Origami with Kids: A Day with Robert J. Lang

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” Youngsters interested in bugs, computers, math and Rubik’s cubes should be introduced to origami.” 
(from Parents’ Choice)


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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’s discussion of 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 told me 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, who died in 2010, was 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 was the editor of The Annotated Alice in Wonderland). Indeed, within this community, there seem 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.

This may seem surprising because, in the cliche, 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 like-minded 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 graduate students and math wizards at M.I.T.

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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). Others 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.

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 like Origami in Action), Lang provides step-by-step instructions. He does the same in his workshops: www.langorigami.com

On 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.

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Here are three of his books that Lang recommends for beginners. (You can see a complete list of his books at his website):


This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (July 2007). Here’s a short video profile of Lang created by Wired. And here’s a related essay where I discuss pop-up books.

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11. November 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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