Harness the energy of laughter, curiosity, and play, and you have caught up to the power of wind and sun. Who hasn’t heard it said, “If only I had their energy,” studying a group of children spontaneously capturing the essence of the day. Yes, children are kinetically buzzing spirits, naturally sending out spiraling cords of energy in all directions.
Combine this with the energy of a retired man stirred by the children of rural villages in Africa. Venturing into an encore career, he responds to their need and their energy.
Retired engineer Ben Markham began Empower Playgrounds, Inc. in order to capture the energy of kids and reuse it. He and the children have joined forces to offer more clean electricity for those without it. Being “off the electric grid” in Ghana leaves so many bright young children with no educational opportunity. Ben thought of a solution.
Much of this part of the world lives in great poverty. Children grow up part of a daily workforce in the fields. By the time night comes, light is gone. It is dark in Ghana 12 hours of the day. It is so dark that it ranks as Class 1 on the Bortle Scale — the Milky Way is clearly seen. Nothing else is seen. So study, even if a child is one of a fortunate few children who go to school, is impossible. The darkness of this part of the world has a mystique — being so close to the equator, it does not change. The people of Ghana spend half their lives in the dark. Kerri McDonald’s Nights in Ghana portraits captured by flashlight reveal the mystique.
While Holly Richman of Grist captures the thoughts and words of founder Ben Markham: “It wasn’t lack of capability. These kids were capable, they were bright, they were inquisitive. The opportunity just wasn’t there.”
As Holly explains:
Most kids in Koni Kablu, Ghana, have to work on the family farm during daylight hours, and can study after dark only if they’re lucky enough to have a kerosene lantern. As a result, none of the children from the town have reached the high school level…. But with Empower Playgrounds, they can use the nearly inexhaustible natural resource of childhood enthusiasm to generate their own light. A non-profit called Empower Playgrounds has developed a way to harness the energy of kids playing in order to provide electricity to poor rural villages in Africa. The organization is making merry-go-rounds that have a clean tech twist — onboard kinetic energy harvesters that store that energy in batteries for later use …
Ben Markham says that a healthy 8- to 12-year-old generates about 150 watts of energy per hour whilst vigorously playing. All that energy is stored capture in a high-tech playground system and stored into battery packs, which are then used to power advanced LED lanterns donated by Energizer. At schools in Ghana where Empower has provided equipment, kids split into lantern groups and study together at night where before they couldn’t study past sunset. The lanterns last 50 hours on each charge.
Continuing, Fast Company further follows Markham regarding the dynamic of education:
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.
To Markham, what is equally important is the play:
“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.”
One thing is certain — what a wonderful world it is with people such as Markham and his community of animated children. Markham is a retired Exxon Mobil VP. This transformation of a small, poor community is a significant giving back. John Brownlee of Fast Company shares more about a certain cultural influence empower playgrounds accomplishes:
… 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.
Similar in utilitarian application, this merry-go-round makes light as does the Soccket soccer ball by Uncharted Play, a ball that creates and stores electricity from being kicked, juggled, and passed around. The stored electricity can then be used later for lighting, etc.
Explore more about Empower Playgrounds’ work at its official site.
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