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.