The idea for TableTalk began at J.J. Stupp's dinner table. Her three-year-old daughter was staring out the window one night and asked: "Where do squirrels live?"
At first, her mother responded with: "Eat your broccoli."
"But then I realized that she was trying to have a conversation," Ms. Stupp says. After they spent the rest of dinner talking about squirrels, trees, and homes in general, "a light bulb went on."
Stupp decided to create "conversation cards" with a fun, interesting fact and an open-ended question to help get people talking.
Today, Stupp has more than a dozen 52-card decks, including ScienceTalk, BibleTalk, SportsTalk, and AnimalTalk.
Since she launched the company in 1993, Stupp has sold half a million decks of her cards. They are available in about 3,000 stores and catalogs.
Her goal is to simply get people talking. "We're all moving so quickly these days and so few people sit down to talk at dinner," Stupp says. "We don't sit in the salon on Sundays and talk anymore. We sit in front of the TV and are tongue-tied at the end of the day."
In recent years, research has shown that regular dinner conversation is a strong predictor of children's success in learning to read. So many families are looking for a way to restore the "lost art of conversation."
"Even with as busy as families are today," Stupp says, "everybody's got 10 to 15 minutes to spend talking about one of these cards at dinner rather than harping at their kids to keep their elbows off the table."
Similar in size to regular playing cards, the decks are easy to stuff into a glove compartment or carry-on bag to help pass time traveling or waiting.
Laura Mitchell, a middle-school art teacher in Hendersonville, N.C., uses ArtTalk with her students every Friday. "I read an ArtTalk card, show a visual, read the question, and the students ponder and write their responses in their sketchbooks," Ms. Mitchell says.
Whether her cards show up in the classroom or as icebreakers at parties, Stupp just wants to help spark conversations. She doesn't view the cards as a game. After all, there's no competition. "There are no right or wrong answers," Stupp says. The conversation is expected to be different every time you take out the deck.
Unlike Trivial Pursuit, the popular game of the 1980s, these cards don't focus on trivia.
IN the Bicknese family, starting conversations is not so much of a challenge. Twelve-year-old Tyler and 11-year-old Erin can keep each other going back and forth on music, movies, or last week's antics in the backyard. Even four-year-old Clayton usually has something to say.
Yet a dinner with TableTalk conversation cards took the usual chit-chat in new directions on a recent evening.
One card from the BibleTalk deck recalls how Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem and asks: "If someone was looking for you, where would be the most logical place to find you? Why?"
Tyler would be up in a tree or in the woods, everyone quickly agreed. In fact, he had to climb down from a tree in the backyard to come in for dinner.
Clayton, they decided, would be wandering around in a "rope museum." This led to lots of laughs as they told stories about Clayton's love of tying ropes to things.
Once that topic died down, they remembered another Clayton story: The time he disappeared for a while and the entire neighborhood was looking for him. They finally found him asleep behind the toy box.
An AnimalTalk card about chameleons explains that they can focus their eyes separately to watch two objects at once. The question is: "If you could do two things at once, like reading a book and watching a ballgame, what things would you start doing at the same time?"
For Marti Bicknese, the mom of the house, it was easy: "Sleeping and housework." Tyler voted for "sleeping and homework." Erin preferred watching TV and doing homework.
Stupp, the cards' creator, says that when it comes right down to it, everybody wants to feel that they have something to say. One grateful dad wrote: "My silent son has started talking to me - thank you!"
Krista Eades, a St. Louis elementary school teacher, calls TableTalk a "safe learning activity." She begins her third-graders' school day by reading one of the cards out loud.
"The ideas and opinions of the kids start popping," Ms. Eades reports.
"They love the idea that there are no rules and appreciate the fact that there are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers."
The goal, Stupp says, is to learn something without really realizing it. "They learn a little something very unobtrusively and then that leads them into a question."
Yet the cards are not just for kids, she says. "Anybody can do this with anybody else. You can be 5 or 105 and still participate."
* TableTalk, P.O. Box 31703, St. Louis, MO 63131, (800) 997-5676. On the Web: www.tbltalk.com