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  • Writer's pictureAalok Bharadwaj

USA: a playground pilgrimage and becoming a CPSI

In early November 2019, I took my first trip to the US. I was going to be in the west coast of the US for the first 15 days with a plan to drive up to Seattle from San Francisco, and then head to the east coast to get certified to be a CPSI (more on this below) and to visit family. On my saved 'want to go' destinations on google maps were a list of playgrounds across the country that I had marked while doing research. The intention was to see what was different in these playgrounds that we in India didn't have and to hopefully be inspired both by design and by functionality of the play equipment. I stayed in Berkeley and explored SF for the first few days.

I began by visiting the ones in Downtown SF. The first thing that caught my attention was the the spacing between the play equipment. The amount of space between play structures was significantly larger than anything I had seen in India and this allowed for a lot of room for kids to run around. And the second factor that stood out was the surfacing - mostly EPDM, but in a few places the EPDM floor very cleverly and seamlessly connected with sand pit area. A few pictures are below...

A screenshots of my Google maps in the SF region.

Playgrounds in Berkeley and SF area

A coupe of days later, I decided to visit the Berkeley Adventure Playground which was located on the waterfront at the Berkeley Marina. Even though I arrived at the my destination according to Google maps, I really didn't know what I was looking for. There wasn't one play equipment in the adventure playground that resembled anything I had seen in any playground before. I had read about the European Junkyard Playgrounds and this looked similar. Built out of scrap - wooden crates, old ropes, used tyres and even a discarded boat - I was immediately drawn to the complete ruggedness and open "design" of the playground (if you can even call it design). It was "unstructured" in the true sense of the word.

A notice on the outside said it was open only on the weekends and by appointment. Basically, kids use the playground on weekends to create their own play structures. They change the landscape of the playground as they choose by using tools and material, which they are taught how to use. I loved the concept and I have since been very keen on implementing an Adventure Playground or Junkyard Playground project in India. Someday I'll write another post detailing the concept of adventure playgrounds, the research and the advantages of such play opportunities for kids.

Berkeley Adventure Playground - Pictures taken from the outside

Moving upwards along the west coast of the US, I visited some more beautiful playgrounds in Napa, Portland and Seattle, some almost brilliant pieces of art. Looking at things from a designer's perspective, these playgrounds were functional, simple and yet kept the viewer's attention (I mean the adults). For the children, all that mattered was the play aspect of it, not the colours, not the shapes, just the potential for play.

Playgrounds in Portland and Seattle.

On my drive up the Interstate 5, I made some detours and saw Crater Lake in Oregon and camped out at an RV park in the Umpqua National Park. I also drove up to Anacortes and took a ferry across to Orcas island, a part of the San Juan islands in Washington just south of the Canadian Border.

Playgrounds in NewYork.

After my field trip on the west coast, I flew to Orlando from SF. I had enrolled myself into a CPSI (Certified Playground Safety Inspector) course offered by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) of the United States of America. The CPSI course was a 3 day course to provide knowledge and practical training in the best practices of playground design and an understanding of safety standards in playground equipment manufacture and use. It was aimed at manufacturers and installers of playground equipment, maintenance workers and playground owners (schools, clubs, counties, community leaders park heads, etc). The content of the course material was honestly quite challenging. Day 1 and Day 2 were dedicated to understanding and memorising various dimensions that are listed as part of the the ASTM standards pertaining to playground equipment and surfacing and also included a mock inspection of a nearby playground to note down potential hazards and rate them in accordance with the ASTM standard we were just taught. Day 3 was the exam and if I passed it, I would become a CPSI and be listed on the NRPA's website as one of the CPSI's to be contacted for a safety audit. Did you know that California is the only state in the US that has made it mandatory for every playground to be inspected by a qualified professional every year? We were told during our classes that once we pass the exam we would be given a badge as a CPSI. We were advised to carry the badge with us every time we enter a playground so that we were not mistaken for a pedophile or a creep, (an adult male lingering and observing playground equipment with children around can be quite scary for a lot of people). I didn't receive the results of my exam till I was back home in Bangalore, so I didn't have a badge (besides I didn't know if I had even passed the exam) but I did visit some more fascinating playgrounds in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Orlando. A few weeks later, back in Bangalore I received my exam results. I did pass the exam and am currently a CPSI.

So, after a month of extensive travel across the east and west coasts of the US, I was back in India in early Dec 2019. My new knowledge of the ASTM standards and the inspiration from the designs I saw in the various playgrounds across the US made me realise that we at FeetOffGround were always on the right track when it comes to playground equipment design. All it took were some minor adjustments in some measurements to make our play equipment compliant with the standards and I could certify it. It takes common sense and interest in one's work to put together something for children to play on that is both safe and fun to use. With some inspiration and a sense of aesthetics, it can be made to look good too. This is where I would like to think we excel - a good mix of sense of space, design, playfulness and knowledge of safety.

It can't be stated enough: kids need to play outdoors. Although I realise that as I sit at my desk writing this, we are in the 5th week of the Covid-19 lockdown in India. I'm glad I had the chance to finish the CPSI course, travel a bit and be back in time before all the madness and travel restrictions kicked in.

Here's hoping everyone is doing well and that we come out of these times safe and stronger. And more importantly our kids are able to play freely in the outdoors again.

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