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Empathy Toy

Parents love to give their young ones toys and this one is not only great fun but also helps start interaction around emotions and empathy.

Photo of Alan Somerfield

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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)

Mentoring and End User feedback have been the two biggest influences on the design during the course of the prize.

The first prototype was not much more that a hand held widget but some input from a design and prototyping mentor (Robert Smith) helped me adapt it more towards a toy and dealt with factors like small fingers and giving the child more to hold on to and cuddle. This led to the prototype becoming part of a doll (acknowledgements to the use of a Tele-tubby at this point!) and also a prototype with wheels to rotate the expressions which will be easier to rotate for some children.

Further mentoring helped me focus more on the objective of the prize and the opportunity area I'm working in i.e. supporting parents. So as opposed to talking just about the features and benefits of the toy it was interesting to see it more through the eyes of the parents and how it helps them.

End user testing where the prototype was taken into a play group environment with 3-5 year olds also provided valuable insight during the course of the prize as to how children reacted first hand to the concept. Obviously due to safeguarding issues the only feedback I can publish here is written since photos/videos were not possible.

Name or Organization

Alan Somerfield


I'm in Lincoln in the UK but Empathy Toy could be available everywhere!

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)

From an evolutionary standpoint empathy is a valuable impulse that helps humans survive in groups. In American schools, this impulse has been lying dormant from lack of focus. But in Denmark, a nation that has consistently been voted the happiest place in the world since Richard Nixon was president, children are taught about empathy from a young age both inside and outside of school.

The Empathy Toy uses Emojis as the new global language of emotion that everyone understands and places it within reach of our youngest children so they can grow up with greater emotional understanding.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Empathy Toy aims to provide parents and carers with a toy that their young ones will want to play with but at the same time facilitates interactions about how the child is feeling in certain situations or environments. Because this is done through playing with a toy the child will be able to express themselves even before they are able to use verbal communication. The key point is that Empathy Toy allows these interactions to start at an earlier age and this can only help the child as they grow up. After all there are many adults who struggle with empathy so the sooner we can get our children started the better.

As well as being a toy that is used as part of general play it can also be introduced by the parent at a time when they may feel that there is an emotional issue that the child wants to communicate but either is unwilling or unable to to do so verbally. Parents could also be supported in how to best use the toy through instructions or web based information

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

If children and their carers don't know how to talk to each other about how they are feeling then one of the most powerful forces in nurturing and development is being wasted. Empathy Toy puts it right in focus as an important ingredient of a happy childhood leading to a fulfilling adulthood.

This toy solves a communication problem and facilitates conversations and relationships that might otherwise never get going.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

This idea is essentially about learning through play. The learning is about emotion and the play is the simplest form of fun and early learning through hand held toys. My aim is to bring this concept to market so that it becomes a widely used and everyone is encouraged to join in conversations about how they are feeling.

The plan is to prototype and test the product with end users and then improve the product based on that feedback. I plan to make contact with a number of playgroup/ carer / education and child hood development organisations in the hope of persuading them to carry out a simple trial. This would comprise me sending them a prototype with some supporting materials covering how to use the toy as well as a structured feedback form.

The important aspect will be to gather evidence from a wide variety of sources and look for the common threads in that evidence to develop the toy further.

Once the design is perfected and evidence is available from the trial case studies I would find some larger organisations who would be prepared to fund a larger trial. Some one like 'Roots of Empathy' in Canada could be a candidate for this. These larger trials would need some small batches of a few hundreds of prototypes and the trial might last 6-12 months.

It would be fantastic to see Empathy Toy being used in many different settings and would be great to get some evidence of it's effectiveness. Beyond that I would also market it to toy manufacturers who produce emoji based items and then Empathy Toy could end end up in every Toy Box in the world!

That would be brilliant!! :-) <<<<An Emoji !!!

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Both the parent and the child benefit but probably by different amounts and at different times.

For the parent there is the opportunity to introduce an emotion communication tool into the play environment to help find out how the child feels about certain things in their environment. For instance if the parent is unsure how the child feels about one of their friends they could perhaps use the toy to help uncover which friend has been causing problems. In an abuse situation it might uncover feelings a child has towards an adult.

Of course a toy is not the solution to all emotional problems but parents like to feel they are at least engaging with and helping their children as much as possible and Empathy Toy is another way of them feeling better and less worried about what is going on in their child's head!

In the first instance the child will benefit from the fun that the toy brings and then of course they also benefit if the parent manages to figure out what in the child's environment makes them happy or sad or angry etc. and can correct things.

In the longer term the child stands to benefit more since they have a better chance of growing up with a greater emotional maturity and all the benefits that brings.

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

In the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” protagonist Atticus Finch teaches his children that, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy—the power to understand perspectives other than your own—is an essential skill for all children to master, and it’s one of an important set of teaching strategies teachers should focus on. Empathy is foundational for building bridges between individuals, understanding each others’ complex emotions, gaining a diverse perspective, and leveraging relationships for collaboration and progress.

