Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Playing with ….. Paper

Tower cut from one sheet of paper: Peter Callesen Papercut

Paper is so everyday, ordinary, and ubiquitous. Its basic properties are so familiar they seem unimpressive, but somehow, that just seems to increase paper’s possibilities. Even when paper is used, it can be re-used and sometimes it's up-use is even more astounding.

Something remarkable about paper and, for that matter, other familiar materials such as water, clay, wire, fabric, sand, paint, wood, light is:

Paper has two lives. First, getting to know paper. Later doing something with it.

At virtually any age–baby, toddler, preschooler, children, tween, teen, and adult, and including, artists, designers, engineers, scientists, cooks and bakers, sewers, fix-it guys, plumbers, fabricators, sculptors (I’ll stop here)–first explore a material to find out how it behaves, responds, and changes. Information from messing about sparks connections and ideas and shapes a goal to reach for.

Learning About Paper
Exploring paper may begin with any of these actions:
Bend, braid, burn; coil, color, crimp, crumple, curl, cut; dissolve; fold, flip; glue, grease; mold; layer; paint, pleat, pierce, press, print, pulp; recycle, rip, ruffle; scratch, shred; soak, stack, stitch, stuff; tear, turn, twist; weave, or wrap.

Paper loves verbs and in many combinations. What happens when I crumple this big green sheet of tissue paper? It makes a quiet, rustling sound; it feels soft, dry, crinkly. How small does it get if I crush it tighter? It’s small, round like a ball and hidden in my hand. Open my up and smooth out the sheet. It’s big and flat again, but now with criss-crossing wrinkle lines. Like roads. There’s a tiny tear on one of the roads. How does the paper tear? It tears every-which-way in one direction. It tears in long straight lines in the other, tearing fast or slow. One big sheet of tissue paper is now 8 long strips. Folding a strip in the middle; twisting and twisting. Folding it in the middle again and twisting more. Let go of the ends and it doesn’t untwist. Tie the crumpled, smoothed, torn, twisted tissue paper in a knot. Spread the ends flat between the thumb and forefinger. One end is much longer; tear that off. 
Crumpled, wrinkled, flattened, torn, twisted and tied
One green sheet of tissue paper carries all this information; and it’s not even written on the paper itself. It is released through the research of a child or adult wondering, touching, testing, noticing, questioning what will happen if and what happened when. Introducing paint, glue, tape, water, or using a scissors or a hair dryer extends the investigation into paper’s properties. 

Then there are the explorations of many other types of paper: cardboard, acetate, Letter or A4 paper, butcher paper, cellophane, magazines, newspaper. What might sound like a preschool activity easily moves into classrooms, workshops, studios, exhibits, and maker faires.

Playing with Paper, Exploring Ideas
Paper’s second life relies on knowing how paper behaves, responds, and changes. Children and adults enjoy greater control with this knowledge in work on projects or activities: making shapes, constructing 3-d forms, investigating structures, or exploring motion.

Adding a twist and a touch to the paper helicopter
Familiarity with paper shifts the emphasis to doing and thinking about what’s going on with paper flying machines. Flat, lightweight, easily foldable, crisp creases, paper’s attributes suit it for paper airplane design and construction. Trim the paper plane to get it to float gently down; toss at different speeds and angles. Vary the design to test flight times and distances. Other paper flyers like helicopters also draw on paper’s properties. Dropping them from over head (or from a chair) suggests questions about why they spin as they fall, how air pushes up against the blades, bending them up a little and pushing sideways on the two blades. Paper and many paper products are familiar and inexpensive materials, like small paper cups. They work for quick, iterative experiments with moving air: snip the edges, toss above a blowing fan. Observe the falling, floating cup; now think about new ways to snip and bend the strips. Follow with a succession of quick redesigns. 

 Visiting Cardburg

Children and adults work with cardboard's properties–stiff, sturdy, springy, strong in one direction, and weak in another–to build at a large scale, create BIG constructions, and change the environment; these are experiences with merit but not often provided in museums. Crawling into and through boxes; opening them up and flattening them; stacking boxes, building walls and bridges... these activities and others support explorations with spatial reasoning, gravity, balance, and strength. Add tape to the project or Makedo connectors to join units and construct cardboard cityscapes. Few, if any, structures become as elaborate as Cardburg. But there’s always hope.

Everyday familiarity with paper, cardstock, or cardboard applies as well to creating automata, those quirky, appealing mechanical toys. Stories, nature, or imaginations inspire these crank-driven moving sculptures powered by combinations of simple machines. Cams, cranks, gears, ratchets, levers, and pulleys produce a range of movements–up, down, around– that bring blooming flowers, celestial events, and flying fish to life.

Learning New Lessons
Familiar, friendly, and unpretentious, paper is an entry point for a wide, wide range of skill levels, thought processes, and interests. For toddlers and young children, the hand and finger action involved in reaching, gripping, tearing or twisting paper or rolling a cardboard tube reflects brainwork. 

Moving up the age range, explorations of paper are a bridge to complex thought processes: ordering, sequencing, and patterning; exploring cause-and-effect, sparking connections; asking questions; naming and describing materials, ideas, and processes; relating 2 and 3 dimensions; and taking different perspectives. Exploring paper is actually part of a larger dialogue, sometimes with others and always with past experiences. The possibilities of abundant quantities of paper, varied and novel types of paper, or paper in unusual forms, like pulp, support and extend these and other investigations.

In the Paper Factory at Minnesota Children’s Museum, a giant pulper continuously produces paper pulp for making paper by hand or pressing paper medallions. To make medallions, children scoop pulp onto a drawer of a small press, place a carved mold on top, and push in the drawer. Turning a wheel applies pressure that squeezes water from the pulp. Reversing the wheel releases the pressure; the drawer can be opened and the medallion removed. A gentle nudge dislodges a 2" diameter (genuine) pressed medallion. On one of my visits, I overheard 11-year old Joe say, “I could do this for a living when I grow up.” Indeed, he did make medallion production his afternoon’s work: scoop, press, release; dry the medallion; choose a mold with another design; repeat; add glitter or a sprinkle of confetti. Line up the medallions and carefully package each one.  Joe’s concentration was impressive as was his evident pride in medallion production.
Following in Joe's footsteps: an avid medallion maker
Perpetual paper pulper at Minnesota Children's Museum

Paper’s Third Life
If exploring a material can delight toddlers as it does in the You-tube video of a laughing baby tearing paper as well as inspire Peter Callesen to create Papercuts and Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave to make 18th century fashions out of paper,  well, it is not too much to concede that playing with paper has enormous possibilities

So, maybe paper actually has three lives. First, getting to know it and how it behaves. Then doing something with it. Finally, fully exploiting paper with inspiration and imagination. How does paper inspire you?

Paper Info, Museums, and Exhibits
• Robert C. Williams Paper Museum: www.ipst.gatech.edu/amp/index.html
• Cardboard Institute of Technology at the Exploratorium: http://blogs.exploratorium.edu/tinkering/
• Smithsonian Institution’s Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, Turn: oecexhibits.si.edu/blog/2010/06/paper-engineering-fold-pull-pop-and-turn.html

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