There is a place for lecture and active listening in the classroom, but children tend to learn and remember more when they get to engage in hands-on lessons. Origami is a time-honored tradition in Japan, but you can also use this paper-folding activity in your classroom to reinforce concepts in math, engineering, physics, art, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and more. Your students might even learn a bit of history, since origami is much more than art in the Japanese culture! Here are ten ideas to get you started.
Since origami is the art of folding paper into shapes, it lends itself well to teaching and reinforcing geometric concepts. For early learners, students can practice folding paper into a variety of shapes. Older students can measure the sides of their origami creations and calculate area and perimeter.
Lesson 1: Simple Shapes
- Introduce the concept of geometry by having your students make simple shapes, such as pencils or houses.
- Provide plenty of paper and discuss various geometric concepts as your students fold.
- Talk about how many sides and angles different shapes have.
Older students can discuss the different kinds of triangles as they fold. You can also introduce geometric vocabulary, such as equilateral and symmetrical. You can also make origami pencils and houses.
Lesson 2: Area and Perimeter
Bring in more advanced concepts of area and perimeter using the origami houses or pencils your students made.
- First, have a discussion about how to break the two shapes apart to figure out the area of each. Provide rulers and review the formulas for the area of each type of shape.
- Then the students can add the area of each part together to get the total area. They can also use their measurements to figure out the perimeter of each shape.
- Remind your students that the parts where the shapes connect are not included in the perimeter.
Use this lesson to get you started.
Another math concept with which origami can help is fractions. Even the youngest students can fold pieces of paper in halves, thirds, and fourths to see fractions in action. As students are able to see how many times they must fold a piece of paper to make a certain fraction, they will begin to grasp the principles of division behind fractions.
Lesson 1: Basic Fractions
- Introduce simple fractions by providing each student with several sheets of paper.
- Demonstrate how to fold one piece in half and teach students how to write one-half using numbers and words.
- Repeat the demonstration to show thirds and fourths. More advanced students might even try sixths and eighths.
- Talk about how many times students need to fold their paper to make each fraction.
Use this tutorial to help you introduce origami fractions.
Lesson 2: Adding and Subtracting Fractions
You can also use origami to practice adding and subtracting simple fractions.
- Have your students get into groups with their paper fractions.
- Give them a series of fraction adding and subtracting problems and have them work together using their paper fractions to find the solutions. For example, for 1/3 + 1/3, students will place two of their thirds pieces next to each other to discover that the answer is 2/3.
Use this paper folding activity to get your students ready.
Paper alone can’t really do much, but folding paper opens a world of physics possibilities. Your students create paper bridges or chart the course of paper airplanes. Your students will be even more challenged to discover that true origami doesn’t use glue or scissors – only the folds made in a piece of paper.
Lesson 1: Paper Airplanes
- Teach your students to make a variety of different paper airplanes with copy paper.
- Once they have several planes, introduce physics concepts such as speed, distance, aerodynamics, and flying conditions.
- Challenge your students to fly each of their planes in different settings, such as on the outdoor field and in the gym, and track their distance and speed. Ask them to adjust the wings and try each plane a second time.
- Have students can compare and contrast which planes fly more quickly or slowly and hypothesize about why this might be.
Lesson 2: Spinning Tops
Study the concepts of gravity, speed, torque, and motion by teaching your students to make origami spinning tops.
- First, define the vocabulary associated with spinning objects and discuss how these things work together to get a top to start spinning, as well as continue spinning.
- Then, give your students each 3 squares of paper that are the same size and teach them to make their tops.
- Once the tops are created, students can make tables and graphs about how long their tops spin, what happens when different amounts of force or applied to the top when spun, and how many times the tops spin before coming to a rest.
Most elementary school science curriculums cover animals and their habitats. Origami is a novel way to bring this life science unit alive and make it more exciting for your students.
Lesson 1: Origami Animals
Introduce origami during this unit by encouraging your students to make a variety of origami animals. As your students fold paper to create their animals, you can discuss key ideas associated with animal groups, such as mammal fur, the cold-blood of reptiles, and how birds lay eggs.
Lesson 2: Animal Habitats
Expand on your life science unit by asking your students to create habitats that go with the origami animals they made.
- Gather shoe boxes, paper, pipe cleaners, scissors, glue, and other assorted art supplies.
- Have your students create homes that align with where their origami animals live. Students who made origami whales can create underwater dioramas while students who made snakes can create desert dioramas.
- Encourage students to make origami plants, trees, flowers, and other natural features to enhance their origami animal homes.
Lesson 3: Endangered Species
- Start your lesson with a video about endangered animals.
2. Then provide your students with plenty of paper and ask them to choose an endangered animal to create.
Your students can use their creativity and brain power to complete a variety of tasks related to origami. Trial and error is a key skill students will need for a lifetime of recognizing and solving problems.
Lesson 1: Origami Shapes Challenges
Start by having your students make different shapes simply by folding a piece of paper. Ask students to make a square, a triangle, a rectangle, or, more challenging, a circle, only by folding the paper. Have extra paper on hand for students who want or need to keep trying different folds to be successful. As your students fold the paper, they will be using their problem-solving skills and persistence to form each shape.
