OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

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
29 28

Written by

Update
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.

29 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Photo of Dean James
Team

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
Team

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

Photo of wekesa zab
Team

Amazing.. Kids need spaces that are inspiration, this is an example of such a space..
Halo Amowi, let's keep chatting on this line of thought.

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Hi, Wekesa. You are absolutely right that kids need spaces that inspire. Too many kids have nothing in their built environments to excite them or expand their imagination. I also believe that literacy can be encouraged by giving children reading places outside the classroom and by designing relevant literacy into their landscapes. Yes, let's continue the conversation!

Photo of Adeel Zubair
Team

Very clever use of wooden cable spools plus it doesn't cost much to produce. The idea of involving children and communities in the design is great and it gets them involved and work as a team.

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Adeel do you have any examples of these in the cities you know that you can point us to?

Photo of Andi SP
Team

That's amazing Amowi! Brilliant idea! I have an idea to create playgrounds for children in landfill areas and your idea inspired me to enhance it with using recycled cable spools. Maybe we could combine forces? I'd be happy if you tell me what you think about that https://openideo.com/challenge/zero-to-five/ideas/1-day-1-open-area-for-children-1-playground
Andi

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Hi Andi, your idea is courageous. Do you have access to cable spools?

Photo of Philippa Murphy
Team

What a fantastic idea Amowi. I can imagine children in schools being involved in painting them up. Keep up the good work!

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Phillipa, good thought! What a way to connect childrenof different geographies and cultures around the important theme of recycling!

Photo of Dominic Bond
Team

Great concept Amowi - we've admired your work for sometime now, and it would be wonderful to collaborate more closely. Am sharing this post with my colleagues in Elmina.

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Hello Dominic! Very pleased to be able refer to Sabre Trust (and your excellent contributions to early childhood education in Ghana) on this platform: http://www.sabretrust.org/.
Yes, please let me know how we might collaborate. We'd be delighted to have some of the play structures prototyped by Playtime in Africa tested in school yards, and to learn from you how we might better access practical global partnerships..

Photo of David Citrin
Team

great post! practical and transformative, thank you

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

David, you're welcome. Knowledge of local context and culture is essential, wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of survival and thriving - I appreciate your driving that message home in your posts!

Photo of OpenIDEO
Team

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

OpenIDEO thanks for featuring the micro playspace spool idea! We're really finding the input from the challenge community helpful.

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Great stuff, Amowi – and the toolkit to nudge replication is an interesting addition. Who do you envision you would distribute these toolkits to? Maybe you could add a scenario or two to your post to describe how this part of things would work? Check this example: http://www.openideo.com/open/e-waste/concepting/neighbourhood-e-waste-champion/ where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea in a human-centered way. (You can update your post at any time by hitting the Update Entry button up there on the right.)

Looking forward to some collaboration from our OpenIDEO community on this ripe-for-impact idea!

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Hi Meena! Small carpentry shops abound in urban Ghana, and a volunteer squad could probably distribute 50 to 100 hard copies directly per week. Uploading the toolkit is definitely in the cards - I can certainly update the post to address this. Love the scenarios in the e-waste post!

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Great to know about the small carpentry shops as a target for building. Perhaps there might be some way to motivate them through some friendly competition on their customised versions of the basic design?

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

That's a great idea - making a game of the design process. I think it would work, especially with some media attention!

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

A starting point as you evolve this idea here on OpenIDEO maybe going and talking to the people who have the spools and the people who you envision to customise them and start to tease out some of the logistics and motivators involved.

We're also keen to learn more about the image you've used here. Do you know the organisation who built this? (perhaps you might add a credit to the image – you can do that by hitting the Update Entry button on the right, going to your image gallery and adding caption text under the image) Have you spoken to them about what they learnt in the process?

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Hi Meena! I've made some updates which I hope answer some of the questions here. You make a really good point about starting to make the connections between potential suppliers, makers and users. Could you explain "logistics and motivators"?

Photo of Meena Kadri
Team

Logistics: the practicalities of how supply and production would work. Motivators: a deeper exploration (from talking to potential suppliers and customisers) of what might motivate them to get involved. Your assumptions above sound interesting – though would be good to explore with these people further to find out more about whether they will be motivated to get involved and what additional motivations you might stumble upon through having conversations with them. We're excited to hear what you discover.

Photo of Leire Olano
Team

Amowi, I think it's a really good idea to take advantage of recycling things to give this kind of nice opportunities to childrens. Appart from re-using wooden spools in this case, you are designing a way of learning for childrens. With this, they are having the inspirational chance to have a comfortable, beautiful, happy... place to concentrate in their things while at the same time you are showing them how really good things can be done with only passion and willingness.

I've feel identifyed with this idea with a project we are just starting to run. We also want to work in recycling issues with this kind of objectives of adding value to everything we can. And we are not sure how to focus it but I think this idea could help as creating something bigger.

Reggarding your idea, I want to encourage you to continue doing this kind of things because life will go better with this steps!

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Leire, thank you for your encouragement! This is something all communities can do and yet each one will be different.. Can you tell us a little more about your project?

Photo of Susanna Burrows
Team

What a great idea to re-use wooden spools. It's so simple, yet so many opportunities could come of it. I love the idea of involving children and communities in the design and reconstruction of them. Also the idea of micro-playspaces is really powerful. Check out this article that was shared with me: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/playgrounds-public-transportation-cities-family-friendly

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Susanna, thanks for the link - this issue of playful interventions in the lived realities of children and their families is a fascinating design challenge, and one that I think about all the time.

My other idea post, "The Full Service Children's Park", is of course the other side of the play conversation. I have included it because in Ghana we are really starved of inspiring design with children in mind. So there is a role for even one place committed to passing along good ideas to neighborhoods, markets, other community spaces. Our children also need a place where they can see things that inspire. I remember a little line of 5 children aged from 12 to 4, who showed up one day, shyly asking if they could play in "the park" ( we were, and still are, working to make this two-acre space more accessible). They had walked two miles on a highway that's not particularly pedestrian friendly, to get there.

Maybe, as so often in life, a balance or continuum between the two different kinds of resources may be the key?

Back to the spools - even though there are lots lying around in our city, you have to be persistent to go after them ( I know, I've done a bunch of chasing after spools and logs in Accra recently!), make sure you're not treading on toes, and most challenging, to move them to where you want them. For this reason it makes sense for an org like Mmofra to seed prototypes about the city. I spent time in the markets observing little groups of 1-8 year olds playing in between their mothers' stalls. I think the micro-playspace would be perfect tucked into such environments.

Photo of Thi Mui Nguyen
Team

Amowi, I totally love this idea that you want create an inspiring environment for children to learn. Let children be children and they will learn the most when they are having fun!

Photo of Amowi Phillips
Team

Thi Mui Nguyen, hi! The small "spool world" has lots of possibilities for play. Do you have any ideas?