The act of folding paper might not seem very educational at first glance, but doing origami with your kids is a great way to help them build the skills they need to excel in the classroom.
Paper was invented in China around 105 AD, but brought to Japan around the sixth century, where it was considered a luxury item. Therefore, origami would only have been done for religious or ceremonial purposes.
Although most origami books and kits list a minimum age of 6 to 8, it's often possible to teach toddlers the basics of paper folding. Linda Stephen, an origami artist who has had her work exhibited throughout the US and Japan, began teaching her daughter origami when she was just three years old. "She actually did some even before that at a Japanese preschool - simple flowers in many colors pasted onto large construction paper," Stephen said. "It was beautiful. She could do models like the balloon or the crane when she was 6."
Lessons for toddlers and preschoolers focus on basic ideas like identifying shapes and colors, but this knowledge provides the building blocks needed for future study. "Origami builds spatial sense and an understanding of symmetry - skills vital to the development of intuitive thought," Stephen said. "I volunteer to teach origami about once a year in my children's classrooms. I always make sure to emphasize math and geometry concepts for that grade/age level. For preschool children, I emphasize folding a square in half into a triangle. For older children, I emphasize the line of symmetry or that many origami patterns are symmetrical - the same on both sides."
One great resource for teaching young children origami as it relates to key academic skills is Follow-the-Directions: Easy Origami from Scholastic. The book is marketed to teachers, but parents could easily work on the projects at home with their children.
Since origami involves transforming a flat sheet of paper into a 3D object, it helps children develop the foundation they need to better understand Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in high school and in college. This is important because STEM careers are expected to be among the best paying and fastest growing occupations in the next decade or two.
Origami also teaches children about patience, persistence, and creativity. They learn that making mistakes is part of the process of mastering a new skill. Sometimes, mistakes in origami can even lead to happy discoveries. For example, an origami cat can become an origami fox just by varying a few of the folds. Seeing this artistic component of origami helps children learn that science and math don't have to be "dry" or "boring" school subjects.
"What I love most is that origami promotes creativity -- probably much like playing with Legos or building a fort out of pillows or sticks," Stephen said.
What Do the Children Say?
Eleven-year-old Owen Bryne has been practicing origami for three years and feels strongly that his interest in origami has made him a better student. "I feel that folding origami has helped me to understand math better," he said. "Origami has helped me to understand fractions and geometrical shapes, but most of all it has helped me to follow and to understand directions more clearly."
Sixteen-year-old Calista Frederick-Jaskiewicz, founder of Origami Salami, says, "Doing origami is undercover STEAM. And the 'A' in STEAM is Art. All Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math are beautiful, elegant disciplines. Why not learn about them artfully? I like it that I can show how an origami model is math you can hold in your hand."
One Mom's Perspective
Cynde Frederick, Calista's mother, has seen firsthand how origami can help a child's academic development. "Origami keeps little hands profitably busy and off the video games for awhile," she said. "Children produce items that are great gifts, can be used as decorations, and invite them to focus and think in the process."
Origami is most often thought of as a solitary hobby, but children who love origami often find that it provides a positive way for them to connect with their peers. Frederick says her Calista's work with Origami Salami has taught improved her communication skills while helping her make a network of friends from around the world. "To make it happen, she learned how to use social media, how to communicate more clearly, how to lead by example, the value of extensive research, how to take personal risk in order to advance her programs and accept failure when others did not share her passion, and how to keep going anyway!" Fredrick said.