learn how can Empathy Exploratorium be used to benefit children at this age range? Is there a minimum age when parents and child-care providers can apply this tool with their children of other age cohorts?
Since the Prize is built on human centered design methodology, based on which we have developed the toolkits for innovators like yourself, what did you have a chance to collect and then integrate the user feedback into the solution?
Lastly, since the Prize focuses on the solutions that can be implemented in the US, I would like to learn about your vision to launch Empathy Exploratorium here as well? Our Localization toolkit. Let me know how else can we help.

Looking forward to learn more.

Photo of Svenja Richter

Dear Iliriana,
Thank you for your feedback and stimulating thoughts. I developed the idea of the Empathy Exploratorium further and I tried to answer some of your questions.

On your point on how the Empathy Exploratorium will benefit children in their first 3 years of their life:
I would like to build a tangible system which focuses on children, parents and families to grow together in their social emotional skills. One part of the system is to help parents develop an empathetic understanding and awareness with each other. This will help them to be a role model and guide for their children from an early age on. The Empathy Exploratorium FamilyKit will build up on this by facilitating and stimulating a culture of empathic interactions and an atmosphere of trust between children and their parents through face-to-face activities. From my research I have learned that it is important to engage parents in the learning process of children as it is an important aspect of their relationship and children’s further development.

On your point on how I was weaving in user feedback into my solution:
I tried to do as much testing with children as possible and as soon as I had the first prototypes which were child friendly (not so easy as I learned). I started with gathering feedback on my early prototypes from teachers, kindergarten nurses, parents and experts (Annette Mountford and Jan Casey). This was very helpful as they were able to give me insights on where the difficulties are lying in existing methods such as storytelling which is used a lot in schools. These methods were lacking of exploratory activities which activates children to observe these skills with each other. Right now these skills are being taught on them instead of creating an environment through which they can observe and learn it with each other. I think this is very important in this context because of the significance of face-to-face interactions to learn these skills.
These insights were leading to the idea of developing activities that encourage and empower children through exploratory activities and it was great to see that these activities where also attracting adults.
Also the testing with children was very insightful as I was lacking a bit of an understanding on how much children's fine motor skills are developed at this age (at that stage the focus was on children from 7-11years). So I did a lot of prototype iterations to find a way which has the least handling barriers for children to reduce the aspect of frustration. At the moment I am developing ideas for children between 0-6 which will focus more on shapes and colours to foster the aspects of empathy like listening to each other and self-awareness.

On your point on how this might be implemented in the US context:
I haven't had a chance yet to test it in a US context but if you might be able to connect me with organisations, schools or parents who are open to test it I would be more than happy to send instructions of the simplified activities over and meet up for conversations to learn more about their experience.

Please let me know if you have further questions and thank you for taking your time. My ambition is to be able to empower many people through the Empathy Exploratorium and beyond. It is a great opportunity to be able to push this further through the feedback you provide.

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