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Jessica Beer, Co-Founder, The Urban Chalkboard Play Café

Jessica Beer, PhD is a Developmental Psychologist and Co-Founder of The Urban Chalkboard Play Café in Carmel, Indiana. After spending several years as a research scientist studying language and cognition in deaf and hearing children, she partnered with Co-Founder Tonya Bergeson-Dana to develop a storefront concept to serve as a platform for funneling cutting edge science about child development to families who can use it. This platform is The Urban Chalkboard Play Café and it is always evolving.

More about Jessica:

1. What is the mission of The Urban Chalkboard??

The mission of The Urban Chalkboard is to develop and disseminate evidence-based tools, activities, programs and resources that promote play as the leading activity of early social, cognitive, and emotional development in babies and young children.

2. Tell us about your background in childhood development.

I have always been fascinated by experiments that on the surface seem so simple but reveal the hidden complexity of human development. Why do first words and first steps happen at the same time? Why can’t most adults remember personal memories prior to age two? Why do children create imaginary friends? Why can people solve tough problems faster if they talk to themselves? In graduate school, I studied developmental science from a socio-cultural point of view that all development is constructed in the interactions we have with other people and from the affordances offered by our environment (eg. our home and all the things in it). As a post-doc at IU School of Medicine I designed experiments to study how deaf babies learn how to talk after they receive a cochlear implant and how a period of not hearing anything as a baby is related to later executive function skills.

3. How do you incorporate your research in childhood development in programs at The Urban Chalkboard?

That has been the fun part! I guess very stealthily; from the perspective of the babies and toddlers and parents it is just play (simple) but the complexity and learning is always under the surface. For example, toddlers practice the focused attention skills needed to stack a tall tower of blocks; new talkers use first words and body language to tell another child no, that’s mine or yes, you can have this train; and children practice the courage needed to step away from mom to get a dinosaur across the room. In our space and in our programs, adults are there to provide the tools kids need to step out and explore what interests them because they are naturally curious. That’s a different approach from what we typically think is the adult role of knowing more than the child and teaching them what we know and how to do things.

4. What are the most popular activities at The Urban Chalkboard?

  1. Play Music Class – Every Tuesday morning we offer two classes developed and led by Co-Founder Tonya Bergeson-Dana, professor and research scientist in music and cognition. Parents and babies sit on yoga mats in a circle, we sing, play guitar, say hello and goodbye, explore percussion instruments, and pair movement of scarves and ribbons to changes in the pitch and rhythm of our voices. Babies learn to recognize other children by name, emotionally connect with others through eye contact and touch, vocalize, take turns, follow two-step directions, and self-regulate (they practice waiting).

  2. Fiber Optic Play – You know what a fiber optic Christmas tree looks like? We dim the lights in our learning studio and children touch and manipulate all sorts of light-based objects and toys in different sizes and shapes. Sensorimotor play that pairs light, touch, movement, and sound is the secret recipe for baby learning.

  3. Deconstructed Play – Instructor Cheyenne Land-Requiz provides the basic materials and children take the lead in what they do with them. Three stations focus on Messy Play (paint, shaving cream, colored water), Loose Parts Play (clay, wood cookies, wire, screws and bolts), and STEAM Play (overhead projector, shadow, flashlights, mirrors, light table).

5. It was a delightful surprise to see your company at Carmel’s awesome Chriskindlmarkt this year. Why did you decide to participate?

It felt right and I was scared to say yes. I wanted to grow the Café side of our business and increase our visibility as a local company in the City of Carmel (networking!). I wanted to purchase (and pay for) two new pieces of equipment and create a cash reserve for our lean months (which I did). Most people do not know we are a local full-service coffee shop and a play café and it drives me crazy and I wanted to change that. Our marketing budget is small and the marketing potential of the Christkindlmarkt was enormous. I’ve never learned so much, worked so hard, and leaned on our coffee partners, my staff, my family, and friends so much - I basically begged everyone I know to work at the hut!

6. Which female entrepreneur do you most look up to and why?

Martha Hoover (of Patachou Inc.), Kate Drury (of the Flying Cupcake, Dancing Donut and the Lemon Bar restaurant), and Susie Beer (my mom). I only watch Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Drury from afar but they took a passion and a brand and scaled up quickly. They try new things that are meaningful to them. They are local women. Nothing keeps me up more at night than believing I have a scalable business concept but fearing I’ve let it pass me by because I’m too scared to take the risk or don’t know what I’m doing. My mom has owned a salon and spa for 13 years. She teaches me every day how to be strong and fight for myself, feel confident in my skills, speak my mind, run with what I’m good at and delegate what I’m not, to be authentic.

7. How did you choose the location for your business?

We searched for 14 months. I didn’t know anything about commercial real estate and considered every option from new construction to buying an old run-down building. I talked to everyone who might have insight on what could potential kill us before we got started. Our broker, Tracey Hotlzman, was the bomb and I listened to her and asked lots of questions and pushed hard for unreasonable requests in my lease agreement.

8. Design was a really important part of drawing people into your space. Who and what influenced your design decisions?

Luck and psychology. We wanted kids to learn through play and adults to relax, so we went back to our belief that what we learn is constructed by how our physical body (crawling, walking, visual field) meets our physical environment (chairs, tables, toys, empty space, light, windows). We wanted babies to safely crawl and toddlers to explore and parents to be able to see their children without being right on top of them or too far away. We interviewed three design and build firms and chose Whittney Parkinson. Across many meetings and drawings she worked all the magic and got inside our heads and made it what you see today.

9. How do you plan to scale The Urban Chalkboard?

We are launching a Reggio-Inspired preschool this fall called The Learning Studio. So I’m always trying new things but it’s not really scaling the business. I have ideas and opportunities but I never feel like I’m in the right place to pull the trigger. Scaling is my number one goal for 2018.

10. How have The Startup Ladies helped you grow?

I’m kind of a watcher, I follow very closely how Kristen does business, how she grows The Startup Ladies, how she treats her members and staff with respect and kindness, how she presents herself to the public and press, how she sets limits and communicates her beliefs. From a Startup Ladies lead, IU Kelley Business students are helping the Chalkboard with two marketing campaigns this semester. The SheSuite helps me find strength in myself alongside other women. Every single time I’ve gone to a Startup Ladies event, I’ve used the information or tool I learned or connection I made the very next day in business.

Twitter: @UrbanChalkboard

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