She’s the founder of Ellie Bellie Kids, products that promote imaginative play, and of Classic Play, a quarterly e-mag, and daily blog—both of which have a gazillion brilliant ideas about play. Every time we check out her blog, we get inspired—from her neighborhood kids bicycling party (inspired by the Tour de France) to her stare-down contests. Rather than asking us to pull out the glue gun, Cooper reminds us to look at what’s right underneath our nose as the jumping off point for creative play. When Jennifer introduced herself to us when Momfilter first went live, we said that meeting people like her was precisely the reason we needed to launch. We figured you needed to meet her too.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how it shaped who you are today: As a kid I would do things like dress up like a hobo for no apparent reason, paint my face like KISS, and once I taped index cards into about 100 books my parents had on the shelves just so I could play librarian. It was an arduous undertaking, but what can I say? I was serious about my play. Once I made it to college I studied education then psychology. During my college years I started working with kids with autism. After I graduated, I worked full time in an intensive early intervention program. I did that for about 6 years (teaching kids with autism how to play). If there is one driving force in my career, it’s a fascination with potential. I think that’s why I chose to work in the field of early intervention originally. When I got pregnant with my second child I left the field (I was mid-management by that time and it wasn’t fun anymore) and started Ellie Bellie Kids with my mom and sister. It was a sort of a response to the type of crummy toys that were available on the market. I had a young daughter who was even more imaginative than I was as a kid, so I used my background in child development/psychology/education to make a small toy line.
Where you get your inspiration? Directly from my kids, Ellie (8) and Jonah (5), and my husband who is a photographer and filmmaker. (He’s given me lessons in photography–a large part of why the pictures on the site have turned out nicely.)
Tell us about your everyday life–like how do you feel about screen time? I’d say I’m pretty conservative when it comes to screen time. We have some hard and fast rules like no tv in the morning, or until after homework is finished. I find those rules help our household run more smoothly.
Certainly though, there have been days when they’ve had too much. Their eyes glaze over or they start squabbling more. That’s probably the biggest reason I’m conservative with screen time—my kids are far better behaved when they don’t watch a lot of tv. And if I’m being completely honest, I have selfish reasons too. I love hearing what they come up with when they play. The other morning they created a menu for a future popsicle company. There was a logo, mascots and everything. There was some debate over pricing. One of them thought 50 million gazillion cents sounded good, while the other wanted to cap it at 3 dollars.
What are your top 3 favorite kids books? We read a lot of books. We’re currently reading chapter books now but these are my all time favorites:
Big Plans, Bob Shea & Lane Smith
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems
Pirates Don’t Change Diapers, Melinda Long & David Shannon
Imogene’s Antlers, David Small
Top 5 activities/ideas we should bookmark?
Food Based Rituals? I have an emotional attachment to breakfast. When I was a kid, I would visit my Grandmother for a couple weeks during the summer. One of the things I remember most fondly about those visits was our late night breakfasts. She, along with my cousins and aunts, would head over to a diner and order breakfast. As a kid, I felt very rebellious eating pancakes and homefries at 9:30/10:00 at night. It was exciting because it was something my parents would never do. If anyone notices a tinge of anti-establishment spirit in my personality, I blame it on those late night homefries. So naturally, one of our family food rituals is breakfast-inspired. On Saturdays, I make a big batch of fluffy waffles. I keep a box of cake flour around just for them. As soon as the first bit of batter hits the waffle iron, the kids come running into the kitchen. We try to be very civilized about who gets the first waffle by taking turns. But should we forget who held that honor the week before, we rock-paper-scissors over it. Sometimes (ahem, if I lose) we go best two out of three.
Family Rituals? Friday nights, we gather with a group of friends for dinner. The kids play and the grown ups sit around discussing things as serious as literature, religion, parenting and as light as old crushes, John Cusak and what makes a better mint julep—simple syrup or powdered sugar. It’s a wonderful blend of serious and light and a tremendous amount of fun.
What’s a typical weekend?.We keep our weekends active and spontaneous. We’ll try out a hot dog shop in Fells Point I read about in Baltimore Magazine or head into DC to visit the museums. Sometimes we’ll take a hike in the park. Others, we find ourselves in Ikea for three hours. We’re a family that likes a bit of adventure. And if you’ve ever spent three hours in an Ikea, you know adventure.
Guiltiest pleasure?…I want to say something that makes me sound really cool, like a fine wine or slipping into a silk robe. But really, it’s Swedish fish.