Merry-Go-Rounds & Education
Not many parks still have merry-go-rounds. In principle, it’s one of the more dangerous things you could let your kid play on, maybe belonging in the wild west category of playground equipment. It’s the first place that I ever encountered centripetal force, and maybe adrenaline too, because the threat of being thrown off was very real, and no kid really believes that sand makes for a soft landing. But that’s what made it one of my favorite things at the park. Still, I’m not surprised that most parks I visit today have replaced their swings and carousels with safer climbing nets and weird spinny things.
The most recent merry-go-round that I’ve encountered, though, is a little different than the ones that I grew up with. It was bright red and yellow, about big enough to comfortably hold me and three other people my size. And it performed a very special function: soon it would end up in a remote Ghanaian village, where it would charge the lanterns of schoolchildren.
This merry-go-round was produced by Empower Playgrounds, a Utah-based NGO that seeks to further the educations of Ghanaian school children by providing rural Ghanaian villages with innovative energy solutions. And they do this in the most fun way possible, by installing merry-go-rounds that generate electricity.
I had the privilege of interning with EPI this summer, where I worked with Crys Lee, executive director of EPI, and learned about the desperate need among children for the most basic of resources: light. Like many privileged students I’d esteemed myself to be somewhat sensitive to global poverty, and like most privileged students I was never really aware of what this actually looks like.
Poverty can look like a lot of things, but one of the scenes that most influenced EPI was that of a student, trying to keep up in school, up late studying with a filthy kerosene lamp. Kerosene lamps are a health hazard, both because of the pollutants that they produce, and because the villages that they’re being used in are so flammable. Electric lanterns, the tough kind that campers utilize, seemed like an easy solution: the only issue was to find a way to keep them charged. And so, the electricity-generating merry-go-round was invented.
EPI is a fastidious organization. They have to be, to keep up with the 52 villages that they’ve installed merry-go-rounds in. They routinely check in with each location, and have direct correspondence with the people that they serve in order to keep improving their services. When I was working with them, they’d just adopted a new lamp in response to a complaint from many students that the old ones were too bright.
Beyond just installing merry-go-rounds, EPI has sanitation projects, a library service, and also works to install solar energy solutions in certain Ghanaian homes. They’re constantly looking for new ways to further the educations of the 20,000 students that they work with, whether that is by donating science kits (which I’ve played with, and are more fun than a lot of what I ever learned in my science classes), or delivering my pencils, or empowering female students through menstruation kits.
Their iconic product will always be their merry-go-round, though. It’s hard for me to not see the metaphor in this. The merry-go-round is one of the few pieces of playground equipment that requires strangers to work together. And like learning, when it finally does start spinning and becoming brighter and brighter, it's thrilling to realize what a group of motivated children is able to accomplish.
Now, a merry-go-round that turns kids' energy into light. That’s something.