A group of Columbia University students have a good time reinventing the playground as a place to harness all that youthful energy.

For something that’s meant to celebrate the pleasures of childhood, the playground sure has gotten old. The essential program—–swings, slides, monkey bars—–is as limited and predictable as the activities it’s designed to promote. Though a playground may divert or entertain, rarely does it engender the kinds of social interactions that can meaningfully teach. It’s true that even the most uninspiring variant will whip a kid into furious expenditures of energy, but the outcome is a small, if satisfying, harvest: a better appetite and a tighter night’s sleep.

All of this caused professor Alice Chun to ponder how a 16,000-square-foot vacant lot in Stuyvesant Town, the Manhattan residential development where she lives with her husband and young son, might be used to change all that. “There are merry-go-rounds in Africa and India that generate energy,” she notes. “Children play on them, and villages with no water or electricity are able to pump from wells and have light. If they’re doing it there, why can’t we do it here?” Consequently she put this playful challenge to the graduate students in the design-build studio she teaches at Columbia University.

The as-yet-unbuilt playground, which the students named Kids Climb-It, is an all-rubber, recycled, and recyclable environment featuring 18 tripods—–constructed from steel pipes enclosed in rubber balls—–with rope nets strung between them. As kids climb the nets, their motion activates generators in the tripods’ peaks, which produce energy that’s stored in underground batteries.

The net system—–with eight distinct zones including ramps, tunnels, and vines—–encourages children to use their imaginations to develop their own games. Some of the rubber balls on the tripods trigger lights, bells, and water misters across the entire landscape, and a time and energy stopwatch enables kids to calculate how much power their games can generate within a fixed time period. And because the netting zones have been designed to attract different age groups, Kids Climb-It also functions as a kind of neighborhood in miniature, teaching and encouraging children with varying skill sets, temperaments, and degrees of maturity how to interact with each other.

As a reimagining of the aesthetics of play, a more efficient use of public space, a producer of clean power, and a landscape that encourages young people to think independently, Kids Climb-It is more than simple recreation. It looks to be a model of what tomorrow’s playgrounds, and citizens, might very well be.

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