Harnessing the Power of Play to Keep the Lights On

My daughter is just shy of one year old and, now that she’s walking, we’re getting increasing glimpses into the active little toddler she’s going to become. Heaven help us. I think most adults marvel at — and sometimes lament —  the enviable amounts of endlessly renewable energy kids expend every day, but I’d never really thought of them as being an actual source of renewable energy until I read an article about playground designs that harness the energy of children’s movements and turn playtime into power, with fascinating and technologically compelling results. Here are a handful that I thought were super cool:

Natural Energy Park

Experiential playground design that mixes play and science. Focuses on how movement, sun, magnets and water create power to operate and enhance different components of the playground. Kids can spin a wheel to light up LEDs and move a solar panel to adjust the speed at which an optical illusion panel moves. Pedaling a bicycle converts kinetic energy to electricity and causes traffic lights to illuminate or music to play. A seesaw turns a waterwheel. Magnets use repulsion power to hold a small plane in the air, which kids can then control, like pilots, using a lever. A pinpoint camera that kids can focus illustrates basic photography and light principles. A videophone periscope between the two playground levels lets kids see each other and speak through the tube.

Empower Playgrounds

This is a non-profit organization that provides electricity-generating playground equipment and science education opportunities to villages in Ghana that are too remote to be on their nation’s electricity grid. As the kids play on the merry-go-rounds, a portion of their energy is captured and converted to electricity which charges safe, rechargeable LED lanterns they can use to light their homes and allow them to do homework at night. As a bonus, the play equipment doubles as part of a hands-on science curriculum specially designed to teach concepts of general mechanics, physics, energy transfer and more.

Giraffe Street Lamp

Not only is it cute, and about as anthropomorphic as a street light could probably get, but this self-sustaining design that encourages spontaneous play in an urban environment harnesses kinetic energy from people swinging on it to provide nighttime LED illumination. A backup solar panel on top captures energy to a battery and ensures the lights stay on even if nobody feels like swinging. But how often do you not feel like swinging? I can’t recall such a moment for myself.

Kidetic Playground

This playground concept marries science and sustainability education together, allowing children to produce their own electricity to illuminate playground lighting at night, thus increasing their awareness of their own energy consumption. The playground includes a jump rope (tethered at one end), a teeter-totter and a see-saw, all connected to a dynamo that charges batteries which power the playground’s lighting after the sun goes down. With a configuration change, the play could also generate energy to provide power to off-grid homes, allowing children to contribute to keeping the lights on at home!

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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