The Power of Play

Student Ambassador: Josh Weiner

OWEd Ambassador Since: 2009

Grade 11

School Washington International School, DC

Reflection Experience


Shooting hoops on an outdoor court one day, the ball I shot bounced off the rim and rolled out of-bounds. I scrambled to go retrieve it and I was in a great mood— until I saw the ball roll into a puddle beside the nearby water fountain. The faucet, I discovered, was spurting water out unendingly— and turning the knob didn’t stop it at all. Buckets and dog bowls were overflowing at its base, and the rest of the clean water was gushing straight off into the sewer grid on the side.

I couldn’t help but feel some stinging guilt at this sight. The water I was watching run freely into the sewers is something that millions of people would be overjoyed to have, and yet are constantly deprived of every day. It was pretty terrible to just stand there, thinking this looming thought— however, standing by and watching was certainly not my only means to respond to this situation; I figured that going further would be my responsibility. A number of innovative organizations out there must have felt similarly as well— before deciding that it was in their power to make a change.

I discovered proof of such determination myself on one scorching morning last June. I was part of a summer service trip to Zambia, and was working on a farm just outside the country’s capital, Lusaka. For hours on end, I grabbed the round metal bars of a merry-go-round and flung them forward, faster and faster with every spin. The schoolchildren, though not always brave enough to climb on, nevertheless gathered around in high spirits to enjoy the sights. But for me, the most triumphant sound was something much softer than their cheerful laughs and applause. It was the faint glub-glub-glub of water being chugged into a massive tank 25 feet overhead. That water would provide sanitation to the community, as well as help to grow the crops I had helped plant that day on a nearby garden. It seems that using a “PlayPump” this summer in Africa proved to be highly worthwhile.

The remarkable concept of merry-go-rounds that could pump water when spun first occurred to a British businessman named Trevor Field in 1996. He soon began installing them, for roughly $14,000 each, with the help of the company RoundAbout Outdoor. Over a thousand have now been constructed in multiple nations. The company now plans to expand to further countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Once this has been achieved, it is estimated that PlayPumps will provide water for approximately 10 million people.

Clearly, there is far more to PlayPumps than meets the eye. At first glance, they may seem to merely be a rudimentary item— just a metal wheel, with a tank and faucet nearby. And yet, it is hard to properly express the stunning magnitude of the problems that it deals with. First of all, consider that over 1.1 billion people worldwide have no access to clean water (according to This includes 300 million in sub-Saharan Africa, where PlayPumps are stationed. For many of these people, the only means of collecting water is through a grueling journey to the source closest to home — and the journey’s effort is cruelly disproportionate with what little water they are able to carry back in their buckets. What’s worse, the ground sources the water is usually pulled from are often unclean and not sufficiently potable for many vital purposes. Lastly, to engage in this task, many young schoolgirls are drawn from class to help, and are hence deprived of the education they all deserve.

The electric pumps so common throughout wealthier areas would solve most of these problems. Unfortunately, such systems are beyond the cost capabilities of these developing nations. Many locations where PlayPumps are constructed even lack electricity to begin with. These factors contribute to the need for the relatively inexpensive PlayPumps to serve as the ideal alternative: bringing safe, naturally-filtered water directly to the needed spot, sparring women and girls of considerable burden. And, of course, the joy and essence of the system is that it allows kids to make a most productive use of playtime.

Having twice spun a PlayPump in Zambia (once on a farm, as described above; and previously at a separate church community) I can attest that spinning them was amazingly fun, just as using any other carousel would be. In fact, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment grow with each spin. The clean water I could tell my efforts were producing prompted me to go faster and faster with each spin.

Hopefully, the people behind PlayPumps will share a similar attitude. After all, their efforts have already made a difference to millions of people in a large number of countries. But both the numbers of people and nations served have the potential to grow further still. Because of this, I do hope the company keeps its determination, and continues to expand as much as possible. The results of doing so will be extraordinary.

Finally, I would like to add that, thanks to PlayPumps; I do feel that I have personally been changed for the better. And not only because I am now more compelled to stay aware of water-related issues. Nowadays, I simply cannot help but marvel at the ways that people aim to make a difference through others’ pure enjoyment. From seeing friends building kites that can charge electricity, to long runs and bike rides for charity purposes, it really seems the best way to make a positive impact is by combining it with an opportunity for fun. PlayPumps has inspired me to brainstorm for such ideas of my own. And when something juicy does indeed occur to me, the impact of those little merry-go-rounds will have spread far beyond the one continent where my first spins were spun.