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Origami for Kids: A Day with Robert Lang

By Jerry Griswold

While the morning origami class offered by Robert Lang had attracted some adult males (clearly, engineer and math types) and many more females (a number of them Asians with an aesthetic interest in paper folding), the nine-year-old boys on either side of me were having the best time. Clearly bright and precocious, they were listening avidly to Lang discussing polyhedrons while, at the same time, furiously folding sheets of paper from a packet of assignments that we were not suppose to take up until the afternoon. Lang, himself, struck me as a nine year old, only grown up; in fact, in a recent New Yorker profile, he explained that he first got interested in origami when a teacher gave him a book on the subject, as a way of keeping the restless child occupied during class.

Over lunch, Lang admitted that he was bored by math in school until he discovered Martin Gardner. Perhaps best known for his “Mathematical Games” columns in Scientific American, Gardner is another grown-up nine year old and one of this country’s leading mathematicians, as well as someone interested in puzzles, cryptography, and Lewis Carroll (Gardner is the editor of The Annotated Alice in Wonderland). Indeed, within this community, thereseem only two kinds of people: nine-year-olds and nine-year-olds-who-have-grown-up. Both share an interest in such topics as bugs, computers, math and Rubik’s cubes. If it hasn’t happened already, this kind of youngster should be introduced to origami.

Origami FrogThis may seem surprising because origami is commonly associated with kimono-clad Japanese women who fold birds and flowers to entertain others. But in the last few decades, Lang and likeminded associates have taken origami in entirely new directions by linking it with science and math, by employing computers to design (and lasers to mark) elaborate origami designs that take weeks to fold, and by dazzling those older nine year olds who are now graduate students and math wizards at M.I.T.

Some of these new origami designs have such extraordinary visual appeal that they have been featured in museums (notably, San Diego’s Mingei International Museum) or appeared in television commercials (like the one for Mitsubishi where an elaborately folded dragon swoops over cityscapes assembled by Lang’s teams of assistants). Other designs have extraordinary practical applications as tiny packages meant to be unfolded: for example, medical devices meant to spread out once they are inserted via narrow tubes into arteries or huge and expanding telescopes sent up in space capsules.

Origami Figures

Strictly speaking, origami is a form of sculpture created under an unusual restriction: that a figure is to be made from a single sheet of paper. What makes the “new” origami different is the creation of especially difficult and elaborate figures like, for example, huge replicas of bugs with carapaces, multiple legs, and pincers. To the uninitiated, this “new” origami may seem akin to the “new” generation of moveable or pop-up books (created by Robert Sabuda and his peers), but there is one notable difference: origami is generated without paper cutting. Indeed, when you think about it, “genius” may be too soft a word to describe some folks now working in the field.

More than a hundred years ago, Friedrich Fröbel suggested that genius could be cultivated in children by means of paper folding; most famous for having started the kindergarten movement, this German educator also inspired Milton Bradley to create board games and invented the folded figure known as “Froebel’s Star.” In that same empowering way, Lang has undermined the notion that origami amounts to “tricks” and “magic.” More the educator, in his book for kids (Origami in Action) and in his classic meant for those already at work in the field (Origami Design Secrets), Lang has explained and provided step-by-step instructions. He does the same in his workshops:

Origami BeetleOn my part, seeing a bug or bird or elephant brought to life from a sheet of paper reminded me of theoretical scientists who believe the universe is something like a Moebius strip, a single sheet of paper articulated this way and that. It also reminded me of Buddhists for whom the cosmos is “a formless field of benefaction,” incarnating into various shapes. But while I was having these philosophical thoughts, the nine year olds on either side of me were having terrific fun and folding at a demon pace. Clearly, other likeminded kids would enjoy doing the same.


Origami in Action: Paper Toys That Fly, Flap, Gobble, and Inflate
By Robert J. Lang. St. Martin’s, $18.95 (Paperback)

Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art
By Robert J. Lang. A.K. Peters, $48.00 (Paperback)

“The Origami Lab” [A profile of Robert Lang].
By Susan Orlean. The New Yorker (February 19, 2007)

For information on the new generation of pop-up books, see Jerry Griswold’s essay for Parents’ Choice on “Moveable Feasts.”


About the Author
Jerry Griswold is the Director of San Diego State University's National Center for the Study of Children's Literature. His most recent book is Feeling Like a Kid.

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