By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the mom who took a spin on creating her own board game which encourages family conversation and problem-solving.
Ilana Schwarcz faced a challenge many parents deal with day after day: How do you keep a 5-year-old engaged in conversation at the dinner table?
Ms. Schwarcz, 49, a Squirrel Hill-based book editor and former software consultant, figured a game would get her son talking -- but she ruled out electronics and screen-based entertainment. It had to be "deliberately low-tech," she said.
Inspired by old-fashioned board games, she attached a spinner to a piece of cardboard on which she wrote prompts including "afraid," "proud," "excited" and "angry."
Her son, David, now 10, took a whirl, and where the spinner landed, he had to describe a situation in which he experienced that emotion.
Ms. Schwarcz and her husband, Dan, joined the game. "To our delight, our son found out his parents had challenges, successes and failures, too," she said.
The family played regularly for a couple of years before Ms. Schwarcz decided the game could boost conversations between other children and parents. She partnered with Pittsburgh family physician and resilience expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa to raise funds for a prototype that 500 families tested.
The feedback they got convinced the women there was a market, and they are now finalizing an agreement to launch the Family Spinner on Amazon Prime. It's slated to sell for $9.99 including shipping. It's also available at www.familyspinner.com.
Their first big customer, Eat'n Park Hospitality, even ordered 75,000 spinners to distribute at its restaurants, and the Homestead-based restaurant chain also underwrote the cost of 2,000 spinners for United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania to make available to nonprofit agencies that work with youths.
But those rollouts have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The entrepreneurs still believe in it. Survey responses from those who played it twice a week for several months showed that it "actually improved kids' confidence in problem solving, telling stories and asking adults in their lives for help," said Dr. Gilboa.
"And it improved parents' confidence in knowing what was going on in their kids' lives," she said.
Dr. Gilboa, who owns a 30% share of Family Spinner, has four sons ages 11 to 18. Although the spinner originally targeted children 5 to 12 years old, her older boys liked it "because it gives the person spinning the floor," she said. "And it helped my youngest, who gets talked over or corrected by a parent or three older siblings."
After Dr. Gilboa shared her own daily experiences during the game, her sons began asking more questions about her job such as, "Did you ever solve that issue with your patient?"
"It helps all kids see that the adults in their lives have their own experiences ... and are not stuck in a role," she said.
According to the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit based at Massachusetts General Hospital's Psychiatry Academy in Boston, family meals help children develop resilience and self-esteem and can boost their academic grades.
Research shows regular family meals also help reduce substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and teen pregnancy.
With more family members bringing mobile phones and other devices to the table, introducing a conversational game at mealtime "can disrupt [the screens'] dynamic and give the family a structured activity that increases interpersonal communication," said Dr. Gilboa.
The bright-colored spinner is small enough to hold in one hand and is portable so that families don't have to restrict the game to meal times. "You can use it when you go out for doughnuts or at bedtime," said Ms. Schwarcz. A Spinner and a cookie?
Last year she approached Eat'n Park about promoting Family Spinner "because Eat'n Park is a family place, and it's a family game," said Becky McArdle, spokesperson for the company.
Several employees played it with their children, including Ms. McArdle, who was "amazed at the depth of authentic conversation" that happened with her 4-year-old son.
"Families are busier and busier, and we knew it had potential," she said. "It's a fun and powerful way to spark conversation at the dinner table."
The Eat'n Park games are customized with the company's Smiley graphics and logo, and families will receive one per guest check while supplies last.
A planned promotion in June was pushed to the fall when school resumes. The pandemic has increased the need for tools to get families talking, said Julie DeSeyn, vice president, community impact, at United Way.
"During these stressful times, it is more important than ever to have tools like this," said Ms. DeSeyn. "Kids are definitely feeling stress, and watching their parents experience stress, having a fun and effective way to process that is very valuable."
After committing to market the game about three years ago, Ms. Schwarcz and Dr. Gilboa landed a $10,000 grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation to cover costs for a prototype produced by Steve Schwartz Associates, Uptown.
For mass production, they tapped a factory in China.
Delays in getting it on the market due to the pandemic have been "financially difficult," said Ms. Schwarcz. She and her husband have invested $30,000 in savings into the company.
To help with costs during the COVID-19 crisis, the firm obtained a $1,000 grant through the U.S. Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
Dan Schwarcz works as a senior process engineer for II-VI, a Butler County materials company, so the family has a steady income and health insurance that allow Ms. Schwarcz to focus on launching the game.
But the pandemic added stress to the typical frustrations she expected with a startup.
For moral support, she's been turning to Entrepreneurs Forever, a group for small business owners that she joined last year.
The eight-member group met monthly in a conference room of the Mansmann Foundation in Green Tree before the pandemic, but since government-imposed closures and stay-at-home orders were issued in March, members began convening on Zoom. Their two-hour meetings include lots of sharing about goals, successes and COVID-19-related struggles.
"They reminded me I was a professional between the toilet cleaning, helping with [virtual] education for my son, book editing and managing the business," said Ms. Schwarcz.
A couple of months ago, she disclosed to the group she was feeling overwhelmed and was thinking about selling Family Spinner.
"I was frustrated and discouraged and couldn't see when the pandemic would end and my product would launch," she said. "I worried about the lost income from turning down book editing jobs."
A.J. Drexler, chief executive of the Mansmann Foundation and facilitator for the eForever group, advised Ms. Schwarcz to spend one hour each morning thinking about what it would mean to give up the business.
"I focused on that for a week and realized this is what I love," said Ms. Schwarcz.
"The reason I did this was to help families. And that reason didn't go away."
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.