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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Illo of an origami hummingbird

What do pizza boxes, paper bags, and fancy napkins have in common? Well, you might have guessed it -- origami.

Origami, the ancient art of paper folding, is making a comeback. While some of the oldest pieces of origami have been found in ancient China and its deepest roots are in ancient Japan, origami can make an impact in today's education too. This art form engages students and sneakily enhances their skills -- including improved spatial perception and logical and sequential thinking.

An Art Form for All Subjects

Don’t believe me? Researchers have found a number of ways that origami can make lessons enticing, while giving students skills they need. (Think of it as vegetables blended into spaghetti sauce.) Here are some ways that origami can be used in your classroom to improve a range of skills:

Geometry

According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, geometry was one area of weakness among American students. Origami has been found to strengthen an understanding of geometric concepts, formulas, and labels, making them come alive. Here’s how to use it in your class (PDF). By labeling an origami structure with length, width, and height, students will learn key terms and ways to describe a shape. You can use origami to determine the area by applying a formula to a real-world structure.

Thinking Skills

Origami excites other modalities of learning. It has been shown to improve spatial visualization skills using hands-on learning. Such skills allow children to comprehend, characterize, and construct their own vernacular for the world around them. In your class, find origami or geometric shapes in nature and then describe them with geometric terms.

Fractions

The concept of fractions is scary to lots of students. Folding paper can demonstrate the fractions in a tactile way. In your class, you can use origami to illustrate the concepts of one-half, one-third, or one-fourth by folding paper and asking how many folds students would need to make a certain shape. The act of folding the paper in half and in half again and so on can also be used to demonstrate the concept of infinity.

Problem Solving

Often in assignments, there is one set answer and one way to get there. Origami provides children an opportunity to solve something that isn't prescribed and gives them a chance to make friends with failure (i.e. trial and error). In your class, show a shape and ask students to come up with a way to make it. They may get the solution from various approaches. Remember, there is no wrong answer.

Fun Science

Origami is a fun way to explain physics concepts. A thin piece of paper is not very strong, but if you fold it like an accordion it will be. (Look at the side of a cardboard box for proof.) Bridges are based on this concept. Also, origami is a fun way to explain molecules. Many molecules have the shape of tetrahedrons and other polyhedra.

Bonus: Just Plain Fun!

I hope that I don't need to explain fun. Here are some activities (with diagrams) to keep those young hands and minds working.

No Papering Over Origami's Benefits

Children love origami as evidenced by how they are enamored with their first paper airplane, paper hat, or paper boat. And while we might not always think about it, origami surrounds us -- from envelopes, paper fans, and shirt folds to brochures and fancy towels. Origami envelops us (forgive the pun). Origami has been found to improve not only 3D perception and logical thinking (PDF), but also focus and concentration.

Researchers have found that students who use origami in math perform better. In some ways, it is an untapped resource for supplementing math instruction and can be used for geometric construction, determining geometric and algebraic formulas, and increasing manual dexterity along the way. In addition to math, origami is a great way to merge science, technology, engineering, art, and math all together: STEAM.

Origami is a STEAM Engine

While schools are still catching up to the idea of origami as a STEAM engine (the merging of these disciplines), origami is already being used to solve tough problems in technology. Artists have teamed up with engineers to find the right folds for an airbag to be stored in a small space, so that it can be deployed in a fraction of a second. Additionally, the National Science Foundation, one of the government's largest funding agencies, has supported a few programs that link engineers with artists to use origami in designs. The ideas range from medical forceps to foldable plastic solar panels.

And origami continues to amaze scientists with its presence in nature. Many beetles have wings that are bigger than their bodies. In fact they can be as much as two or three times as large. How are they able to do that? Their wings unfold in origami patterns. Insects are not alone. Leaf buds are folded in intricate ways that resemble origami art, too. Origami is all around us and can be a source of inspiration for children and adults alike.

So no matter how you fold it, origami is a way to get children engaged in math, could improve their skills, and makes them appreciate the world around them more. When it comes to making lessons exciting, origami is above the fold.

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Danielle Sigmon's picture
Danielle Sigmon
Social Media Marketing Coordinator

Here a few ideas for using Origami in the classroom from teachers who shared on Facebook: The full thread is here: https://www.facebook.com/edutopia/posts/10153322745649917.

"I used Origami as process activities with language/speech students . Fun, interactive, language generating, plenty of opportunities for speech sounds; did I say fun? And each student kept a reminder of their IEP objective for that session." -Dorothy-Jean Chapman

"I used origami in math geometry lessons and finding volume." -Nancy Huston

(1)
Matt's picture

I would think that Origami is also an engaging way to have students practice "following directions" and "persevering".

Ashley Gomez's picture
Ashley Gomez
Former Community Engagement & Social Media Marketing Intern

Wow, I would have never thought about origami as a learning utensil but this is really an amazing and fun activity. I especially liked it in relation to problem solving, I think that is an activity people can use to exercise their brain no matter what age (I know it definitely would get my bolts turning!). Who would have thought that paper *alone* could be such an awesome tool for learning.

Amills's picture

I have seen origami used in lessons, but I have not had the chance to use it in one of my lessons. The reasons for using origami have motivated me to use it very soon in one of my lessons. I am always looking for ways to improve student learning!

Janis Weasel Bear's picture

Super cool. I've used origami in the past, but our exploration was completely experiential and discovery-based. I don't have a background in mathematics, and I didn't learn much of the necessary concepts when I was a student. My teaching specialization is Fine Arts (Drama) and the humanities--at the secondary level. Last year--my very first teaching year with a classroom of my own--I was placed in an elementary school as a generalist teaching Grade 6 curriculum. I had no idea what to do, or how to teach math. I was terrified of it. But I have good spatial sense, and I like geometry. I started with what I "knew" from life experience, and began a project-based "unit" study of the Sioux star blanket. This became a year-long exploration as I learned alongside my students about the math concepts that are embedded in the blanket pattern. We explored shape, space, angles and measurement through paper-folding. Most of my learners are tactile (as am I), and through folding paper, they were able to retain and recall much in a very short time. I learned so much through that experience, and I want to explore more using origami.

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