Empower Playgrounds provides schools in Ghana with playground equipment that can generate electricity.

Each merry-go-round is hooked up to a dynamo which produces electricity and stores it in a battery.

"In Ghana, all the school buildings I saw were dark, poorly equipped, with no electricity ... and no playground equipment," says Empower Playgrounds' Ben Markham.

A healthy 8- to 12-year-old generates about 150 watts of energy per hour whilst vigorously playing.

A large battery can be filled with electricity by just four hours of play.

These merry-go-rounds end up providing electricity for lanterns that kids can use to study with.

Children are sent home in lantern groups and told to study together.

To be a lantern leader of a group is considered quite the privilege.

"Playing is the way we naturally explore and learn about the world," says Markham. "There's just tremendous educational value in playing on something."

Co.Design

A Merry-Go-Round That Turns The Power Of Play Into Electricity

Empower Playgrounds is providing electricity-generating playground equipment to impoverished schools in rural Ghana.

How do you bring electricity and light to children who live half their lives in complete darkness, and their entire lives in abject poverty? Empower Playgrounds is a nonprofit that has come up with an intriguing solution: Harnessing the power of play, it provides merry-go-rounds to schools in Ghana that generate and store electricity as they are spun around, even while teeming with laughing and smiling kids.

Empower Playgrounds is the brainchild of former ExxonMobil VP of Engineering Ben Markham, who decided he wanted "to do a little giveback" after he retired. Volunteering with his wife as Mormon missionaries in rural Ghana, Markham was astonished by the lack of even rudimentary equipment in most of the schools he visited. "In Ghana, all the school buildings I saw were dark, poorly equipped, with no electricity ... and no playground equipment," Markham tells me.

A lifelong engineer, Markham thought he could come up with a better solution. "The concept that kids have infinite energy at their disposal is nice, but not true," says Markham. "But they do have energy that can be harnessed. As an engineer, what I wanted to know is if you can make a real amount of electricity from kids playing?" The answer is that you can. A healthy 8- to 12-year-old generates about 150 watts of energy per hour whilst vigorously playing. Empowered Playgrounds' merry-go-rounds channel this natural energy and store it in battery packs. But where does the electricity go?

Since Ghana is only slightly north of the equator, daylight hours are very consistent no matter the time of year. The day is divided between 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. But the night is intimidating. Most of Ghana is without power, and the night is so dark that it ranks as Class 1 on the Bortle Scale, which means you can actually see the Milky Way. It makes for beautiful night watching, but it means that most Ghanaian children spend half of their lives in the unilluminated dark.

This is where the electricity generated by Empower Playground's merry-go-round goes. Thanks to sponsorship by Energizer, Empower Playgrounds is able to provide each school with up to 50 advanced LED lanterns that the children are allowed to take home with them at night. Since each school Empower Playground provides equipment to can have up to 200 students, kids are clustered into "Lantern Groups" according to their neighborhoods. These groups top out at about six children, who are encouraged to study together around the same lantern, which lasts up to 50 hours per charge.

Besides just providing light to as many kids as possible, these lantern groups are having some interesting social impacts as well. Poverty is so prevalent in Ghana that even though schools are ostensibly free, most families cannot afford to send all of their children because of the incidental expenses of clothing and school supplies. Because of this, most girls don't end up going to school. Instead, the boys are sent, since they will continue to live with and provide for their families, while the girls will be married off and sent away as young as 15. But Empower Playground is trying to help change that by making the girls who do go to school into "lantern leaders," further emphasizing the status of an educated woman as not just a role model but a light-bringer.

Empower Playground's equipment is affordable and effective. To install a system in a school costs about $10,000, which will supply 200 children a year electricity for at least five years. It breaks down to about $10 per year to give a child who spends half his or her life in the dark light to study by.

But perhaps trying to quantify the work that Empower Playgrounds is doing by how much electricity and light is being generated is the wrong way to think about it. To Markham, what is equally important is the play. "Playing is the way we naturally explore and learn about the world," says Markham. "There's just tremendous educational value in playing on something."

When children play on playgrounds, they are already illuminating the world around them. What is important about Empower Playgrounds' equipment is that it helps make that light literal. You can read more about Empower Playgrounds' work at its official site.

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10 Comments

  • Ben

    I was part of a team of engineers that installed the first one in a rural Ghanaian village in April of 2008. Ben and his team at Empower Playgrounds are doing great work to help kids have some light to study by. 

  • John__Henderson

     John Henderson
    How much electricity could be generated by solar cells for the same cost in this area with consistent 12 hour days?

  • Guest

    I'm sorry, this is ridiculous. This is play pumps for light. Worse. Their Director of Media is their evaluation consultant and their executive director is a photographer. Is this an organization that is "designing for high-impact"? 

    FastCompany what role do you play for this horrific fact-free "solution journalism" that propagates nice looking seductive panaceas that drive money but no impact. Did you ask any tough questions? This is fluffy PR.

    For more, see this http://poptech.org/blog/kevin_...
    Specifically minute 15 for the failure of playpump.

  • Francis Gonzales

    I thought we had moved beyond this "feat of engineering genius"? What happens when they break down? After reading stories of women walking in circles to generate electricity or community members hooking up motors to these... I thought we had moved on. These are great for photo shoots and PR but not for sustainable development.

  • Guest

    Dave, 

    Thanks for the comment and happy to hear this from someone who has seen the projects on the ground.

    All the best to Empower Playground. 

    Francis

  • Dave Cannon

    Francis, that's a valid concern given past similar projects. I've visited Empower Playgrounds installations and they're very aware of the problem of "love em and leave em" projects, especially the work wheels attached to water wells. This initiative has been running for over seven years and has maintained strong support and validation from the villagers and Ghanaian government. The systems work, are relatively inexpensive, and are well-maintained.

    The founder spent his career vetting energy projects and he's done his research here. They hire staff in Ghana to maintain each installation, and they're very conscious of the need to only build as many installations as they can operate on an ongoing basis.
    If you've ever seen the work wheels used to pump water, they're anything but fun. EPI installs actual playground equipment comparable to what you'd see in the states.

  • Francis Gonzales

     Sorry, just realized that earlier versions of this were used to pump water. Perhaps there is a difference, but I remain skeptical

  • eumenides

    This has already been done with playground equipment-as-water-pump and was considered one of the spectacular failures of aid (though great PR for the funders while it lasted) http://aidwatchers.com/2010/02.... Once the equipment broke down, there was no one to fix it, in addition to being extraordinarily difficult to use vis-a-vis a regular hand pump.

    As heartwarming as this story sounds, it makes much more sense to take that money and spend it on funding solar panels for schools and local communities. Less sexy and newsworthy, but infinitely more practical and effective.