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Discovering Origami With Kids

March 30, 2007

March 30, 2007

It’s taken almost a full year of living in Japan for me to finally have succumbed to the allure of origami. I have come to a point where I actually want to buy origami paper. I admit, it’s a little weird to write a blog about buying origami paper, but for some reason I felt a profound sensation today as I picked out my first pack of 200 origami papers.

Well, actually, if I’m really honest about it, I have, in fact, purchased origami papers before today, but I didn’t realize at the time that they were origami papers. The girls and I would just see these really adorable packs of about 25 pieces of perfectly square paper with some of the cutest little characters on them. Awwww. We bought a pack with Hamtarro, the cute little hamster; and also Doraemon, my favorite cat robot from the future. When we opened these particular packs of paper we were intrigued by how thin each piece was and  that there were four color variations of each pattern design in the set. Looking back now, I can’t help but think how ignorant it was that we didn’t know this was for origami, but honestly, we didn’t. It makes me chuckle now to think of it. We just simply thought they were “so cute” (said in a high squeaky voice). That was all there was to it. I think the fact that the papers were patterned also threw us off the trail. Isn’t origami paper solid-colored? Apparently not. Somewhere along the line, though, we did discover they were for origami, but putting folds in the cute little pictures seemed criminal. After all, to me, they were like little pieces of artwork. Until just a few days ago, that was all the origami paper I’d ever intended to buy here in Japan.

Ironically, I’d purchased origami papers in a themed kit from the Scholastic Book Club back in America. We also tried an origami calendar on recommendation from a really great friend. The idea of having my then-parent-educated daughter fold origami as part of our daily curriculum seemed somewhat intellectual to me. “Wow,” I’d think, “I’m truly molding her ability to use spatial relations and to find and see patterns in the world.” I felt very proud that we were incorporating this skill into our learning. After all, it seemed to me that origami folding was a high and lofty educational pursuit. But, in the end, it lasted only a few weeks because I couldn’t find the ability within myself, or the patience really, to figure out all the frustratingly difficult little folds and bends that needed to be made to end up with a turtle. It was maddening! Finally, I just gave it up because, well, I hate to admit this, but because I hated it. My husband was good at it though, and he said he did it as a child and had gotten really skilled at figuring out all the folding techniques. So, I put him to the task of teaching the art of paper folding to Ches. Again, they did it for a while and then finally lost interest.

So, now here we are, in Japan, the home of true origami, where origami is a national pastime; where children fold paper while sitting in restaurants, while waiting in lines, and while playing with friends. And, who would have thought that my preschool daughter would be the one to introduce our family to origami again, only this time, to be able to teach us how to love it.

It must have started somewhere between February and March after four-year-old Teagan had begun to settle into the routine at the Japanese kindergarten she started this year in January. What I discovered on their Open School Day (one day where parents get to come to school all day and watch what goes on as they STAND in the back of the classroom the entire time (more on that another time) was that origami was a daily part of their 3- to 4-year-old class. For about 45 minutes each day, children are given a pile of scrap papers from which they cut, fold, glue and decorate to make a variety of origami creations. Some designs are pre-determined and are carefully folded with an end in mind. Some take on a form as they go. Some are given as gifts to friends, some are put in backpacks to go home to mom. The point, as I noticed it that day, is that the children just create. They just do the origami, and they just have fun. It astonished me, really. I mean, in my early childhood training, I would never have introduced origami to a group of 3- and 4-year-olds. But here, kids are folding paper from birth. And, I mean that literally. I’ve seen Japanese mommies sit with their babies and fold paper for them, making animals, birds or anything. So kids follow suit and they fold paper for one another as little gifts or mementos in which they communicate, “hey, I like you and I made this gift for you. Let’s be friends.”

So, yeah, I guess this new admiration for origami started with Teagan because she brought this classroom activity home with her and began folding paper here at our house. Originally we didn’t have any square paper in the house, so she began cutting her own square paper from rectangular sheets, and then she would fold them. Her favorite folded creation was the Oni (oh-knee), which is an ogre associated with a holiday in February called Setsubun. They made origami Onis in her class in February and she made about 30 at home over the next few weeks.

This is the Oni and bean box that she made in Japanese preschool. The box is made from a milk carton. The children hold roasted soybeans and throw them at the oni to ward off bad luck for the New Year.

At first they were all Onis. Then they became cats, or herself, or me — though they all looked the same. She would also draw faces on them and each one was not complete until she had added facial features to each folded design. After I noticed that she kept cutting square paper out of rectangles, I thought, “I think I might buy her some origami paper.” But still, I didn’t. As I said before, I thought I hated origami.

But, as I think back on it now, it was really our play date on Monday this week that finally made me see that this was something I needed to do.

We went to a friend’s house for a play date, This particular friend is another American who attends the same Japanese kindergarten that we do. About 20 minutes into their play time, the other little girl, Lauren, opened a craft drawer filled with origami paper, crayons and an origami book with folding directions. The two girls then sat for nearly an hour, I kid you not, folding paper and making cats. It was phenomenal, and they talked and played and brought their cats to life as they folded.

On Tuesday, we went to the 100 Yen store and bought a pack of 200 sheets along with an origami box in which to store the origami paper. That afternoon we made more cats.

Now, I just have to figure out what’s up with all the different sizes. There are packs of paper that are about 1.5 inches by 1.5 inches; there’s something like a 3 x 3 and a 5 x 5 and a 7 x 7. I guess we’ll just have to experiment to find out what works best. This experience definitely typifies our continual awakenings in Japan. We finally become aware of one aspect of the culture only to have even more questions about it open up to us. Just like layers of an onion, when you peel away one, there are more waiting underneath. Discovering this culture is like a never-ending mystery sprinkled with “Aaa Haaa!” moments. (Thinking of Billy Crystal’s character in the movie “The Princess Bride” when he said, “Ahh kkhhaa, Ahh kkhhaa, he’s only MOSTLY dead!”)

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  1. Origami Revisited « Jenonymously

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