Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Passing Snow Days with Paper Cranes and Snowflakes

My 14-month old son has learned a new word, "Snow!" This comes as no surprise as the District looks like the shaken interior of one of those plastic snow globes from the DCA airport gift shop.

The city has been crippled by seasonal record-breaking snowstorms that buried the Washington, DC, metro area last Saturday and again mid-week just as we were beginning to see light. The federal government, public schools, and many businesses are closed and may remain that way through the weekend. Markets and drug stores are open intermittently but lines are long and the shelves picked over. Driving is treacherous, and public transportation service is limited to the main bus routes and below-ground train service. Sidewalks are unshoveled and icy in places forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets. The mail has not been delivered in days. A historic mess, yes, but we feel very fortunate to have power and water. Some of our family and friends in the suburbs have not been so fortunate.

My sister made a mad dash for groceries as soon as her street was plowed after Round #1 in anticipation of the next blizzard headed this way. Her 6-year old son asked why they were buying even MORE brownie mix, then paused in revelation and said, "Does this mean we're never going to be able to go outside again?" Collectively, Washingtonians are showing signs of "snow stress", and parents are facing the additional challenge of keeping young children stimulated and entertained while home from school. After several days, even new toys and books have lost their novelty and favorite television shows and video games have grown tiresome for kids. But if you keep paper of any kind in your house, you're still in luck- the kind of luck you grant yourself by folding paper cranes.

You may once have learned the concept of origami (from ori "fold" + kami "paper") from a school teacher; math teachers often use the exercise of folding paper to illustrate geometry. John Montroll, an American origami master with several books to his name, teaches at a local boys' school. He has gained the kids' admiration for his remarkable ability to improvise imaginative three-dimensional forms, such as a 3-headed dragon or a framed image of George Washington, out of a single uncut square or rectangle sheet of paper, as he sometimes does with a napkin from the cafeteria or a dollar bill from his pocket. If you were to tour the school, you would discover origami animals of different forms, patterns and size created by his students perched upon bookshelves and in unexpected little nooks across campus.

A childhood friend, whose mother was a 7th grade math teacher, learned paper-folding at home and eventually introduced it to her own elementary school students. Her "Introduction to Origami" intersession is one of the most popular offered. When my high school photography students mentored her 5th graders in a "Literacy through Photography" program, the youngsters expressed their appreciation by making origami cranes for us. We subsequently donated the cranes to students in the Japanese Culture Club who threaded together hundreds of them collected by the student body. The hand-made cranes were presented as a gift of encouragement to a classmate tragically injured in a swimming accident. In Japanese culture, this magnificent bird has been considered a symbol of loyalty and honor for thousands of years. Because of the strength of this symbol, Japanese tradition holds that a person who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted his greatest wish.

A few years ago, my same teacher friend took a trip with her Mom to their maternal homeland in Italy where she brought decorative 6" x 6" squares of paper in a small travel bag and created paper cranes as a gesture of goodwill to the people she befriended along the way. At one small outdoor cafe in Sicily, she began folding a crane for a curious school girl who approached her in hopes of practicing English with an American. Before long, several of the girl's classmates had joined in the conversation and were asking to see the origami demonstration again and again.

Origami may not be your cup of green tea, but these anecdotes suggest that young people do love the challenge of crafting new things with their hands from a familiar material like paper. In retrospect, you may fondly recall how to make paper fortune tellers, footballs, airplanes, boats or doll chains from your own childhood. If you need a quick refresher, there are a number of how-to books and websites dedicated to origami and other paper crafts for children. Look for additional resources that describe the history and cultural significance of the craft in the countries where different traditions, like origami and kirigami in Japan and papel picado in Mexico, have evolved. Also, choose age appropriate projects if your goal is for your children to play on their own. Easy origami is appropriate for children as early as four years of age, but they will still need your help getting started.

When the snow first began falling heavily five days ago, I initiated a week-long project to revisit some of my favorite paper crafts. AS is much too young to make them on his own but enjoys watching his father and I construct things, contributing where he can, and playing with them afterward. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, we first created cards with leftover construction paper and scrap paper from an old address book. I drew bluebirds on the cover of each card with crayons and, afterward, AS added his own crayon markings to help personalize them. On day two, I taped four 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of notebook paper together to fold a large paper hat for AS. We passed the afternoon trading the hat back and forth, taking turns wearing it and striking silly poses in attempts to make each other laugh. By Monday, we were in the mood to race. Our newest creations, origami jumping frogs, hopped two-by-two to cross a finish line at the end of the coffee table.

Inspiration came the next day from Snowflake Bentley, a children's book we borrowed from the library. This Caldecott Medal Book by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is about a 19th century farmer from Vermont, Wilson Bentley, who created the first close-up photographs of individual snowflakes. I read AS the story and showed him the beautiful photographic images of snowflakes reproduced in the back of the book. He then watched as his father and I folded and cut white computer paper, creating large snowflakes to hang on on his bedroom window like talismans against the next impeding storm (Round #2 of the so-called "Snowtastrophe"). The little diamond-shaped cut-outs from the snowflakes made snow-like confetti which we sprinkled over AS's head in flurries. While AS is too young to wield a pair of scissors himself, he loves to crumple paper. I gave him his own white sheet of paper so he could form a "snowball" to complement our snowflakes.

Creating paper crafts with your children is an inexpensive hobby and takes little planning. The process is fun, perhaps even therapeutic, and can help children pass time indoors in a quiet, constructive way. Projects such as paper bag puppets can be easily stored and recurrently enjoyed. Others can be pressed into scrapbooks as keepsakes once they have outlived their use. You may also use the opportunity to educate your children about recycling by reusing paper from shopping bags, magazines, and computer printers or notebooks.

This week local headlines in DC once again became national news thanks to the Blizzard of 2010. But rather than grow discouraged by another grim winter weather forecast and the prospect of additional snow days, we plan to re-purpose those newspapers and make the most of our time indoors.


  1. Sounds like you're having lots of fun :) I hope a blue bird shows up in my mailbox. Hint Hint. I bought some Valentines to send from the cats, gerbils, and fish! So happy that there are some that are not movie or toy advertisements - just cute animals and sweet drawings. Need to get some supplies to make my own Mrs. D. Valentines - maybe little origami hearts? This looks like an easy design:

    U-Tube has lots of how-to origami videos. The videos are really helpful if the patterns confuse you. For some people, figuring out the pattern is a puzzle - it's fun. For others, figuring out the pattern is a huge source of frustration. Don't let frustration stop you! Just go to U-Tube.

    Your post made me think of bookmaking. My kids love making pop-ups - Remember the Any Warhol Invitations? Here's a link to a pop-up resource list:

    Origami lends itself naturally to teamwork, since most designs are symmetrical. The adult can model a fold on right side, while the child repeats the fold on the left side. Origami's a great cooperative activity for kids to do with each other.

  2. Forgot to mention how much I like the photo - the double Ls and darkness of the rail, tree, and man against the bright, white snow. Looks like Artful Dad going out to shovel the car.

  3. Great links and suggestions! Thanks for posting them. The YouTube video tutorials are really helpful to watch. I especially love your comment about origami lending itself to teamwork.

  4. Thanks for some refreshing ideas for more entertainment to help me get through yet another snow day, and kids home from school. One thing I've learned being housebound day after day is that we already HAVE lots of stuff to do. There are projects and craft kits that can still be used from days gone by. Everything old is new again. Think I'll go find that origami paper now.

  5. "Everything old is new again"... This is a great philosophy and especially helpful to keep in mind when you're trying to cut costs here and there. Thank you!



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