TiffinTalk aims to lure kids away from electronic devices and helps them realize the power of one-on-one conversations.Co-founder Kat Rowan and her business partner designed a series of colorful card collections to encourage safe, gentle and loving conversations between adults — parents, guardians, teachers, school counselors — and children. The cards ask children questions and let them come up with their own answers, reassuring and empowering them if they’re feeling lost, lonely, hurt, afraid or voiceless.
There’s something to be said for Rowan’s low-tech approach. Research published by the Brookings Institution notes that the use of tech toys prevents children from advancing their vocabulary: 3-year-olds are less likely to follow the plot of a story with an e-book than they are with a traditional book.
“Other researchers specifically note that children who talk with their parents do better in school,” said Rowan, CEO and creative director of TiffinTalk. “Factoring out enrichment classes, extra curricula and access to expensive tech and toys, it came down to … TALK.”
TiffinTalk cards, which are packaged for distinct segments of a child’s school experience, are tools to encourage language development, academic success and stronger relationships via talk, said Rowan, whose education background includes teaching math in middle and high schools.
Helping kids stay creative
Rowan hopes to rescue children from that time in their educational lives when they began to question and judge themselves and lose their urge to be creative. “We turn from trust and curiosity to memorization and facts,” Rowan said. “We turn from possibilities to requirements.
“What we need today is to encourage schools to make time to think out of the box; where no child is judged on any level,” said Rowan. “Creative and critical thinking has so very many styles, depending on the thinker. It’s an awesome undertaking to give this back to our children.”
Rowan realized she held the ultimate responsibility of fostering her daughters’ creativity and critical thinking — no matter how great their schools or teachers might be.
“So the ultimate challenge that teachers face is whether parents are taking the time to talk and listen and be astounded by their child’s brilliance. The truth is that parents are often rushed, not fully listening or present, and distracted by pings, rings and dings,” said Rowan. “When that is the case, when a child doesn’t feel heard (or just isn’t heard), how can that child experience the excitement of their ideas?”
Sharing at home and in the classroom
The full TiffinTalk collection has more than 4,000 cards. It’s based on cards Rowan wrote for her own daughters over 15 years. Every day: construction paper, stick-figure drawings. Each year, she asked if they still wanted to do “lunch notes” again, and every year, they said “yes.” Over the years, other parents, then teachers and counselors asked her for sets of cards.
That’s when she found a business partner as passionate as she is with talents in graphic design, technology, editing, and a background in education. Together, they turned these cards into a resource for anybody who lives and works with children.
TiffinTalk cards come in boxes divided by age range (16 years from pre-K through high school) and subdivided by the four seasons of the school year. Designs can be as simple as a greeting card or as complex as a jigsaw puzzle. The enduring theme is using the cards to get kids thinking — and talking.
Rowan plans to eventually release a TiffinTalk product for educators (Tiffin-Ed), but many educators are already using the Parent, Child & Teen (PTC) line in off-label ways. Children are sharing their cards from home at lunch tables, and those discussions continue into the classroom.
At home, parents use the cards to probe for answers from their children. They ask what the child believes is the answer to questions on the cards, but they also ask what others thought and what the child learned from the day’s discussions with peers and teachers.
It is the best of all worlds, Rowan said, because conversations at home aren’t ending in monosyllabic replies to the question “How was your day?” The card enriches the home conversation as well as a class conversation. The personal message from the parent further establishes the parent-child bond.
Some teachers use the boxed set of cards in classroom group settings — like circle time — to get discussions started. Children can take turns, and the teacher can write a message that personalizes the card for each child. Rowan said that simply giving the card makes a connection that has a huge impact on a child’s sense of self.
Helping minds across the cognitive spectrum
Still others in neurodiverse classes — whether gifted, learning challenged, speech challenged or behaviorally challenged — are finding that giving a box to each child with their name on it increases that child’s interest in progressing.
“Whether gifted or learning challenged, without the pressure of right or wrong answers, the interruption of peers (or siblings at home), or the fear of judgment, students express gratitude for the opportunity to share their stories beyond our expectations,” said Rowan. For instance, in response to the question: “Name five uses for a ladder that don’t involve climbing,” several children took the ladder apart … because they could.
She noted the personalization of the card encourages an interaction children won’t get from yet another worksheet, study guide, homework assignment or even a game. Children trust that they can speak to the level where they are and perhaps strive for something more.
ESL teachers find cards helpful
When English-as-a-second-language parents use the cards, the content is already written in English, but their personalized messages can be in their mother tongue. Thus, while encouraging their English skills, parents are also further encouraging a child to maintain first-language reading skills with the personalized messages.
A boon to school counselors
The other surprising piece is that their FindingYourVoice (FYV) line for mental health professionals and clients is being increasingly requested for school use by counselors and psychologists. TiffinTalk offers themed sets of cards for counselors working with teens, young adults and adults, and plans to release a preteen line shortly to meet demand.
“Giving a personalized card to a struggling child can help to break the silence of fear and/or lack of trust. These cards can be used as intended — from counselor to child — or adopted for use in group settings where each student receives their personalized card to discuss in group, or one card is the topic and then signed by everyone and given to the student deemed most needing of that day’s discussion,” said Rowan.
Rowan would love to see TiffinTalk available to all students. For her, it’s not a matter of sales and profit; they work with schools to make TiffinTalk available for their parents and educators. They are selling overseas in small quantities (shipping overseas is pricey, and they will need to work with a distributor at some point).
“The intention is for TiffinTalk to be available to everyone who wants to build better relationships. It is a global product and there is a global need. And, yes, we would eventually like to offer translated cards,” she added.
It’s fun, but it’s not a game
“We did not write cards that dumb down our kids with visual or verbal content that is beneath them,” said Rowan. “Kids rise to the challenge and appreciate the respect inherent in that. We give them opportunities to speak privately and publicly about the cards, so that they are not put on the spot, talked over, argued with.
“We give them content that is silly one week, serious the next, and thought-provoking the next. At home, it is an opportunity for what all children crave: one-on-one time with a parent. At school, it can be similar, but it can also be the opportunity to reinforce respect and encourage the offbeat.”
TiffinTalk does not magically remove difficulties from our children’s lives. “You can use TiffinTalk cards every day for years and still encounter crises. But because of the together time and the relationships that these conversations build with trust, respect and admiration, those crises can be detected more quickly and dealt with more gently. If you’re already talking, then it’s easier to speak to the issue and resolve it — together,” Rowan concluded.
Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer M. Zosh, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, "Don’t let the toys do the talking: The case of electronic and traditional shape sorters," Brookings Institution
- Annie Murphy Paul, "Why Parenting Is More Important Than Schools," Time