Tapping the Power of Child Play

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Children are an amazing source of energy. Each generation fizzes with the restlessness and optimism of youth. But all that energy is expended in the playground, leaving behind nothing but the sound of laughter. What if that energy could actually be harnessed and turned into electricity? And electricity to power the cash-strapped school the children need to attend to get a good head start in life?

Meeting the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education would be significantly helped if schools had electricity and in turn the ability to use computers and the Internet. As well, school buildings can be used to their maximum if they have lights for night schools, and expand to secondary and adult education. It is typical practice in Africa to use schools in the evenings for older students. But usually they only have kerosene lamps to turn to for light.

The need is urgent for electricity for schools in Africa: even sub-Saharan Africa’s richest nation, South Africa, has 5,131 schools without electricity. And in the battle for energy, schools have to compete with businesses and cities, as increasing demand makes power outages more common.

Child-power is currently used to run Playpumps’ merry-go-rounds, drawing water from wells. But a children’s see-saw hopes to use the same principle to bring light to power-starved African schools. Children in Uganda are involved in a pilot test of a see-saw that generates electricity with the simple up-and-down motion of the playground ride. The electricity generated is sent to a storage battery via an underground cable. Just five to 10 minutes on the see-saw can generate enough electricity to light a classroom for an evening.

The see-saw is being tested in the Ugandan city of Jinja, made from locally sourced parts, and has been designed by 23-year-old British design student Daniel Sheridan. He was inspired after volunteering on a school trip to the island of Wasimi, south of Mombasa, Kenya, while building a school and teaching.

“The number of children we saw there that loved to play, and their vibrancy, I thought it would be great if I could somehow make use of this,” he told the BBC. “They don’t have Gameboys and all the rest. They are just so genuine and keen to help – they would grab the wheelbarrows we were working with given the chance.”

Sheridan won £5,500 (US $10,930) to further develop the idea at various university student enterprise award schemes. The money is being used for prototype development.

“The current need for electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is staggering. Without power, development is extremely difficult. The potential for this product is huge and the design could be of benefit to numerous communities in Africa and beyond.”

After the prototype testing in Uganda he hopes to either start a business or charity to manufacture the see-saws. His dream?

“Ultimately I would love to design a whole playground of different pieces of equipment that could generate enough electricity to power a whole village.”

Published: April 2008


  • Playpumps International: More child-powered ways to make a difference: these water pumps draw water from a well while children spin on the merry-go-round. Website:
  • OUiP! Or Optimized Universal Interface Platform: This white plastic handheld electronic bar uses the child’s play motion to power it, while it makes noises and displays images. Website:
  • Sprig Toys: Electro-mechanical toys made from wood and recycled plastic that are run on child-power only. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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