US president Barack Obama went so far as to claim in 2013 that the 'empathy deficit' was more of problem than the federal deficit.

Empathy Toy puts the subject of empathy firmly on the curriculum on children, their families and carers when they are just a few months old. Starting early gives the best chance of success.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Empathy Toy is a low cost item that could easily be put within reach of low income families. A simpler version would be just the head portion and made smaller to perhaps attach to a keychain.

Part of the plan is to use profits generated from sales in the mass market to support use of the toy in low income, under developed or charitable areas.

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

The innovation here is taking the emoji 'alphabet' from the virtual world and placing it in the real physical world of our youngest children.

Whilst some of us may not approve of all the social media messaging that has become part of modern society it has provided us with a new emoji language that almost every now uses to some degree or another and is definitely here to stay. I bet most of us have used a :-) at some point!!

There are tools such as visual aids on the market that allow the variation of facial expression but these are cumbersome and more at home in the classroom that in the lap of a child.

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

The model would be similar to that of any new educational toy except that in addition to being sold to the end users directly it could also be provided within care environments by the care providers for children to access free of charge. It is also hoped that the toy can succeed in the mass toy market and the then the profits from that activity could to support provision of the toy on an FOC basis to low income groups.

It is interesting to note that even though this toy is aimed at 0-3 all the older children who I have showed it to have engaged quickly with it and use it in a more advanced way by mixing up different eyes with different mouths. Then conversations start about what different expressions might mean and how they connect with the way a person is feeling.

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

I am a product deign professional with 30 years experience of designing and manufacturing consumer products. Therefore the feasibility of this from a production perspective is well understood.

The key players who are need to support the success of this project are:

1) Play groups / Early Learning Centres / Carer groups etc to conduct pilot studies
2) Manufacturer - most likely in China to keep tooling and production costs down.
3) Financial support to fund trial production
4) Mass market toy businesses to market and sell the product at retail. (Profits from this activity to support provision to low income or charitable groups etc)

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

The business model is the straightforward one of manufacturing innovative ideas for sale to the high volume consumer market. The manufacturing would be done in a low cost economy like China so that it can be sold profitably in developed countries such as the US.

As mentioned above the pan would be to generate profits from mass market toy sales to support work in more underprivileged areas.

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

The doll prototype was given to the staff of the St Peters Out of School child care centre to test out with the children who range in age from 3-6. Whilst this is slightly older than the target age group it was still worthwhile.

The toy was presented to a group of half a dozen 4-5 year old boys without any long introduction just to see how they responded to it. Of course the first thing they saw was that I had used a Telly-tubby body as a quick (and cheap) way to get a prototype made! However the attention soon shifted to the fact that the facial expression could be changed.

The first finding was that the children had no problem manipulating the expression rollers by using their fingers directly through the apertures in the face. This was good news as I had been concerned the children might find this level of manipulation difficult.

Each child was asked to change the expression to that which matched their mood and not surprisingly they all selected the happy faces since they had just been given a new toy to play with.

When asked to make other faces they were fascinated to try different expressions and talked to each other and their carer about what expression meant. This is the main objective of the toy in that it helps people become less sensitive to or concerned by different facial expressions and move more easily to talk about the feelings behind the expression.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

I'm an industrial designer and I've been designing, prototyping and manufacturing consumer and engineering products for many years. This is my first venture into the early childhood space and I was attracted to it because my 'day job' in construction is more commercially motivated and doesn't provide the opportunity to work in a more altruistic manner.

So as an early childhood 'novice' I looked around for some areas of best practice and was interested in the work around empathy highlighted in the book 'The Danish Way of Parenting' and it's focus on teamwork and empathy. I'm particularly interested in emotional maturity as I have come across many instances of a lack of it in adults that has caused problems.

Pondering how to bring emotional interaction into a 2 year old's world obviously raised the question of how you could make a toy serve a higher purpose than just play i.e. emotional education. Looking for other trends it was not long before I saw the emoji alphabet as a way of doing this and how I could use my product design skills to produce a toy that used emotion.

It is interesting to note that the word emoji comes from the Japanese word for picture and is nothing to do with the word 'emotion'.

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

With the right contacts in the early childhood space together with a modest amount of financial aid I would able to organise the next stage of pilots as I have already described in the planning section. I'm hoping that this great community can help me with this!

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)

If you are involved with carer and parenting groups which could organise a trial with this toy across a few hundred children in multiple regions then I would love to get in touch with you. I could get a small number of trial toys made and we could start gathering some evidence as to the effectiveness of the toy.

If any of you need a product designer who knows manufacturing then I'd love to help.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

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

How to organise trials and pilots in care environments and how to raise the money to get a small number of toys made.

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).

