Celebrate National Merry-Go-Round Day!

Using merry-go-rounds as a means to generate electricity might seem like an odd “spin” on the traditional idea of a carousel, but we like to think of it as only the most recent development in the carousel’s rich history.

hough the idea of a circular, spinning ride has existed since the 6th century, the carousel as we know it first showed up in 12th century Europe and Asia. The word “carousel” comes from the Italian “carosello”, meaning “little war”, which was used to describe a game where horsemen would toss a clay ball between each other.

Some players would practice the game by using a rotating contraption with fake horses. By the eighteenth century, this “carousel” had outlived the sport that it supported and made its way into fairs, though it lacked the colorful animals that distinguish it today.

 a 17th century, man-powered carousel

a 17th century, man-powered carousel

Fair carousels were at first powered by manpower, horses, or even bicycles, and it wasn’t until Thomas Bradshaw’s unique “roundabout” that the carousel would become self-propelled. Inventor Frederick Savage also created a mechanism that would allow each animal to move up and down, imitating a horse’s galloping gait. Merry-go-rounds became an art form, and riders now could choose from many exotic hand-carved creatures, such as tigers, unicorns, and sea dragons. 

By the Great Depression, the carousel would see the end of its golden age. Few could afford to spend money on such a frivolous pleasure, and even after the Depression ended, many had lost interest in this “children’s ride” compared to more exciting ride innovations.

But the carousel managed to stay around, and as ride technology advanced, newer, less expensive ones could be made bigger than ever before. Despite the simple ride mechanic, fair-goers of all ages recognized the timeless excitement of the carousel. It remains an amusement staple, not just in fairs, but in boardwalks, malls, and even children’s parks. 

 Seattle's waterfront Carousel, taken by Sworldguy on Flickr

Seattle's waterfront Carousel, taken by Sworldguy on Flickr

The carousel that Empower Playgrounds takes inspiration from is more simple than the ones that you will find at a fair. We were inspired by the merry-go-rounds that we rode as kids at our local parks, pushing our friends, siblings and strangers around. We would all take turns spinning the merry-go-round, and we all benefited from each other’s hard work. It was different from the swing sets and slides, where you weren’t forced to share or to work together. But we’d keep coming back to it, because just as those onlookers in ancient history realized, it was simple, good fun.

There’s a reason that the merry-go-round has stuck around for so long. Though Empower Playground's primary goal is to enhance students' educational opportunities, we also hope that students will simply have fun playing on their merry-go-rounds. Fun and education don’t need to exist separately, and as founder Ben Markham puts it, "play is often real hands-on learning of both physical science and social science.” So on this National Merry-Go-Round day, give some thought to all of the memories that you’ve made on merry-go-rounds!  

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One Million Pencils

Empower Playgrounds has helped opened educational doors to thousands of students, but along the way we’ve learned that educating students takes more than a great facility. In addition to places to learn and study and a supportive community, teaching also takes a few very basic supplies.

One of these supplies is the pencil--so small, inexpensive, and easy to get in the United States, that we often forget how vital they are to the learning experience. Thanks to modern technology many of us may not even use pencils in our everyday lives, and we forget that every education starts with this simple tool.

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So where does that leave students without pencils? In developing countries such as Ghana where millions of dollars are spent on providing basic facilities, the pencil often gets left behind. Ghanaian schoolteachers are acutely aware of this shortage--when supplies are lost, or stolen, or simply run out too quickly without being replaced, teachers must resort to frugally using writing supplies.

Imagine going to school without a pencil--trying to learn math in your head and writing through recitation only.  Consider all of the other doorways that pencils opened for you when you first learned to read and write. Pencils unlock the imagination, and writing and drawing with pencils is tremendously important to both the way that students consume and create.

Empower Playgrounds does everything that we can to provide Ghanaian students with the tools that they need to succeed. In 2015, we began partnering with One Million Pencils for Africa to distribute pencils, in addition to light, to the students that we serve.

One Million Pencils for Africa was founded by Meg Shriber in 2014. Meg, who was at that time a high school freshman, recognized what an important role pencils had played in her education as an artist and writer. After hearing about the cause in Ghana, she designed a line of pencils and began to use funds from her projects to send pencils with Empower Playgrounds to Ghana. Meg currently goes to UC Berkeley and her pencils can be found online at https://www.onemillionpencilsforafrica.co as well as in Bay Area museums such as the Exploratorium and the UC Berkeley student store.

Today our partnership has allowed us to bring over 5000 pencils with us to Ghana. Whether they enable students to deepen their learning, help them discover a love of writing, or empower them to create something new, we hope that each pencil brings each child a little bit closer to reaching their potential. And they’re a bigger reminder not to take the simple things for granted: even the most basic of tools can allow us to make our mark.

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Empowering Girls' Education through Menstruation Kits

Beyond lacking adequate facilities or supplies for learning, there are other barriers that Ghanaian girls face that stop them from getting the education that they need: lack of access to feminine hygiene materials, and a stigma around menstruation.

In 2014, Sustainable Development Focus, an NGO, found that 95% of rural Ghanaian school girls miss school for an entire week each month because they have no way to manage their menstruation. Nearly a quarter of their education is missing because they lack basic supplies that many women in developed countries wouldn’t think twice about.

Missing one week of school each month doesn’t just mean that a girl is learning 25% less than her peers, it also means that when she returns she also must teach herself both the missed material as well as the current week’s material. Anyone who has ever missed a few days of school due to illness can relate to this--the anxiety of trying to learn something that makes little sense so that one does not fall further behind, the desperate asking around to be sure that one knows exactly what they missed the last week, the busy nights spent trying to do a double load of work…

Empower Playgrounds became personally interested in this issue when founder Ben visited the village of Bahankra one day, and requested to meet the top student in the school. He was informed that the top student, Erika, was not attending that day due to her menstruation. When he did meet her, he learned that she wanted to become a doctor, and spent extra time each night studying because she loved learning so much. Erika, and girls like her who work hard to not only stay in school but excel in it, deserve to be able to come to school every day. But what can be done to enable them to stop missing school?

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Meet Erika

So Empower Playgrounds began looking for a partner to help students like Erika continue learning even while they’re on their periods. Another organization, Days For Girls, seems to be the answer.

Days for Girls is an NGO that creates affordable sanitary kits for girls in developing countries worldwide. Their kits contain reusable pads, soap, wash clothes, panties, absorbent liners, a drawstring bag, and Ziploc bags for washing used pads. And they’re beautiful--each piece of the kit is hand-sewn in bright colors to remind girls that being on their period isn’t something to be ashamed of.

 One of the DFG kits, in all its colorful glory.

One of the DFG kits, in all its colorful glory.

These kits haven’t reached many of the schools that EPI has worked with, but this fall we intend to change this. Empower Playgrounds will start by taking 500 DFG kits to Ghana this summer, to make the lives of 500 girls easier and help them take full advantage of their educational opportunities.