The Origami Effect, creativity and the role of art and hands-on in education (Forum Discussion)

I teach art at schools, am an artist I think so it’s close to my heart and I look carefully at how creativity in art is taught both in International western schools and Japanese ones. 

In terms of art its not at all clear cut the best way to teach… not at all, that is on how to engender a creative thinking child. In general (I’m taking the liberty here to make a few generalizations to illustrate a point) in Japanese art classes the children are given a model or example of the project and expected to follow this to a large degree.

While in international schools the children are given an outline of the project (often just verbal) and expected to “use their imagination”. I often see that children engaged on a project they are confident about where it is going i.e. they have the model in mind, will then discover and try out out all kinds of ideas along the way, they actually do lose themselves in their imagination and will work longer and more carefully and consequently independently to realize their idea. The other method expecting a child to come up with something creative often results in the child falling back on stereotypical images, copying their friend, asking for the teachers approval. I’m speaking mainly about younger children and I have to say I still haven’t worked out teenagers yet although I’ve taught them a lot their creativity and commitment to projects are like spinning weather vanes and its a challenge alright!

When I teach I try and plan in some “discovery moments” but my main focus is how to initially present the work at hand that sparks the child in some way. I don’t think there is any east or west in this. I love to see a flock of children fly to their desks eager to start then I switch off. If I can do that then my job is pretty much then just as a technician. International schools have the advantage of smaller classes and a endless variety of media and facilities and time for planning and support etc… BUT I love that in Japanese schools they use milk cartons egg cartons tape and paper pencils and paint, its all you need. An unlimited palette is also not such a big advantage, materials lose their meaning and value I cant explain this but its something like respect. It’s a huge disappointment with access to a box of 100 colours a girl picks pink and the reason is most certainly not creative thinking but quite the reverse. I feel that when many people use that word imagination is an empty house, I now prefer to tell the children not to use their imagination rather to look carefully and ponder the whys, why the colour , why the shape, why is it that way…

Now another point that I expect to be shot down for. In just about every class I teach I could divide the children, those with Japanese blood have fine motor skills far ahead of the purely western children. NOT always but pretty often for it to be very noticeable.


This just amazes me, I call it the origami effect (and if that’s true then we as parents should get out those origami kits) but really why is that?? The Asian/Japanese/mixed race will observe and co ordinate to a fine degree what they are looking at and how to use their hands and what effect is happening so they can constantly assess and reassess for a finely detailed and successful piece. I’m sorry to say that western children are more prone to make a blob that they alone recognize and will leave it at that sometimes insistently and this is really difficult to move forward with- It’s a pirate ship and its finished. I know I know these are generalizations but I experience this daily. I do wonder if it could be genetic advantage of Asians since the children come from such different backgrounds.

Anyway this brings me to what I do with my own children. Just about nothing in fact and they are amazingly creative in art and inventing.

I’m looking now at my computer stool that one son has kidnapped turned over and strung up, with a plastic tray, a sharpened chop stick, cocktail sticks rubber bands and tape has re invented a weighing scale.

It’s amazingly precise in its function and balance. I never gave him the idea nor those materials and there has been a ban on using the furniture for some time that he has clearly ignored! I haven’t commented on it either and he has not shown it to me for approval. I think that I have provided a creative atmosphere for him to operate, maybe. I’m not sure.

My final opinion of the nitty-gritty of promoting creativity (not sure how much is formally taught or learned) whether in art, writing, inventing for me is less this or that system, less imagination but more observation, which is the first, second and last step in problem solving. And then there is following your nose where ever it may lead and in the face of whatever people think and in the end that takes a HUGE amount of courage. None of these are curriculum in Japan or the West!




The Origami effect


I think your post regarding the Origami Effect, fine motor skills and the importance of observation over imagination – is too interesting to be left adrift in this discussion. A friend of mine who recently translated the Leonardo Da Vinci art book (a gorgeous Coffee Table Book tome) wrote something along the same lines as your observations regarding approaches art creativity, though you have said it in easier to understand terms – and I’d like to quote what she wrote (excerpted below):

“Which curriculum you choose will depend on your personal goals, which could include any combination of or all of the above goals. However, what you might not know is that art programs generally fall into two genres: one that follows a perception-based (method that involves copying masterpieces and art techniques) or one that follows an invention-based (imagination) principle.


