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Micro Playspaces and Book Nooks From Recycled Cable Spools

Empty cable spools can be salvaged and redesigned with young children in mind to encourage playful learning in multiple ways. Scaling this idea into a city-wide campaign has the power to transform awareness of play, repurposing and public art for children.

Photo of Amowi Phillips
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The spool micro playspace could be a practical and feasible theme for an international urban co-creation event!

" The challenge is of aggregation of ...[i]nnovation, to be able to engage and adapt and co-create at a cross-country scale."
                          - Aromar Revi, Indian Institute for Human Settlement

What if makers in 5 - 10 city neighborhoods around the world were to collaborate by installing 1 - 2 models, each a unique, vibrant symbol of commitment to childhood expressed through local art and artisanship?

Documented as a photo essay, such a project could be a powerful tool for awareness of recycling,urban space for children, and the importance of inspiring environments in the development of all children.

Wooden cable spools/reels/drums can be found quite commonly in some urban landscapes, left behind by telecom, electricity or construction work crews. However, in the case of cities like Accra, other than as casual seating or tables, these are rarely upcycled.

The ones my team has come across are usually in pretty good shape, ranging in size from 3 feet in diameter and up. If asked nicely, empty spool owners are sometimes willing to donate them, or at least part with them at a discount.  The major expense can be transporting them to the reconstruction and end-use locations.

The pre-treated wood stands up well to rain and sun, making it an inexpensive, available and versatile basic structure perfect for redesigning into compact, micro playspaces.

Repurposed spool playspaces can be positioned right inside low-resource neighborhoods, in groups of market stalls or in school yards.  In each of these settings, young children can have a degree of autonomy within the sightline of one or more responsible caretakers.

The redesigned structure can serve multiple functions, for example as a reading bench, a set of bookshelves or book cases, a vertical sensory garden, and a word scape. The image here is from a prototype designed and built by our Playtime in Africa team in Accra, a collaborative effort including community artists, a gardener and a carpenter.  We wanted to put the children in a "spool world", surrounded by words and color. The vertical sensory garden is meant to be an invitation to explore all sides of the spool.

What we learned is that kids of all ages will readily use the spool with little or no direction. Decoration and innovative learning elements really do make them especially attractive to children (one innovation yet to be explored is a "braille spool"!).  There can be inner and outer play zones being simultaneously used. Safety is important - stabilize the spool where it comes into contact with the ground because they are quite heavy. There are lots of nails in spools, so these have to be handled properly.

The outer surfaces of the reels are good for tactile literacy and numeracy activities.  Larger spools lend themselves to greater design possibilities which integrate other materials like wooden shipping pallets.  They may, for example, include short flights of steps to accommodate more movement and seating space.

Design elements which pay attention to particular neighborhood/school/market cultures will strongly influence the acceptance of these installations. For example, if a community has a mural art or gardening or craft tradition, why not have the structure imprinted with that identity?
This is a great collaborative design project.

A number of robust prototypes will need to be built and shared, along with a user-friendly tool kit, to encourage replication and inspiration.  Most peoples' first reaction has been, "we never thought of doing this"!

So who would get these tool kits? A culturally sensitive approach is to find a responsible adult in a neighborhood, take time explain the project (images are very helpful) and get their buy in for locating a site and spool(s) and for organizing a maker event.  Here are some scenarios:

In Malata market, Accra, there are scores of young children who play, singly or in small groups, around their mothers' stalls all day. One or two of these mothers could volunteer to be the responsible person(s) for each scouted location within the market, and to organize a maker event (the markets, which are largely organized by women, are also full of carpenters and artisans). 

Nima is Accra's best documented "slum".  It also has an amazing arts program for youth. There are many pre-school programs with small courtyards. It makes sense to "seed" such already sensitized communities with the toolkits, which they can then share with their community artisans/carpenters.

Of course the tool kit can also be available online. It could be of great value in persuading companies and government to donate their spools for a good cause.

Thanks to Andre Fernandez and Susanna Burrows for like-minded concepts here!

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

Children two years of age and older, living in any area where wooden cable spools can be salvaged. When we first posted the spool photo on our facebook page, it had over 30,000 hits from all over the world, so we know there's a lot of interest! We are designing in the first instance for urban sites in Accra and other parts of Ghana where we know spools can be sourced.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

1. Create a portfolio consisting of sketches ofup to 10 prototypes, including renderings of these models within the intended communities. 2. Approach likely suppliers of spools with the goal of making them long term partners in a scalable project with strong PR potential. In Ghana, these suppliers would most likely be the Electricity Corporation of Ghana, the large Telecom companies, and other industrial concerns. The Telecom companies, including Vodafone, MTN and Tigo, all have CSR policies on supporting children and the environment. This is also an opportunity to find out what reasons supplier may have for not buying in, and how their concerns can be addressed. 3. Working from Mmofra Foundation's Maker Space, design and repurpose three prototypes and place them in three different spaces, e.g. one neighborhood, one market place and one school yard. In each location, local artisans and carpenters will have been approached to support the pilot. Adult caregivers in each case would be asked to observe and record how children used the structures and share feedback at the end of a month. Makers would need to visit the sites mid pilot period to take pictures, check how the structure is standing up to use, and to help correct structural problems that might be safety issues.

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

- Feedback from the openIDEO community. Are there other cities in which the pilot described here might work? Practical suggestions for making these structures as robust as possible and capable of storing books or even small toys in waterproof compartments? Thoughts on how to make the design of spools competitive between communities? - Graphic design support to sketch prototypes as well as a simple step-by-step instruction manual (tool kit). - Partnership with: a design / landscape architecture / Outdoor art class or student(s); spool suppliers; a literacy and/or recycling support organization; media outlets (radio, TV) who can help launch a play-and- recycling awareness campaign. - Funding to scale the idea very quickly so that an impact can be seen across a city. Major costs would include (back of the envelope here, to be reviewed) : - transportation (sourcing, and transporting from source to work area to final location) - redesign / reassembly ( tools, materials, labor, finishing)

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am ready and interested in testing this idea and making it real in my community.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Dean James

this idea is great, it is a universal thing as the materials can be found all over the world, the benches can be personalized and made to fit in to the environment making them usable everywhere

Photo of Amowi Phillips

It would be interesting to have a global event of spool design! Anybody else think so?

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