Lesson 2: Pop-Up Card
Now that your students have figured out some ways to make paper shapes, they are ready to graduate to something a bit more challenging. Assign your students to make a popup greeting card. You can show your students the basics of making a popup or require them to rely on their problem-solving skills alone. You might even tie the cards into what you’re learning in other subjects by asking your students to make a popup card showing the solar system or by incorporating holidays such as Valentine’s Day.
Culture and history
Origami has a rich cultural history. Going back to when paper was invented, origami has been an artistic, hands-on way for people to express themselves for centuries. In addition to teaching your students about the history of paper and Japanese culture, they can also try their hand at making any number of origami projects.
Lesson 1: Origins of Origami
- Introduce the history of origami with this short YouTube video designed for young learners. Discuss the video with your students and ask them why they think origami continues to be such a popular activity.
2. Then, provide colorful paper squares and guide students through the basic paper crane – one of the most well-known symbols of origami.
3. You might also show your students an online read aloud of a story about paper cranes. This video shows the story “The Paper Crane.”
Lesson 2: Paper History and Economics
Because paper was a fairly new invention and was only available to the upper levels of society, only Japanese elite were originally able to fold origami shapes. Here’s how to engage students in the economics of origami:
- Discuss with your students about why a limited supply of paper would interfere with everyone being able to fold.
- Expand the conversation for older students by talking about supply and demand.
Then, have students practice one of the earliest forms of origami: wrapping gifts. Some origami paper is fancy, patterned paper and your students can design their own.
- Provide plain white paper to each student and have them design their wrapping paper.
- Once the paper is designed, students will be able to wrap a small box. Challenge students to figure out how to keep the paper on the box without tape – tape wasn’t invented back then!
- If students get stuck, here is a tutorial video showing how to do it.
The ability to follow directions is a key skill for children of any age. Practice the directions skill with origami! Either provide step-by-step pictures of origami shapes or instruct the origami steps verbally to the class. As your students increase their skill in following directions, they will see how much easier it is to bring a project to completion.
Lesson: Origami Steps Activity
Start simple with an origami project that can be completed in just a few steps. Read the directions one at a time and wait for students to complete each step before moving on. You may also provide a visual of each step, or rely solely on visual instructions. As your students improve in their ability to create an origami shape following your directions, gradually try more challenging creations with them. Students who get really into this may even attempt advanced origami as an extension activity.
Engineering and STEAM
Origami requires precise folds to create something concrete – often something that can be used, such as a paper cup. In order to make something like this, students must be able to think like an engineer. Further, origami can be used as a prototype for the design process. Your students can dream up inventions and make those prototypes using origami folds before they recreate it using building materials or a 3D printer.
Lesson 1: Origami Bridges
- Start with a discussion of why bridges are important, showing images and videos of different types of bridges.
- Once you’re confident your students understand the basics of bridge physics, challenge them to build bridges using paper and origami techniques.
- Test the strength and durability of each bridge by putting items such as pennies or pencils on the bridges, gradually increasing the weight until the bridge collapses.
- Discuss what students notice about the bridges that hold more weight compared to the bridges that collapse very quickly. Here is a great video for kids about how to build a paper bridge:
Lesson 2: Design a Paper Cup
One of the simplest things to make out of a piece of paper is a drinking cup. While there are several easy tutorials online, turn this into a great STEAM activity by asking your students to design and fold their own paper cup without instructions. Set your expectations, such as they are only allowed to use one piece of paper, can only fold the paper, and that the finished cup needs to hold water without leaking. Discuss different folds and have students brainstorm what a successful paper cup needs to have.
Your students will gain a great appreciation for certain styles of art by practicing origami. Since origami is an art form already, there are endless possibilities for incorporating a little paper folding into your art lessons.
Lesson 1: Pinwheels
Start with something simple like a pinwheel. Provide paper in a variety of colors or give your students white paper squares and let them decorate them with markers. Pinwheels are made with a few simple folds and can be attached to straws when completed. They make a great art project for decorating an outdoor space at your school!
Lesson 2: Play with Currency
Since any type of paper can be used to fold into origami shapes, dollar bills are a novel and artistic spin on traditional origami paper. If you’re not comfortable using real dollar bills, make copies of dollar bills on printer paper for your students to cut out and use. Make an even bigger artistic statement by using currency from around the world. Here are simple creations your students can start with.
Folding paper can help center a child and calm them down. Origami requires concentration, enabling focus on the task while other worries and concerns take a backseat. Creating can also raise self-esteem and mood. Placing a few origami papers in your calm down corner is a great way to incorporate mindfulness into your classroom.
What is a Calm Corner?
A calm corner is a place students can go when they need to take a break or calm down. When you introduce the calm corner, have a conversation with your students about what is appropriate and acceptable when using the calm corner.
Show the kids some different things they can do while in the calm corner, including simple origami. Provide squares of colored paper and some printouts that show simple origami shapes. You might even make a few of the projects to display in your calm corner. Demonstrate a few easy folds and show students how to try it out on their own.
In addition to teaching a wealth of important skills, origami is something different to bring into your classroom. Keeping your students interested and engaged is an essential part of education, and origami has the potential to do just that!