Most art programs today are based on the invention principle: the idea that creativity is primarily a product of the imagination. Art programs based on the perception principle uphold the idea that individuals are more fundamentally creative in the way they perceive the real world than in the way they invent or imagine fanciful inner worlds. Most so-called creative art instruction programs are of the former type; they function without a viable system of standards, vary widely from school to school today and are based primarily upon the personal artistic tastes of the instructor and the passing trends of the day. Based on the modern concept of creativity, the idea that real art, the highest art, comes from the imagination rather than the senses, invention-based art instructors often argue that copying pictures is not a creative activity.


The perception principle holds that emphasizing perception does not ignore the imagination. Instead, the development of skills in the process (developing the ability to draw and paint directly from visual experience through copy-work, learning of design principles and drawing and painting techniques of the masters) can then be applied to the highest and most creative of artistic acts: the truthful rendering of nature directly perceived, as it is perceived. These skills form provide essential tools for creativity in a perceptual sense.

Perception principle instructors hold that while personal experimentation and free-exploration types of art classes can provide valid and potentially rewarding experiences for certain students under certain conditions, such activities are not skill-development activities and do little to prepare children for the time when their developing perceptions of the world can no longer be contained within the simple symbol-systems of early childhood.

– End of quote

I think you may be right about the use of cardboard cartons and simple materials like waribashi disposable chopsticks. In Japanese kindergarten or yochien, so much simple craft is done on a daily basis and with such simple materials.

My husband has always objected to the use of expensive art materials – so we stopped buying anything expensive and toys of any kind (though I would have been happy to go shopping!). We’ve noticed since that it was only when we began to declutter and throw away most of the children’s toys leaving them only with art materials, that our kids began to get really good at creating things and at drawing.

We have had different approaches with our kids, with the first, he spent much time drawing all day on his art easel, often drawing and talking together with his dad, while I poured over many picturebooks and often art with him. With my second child, we have done nothing with her as yet, except to provide whatever materials she requests.

Both kids are equally creative despite our different approaches… my son had straight As for art through elementary school, art awards at school and city wide art exhibitions every year, etc. With my daughter, even with no input, she creates at home without any suggestions from me fantastic cardboard creations like PCs, keitai, sometimes little inventions like multipurpose kitchen utensils or electrical equipment. While she’s still at the symbol stage of drawing like most kids her age, her use of paintcolors and patternwork is very pleasing. I always wonder where she gets it from – either by observing her brother or from yochien I suppose. She also does well at art in school and similarly follows in the footsteps of her brother in having her art pieces constantly on public display.

I am minded of the report mentioned in a Scientific American magazine “Kids should work with hands for brains sake” that emphasized the important role of hands-on and crafts in education.

I am also reminded of a conversation I had with my Japanese GP family doctor on fine motor skills. The doctor who also happened to be a highly skilled at heart micro- surgery told me that he had been invited to the US (along with other Japanese surgeons) to teach microsurgery skills in American medical schools – I think sixties or seventies – at that time there weren’t many skilled micro-surgeons and none who were able to carry out surgery under a microscope in the US. Apparently it was said that it was a fearful thing to go under the knife of a surgeon in the US back then. Was this advantage due to the origami effect or to the genetics factor? Can fine motor skills be cultivated through training or be transmitted through the gene pool over generations, even if the environment is not encouraging for art creativity?

It is an interesting debate – either way, if your origami effect theory is right –  yochien – the Japanese kindergarten is a great place to send our kids if only for this one reason!

— Aileen



Perception-Based vs. Invention-Based Art Instruction  Source: New

Art: A journey through life and civilization by Reiko Watanabe

Kids should work with hands for brains sake Scientific American 

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