I'm an ideas guy.

I say that ideas are the easy bit - the hard part is finding a problem worth solving and this is what this challenge has allowed me to so I am thankful for that!

I just love designing stuff but I also know how to get products manufactured in the commercial world and love dreaming up business models to promote my ideas.

You can see my day job profile at

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

[Optional] Video: You are invited to submit a 30-60 second video that introduces you and/or your team and your idea.

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

My mentor helped my focus more on the opportunity are and how this product would benefit the parents as well as the child. My roots are in product design so that is my comfort zone so it was valuable to have someone looking in from outside to guide my focus more towards to objectives of the challenge.

Name or Organization

Alan Somerfield


Join the conversation:

Photo of Yaser Alhindi

I liked the idea, very impressive!

Photo of Alan Somerfield

Thanks for you support Yaser - I hope to get support to move this idea forwards from this community!

Photo of Severine Sadeleer

Hi Alan,

I read your idea with interest!
And it made me think of Ashoka network, they believe a lot that managing to develop ampathic skills into young children is key to a better humanity. Have a look at what they do and let me know if it helps.

Photo of Alan Somerfield

Hi Severine,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes the Ashoka 'Every Child Practicing Empathy' initiative is very relevant to the idea I am pursuing. Do you have any contacts there that I could reach out to perhaps?

Many thanks and a Happy New year to you,


Photo of Severine Sadeleer

Hi Alan,

Sorry for my late answer. Yes, I do know people who work at Ashoka Uk. What do you want out of Ashoka exactly so I can try to guide you better?



Photo of Alan Somerfield

Hi Severine,

Thanks for getting back to me. If there is someone at Ashoka with experience/insights into Early Childhood development then I would love to reach out to them and get their feedback on my idea. It looks like a great organisation!



Photo of Severine Sadeleer

Hi Alan,

Sorry it took me a while to answer you. I will share your idea with 2 people I know who work at Ashoka London and will let you know their feedback.

Talk to you soon


Photo of Alan Somerfield

That's great and thanks a million for supporting my idea! All the best , Alan

Photo of Robert Smith

Hi Alan,

This is a valuable idea with a lot of potential! I agree that there is clearly a need to build empathy early on. Playgrounds could do with fewer bullies...

I can imagine a child reacting to the toy differently, playing with it or not, depending on which "face" is showing when it's made available to them. Does this suggest having the "happy face" as the default state, perhaps through spring detents or weighted components?

I can also imagine interesting reactions to "mixed expressions" such as happy eyes/sad mouth. Would this cause confusion with very young children? And with children old enough to talk, do you think this would prompt "teaching moments" about insincerity?

How large do you envision this toy? Does your design have thumbwheels connected to the rotating drums or are they large enough for the child to poke a finger in to spin them? Does that expose pinch points that you might want to mitigate?

Could there be a doll body to attach to the face for older children to extend the play capability?

Cool idea, good luck! -Robert

Photo of Alan Somerfield

Hi Robert,

Apologies for the delayed response but have been busy prototyping and I'll be posting some content soon - although photos of children are more difficult to get since the parents need to approve their use on the internet!

Yes I think detentes are a great idea as is making a body which will give something more to hold on to. Mixing the expressions up is interesting - for instance scowling eyes with a smile looks mischievous!!

Thanks for you support,


Photo of Iliriana Kacaniku

Hey Alan Somerfield 
Welcome to the Early Childhood Innovation Prize. I read your idea with great interest and I think you are trying to build a valuable skills among children at early age. As I read your idea, I thought of a similar solution already in the platform, Octobo - a toy that can actually respond to feedback from children and truly engage them in genuine interactive play. Since you are at a very early stage of innovation, I'd highly encourage you to connect with Yuting Su , the founder of Octobo, who could share with you her experience with developing Octobo from a concept to a full-product. Also, feel free to reach out to us for any question you may have.

Best regards,

Photo of Alan Somerfield

Hi Iliriana Kacaniku ,

I shall certainly get in touch with Yuting Su about Octobo - a toy that can actually respond to feedback from children and truly engage them in genuine interactive play. I'll be interested to here where their story started and how it has developed along the way.

I'm aiming Empathy Toy at the very youngest children to be suitable as a first handheld plaything similar to a rattle or teething ring. Research has shown that one of the first things a new born baby can recognise are the 2 circles of a parents eyes so I think it is never too early to bring expressions in to playtime.

Do you have any contacts who may run care environments where I might trial this toy if I get some prototypes made?



Photo of Calistus

Dear Alan,
The emotional well being of any child is very important and early development also important. It is a good idea. Using physical objects to express emotional and psychological states. Thank you.

Photo of Alan Somerfield

Hi Calistus,

Many thanks for your kind words - I see the empathy toy as a way of bringing together the complicated issues of emotions with the simple pleasure of play.

Thanks, Alan